Why long cardio workouts don’t lead to sustained weight loss or a healthier body, and what to do instead

New research shows our bodies get used to extended moderate exercise, resulting in diminishing returns in fitness and weight loss. Find out how to avoid the ‘cardio trap’ and keep your workouts effective

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 March, 2017, 11:15am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 March, 2017, 5:35pm

The general consensus seems to persist that the longer you engage in a steady-state/moderate “cardio” activity, such as running or using an elliptical machine, the more your health and waistline are likely to benefit. However, research suggests that long periods (more than 60 minutes per day) of this kind of repetitive cardio workout aren’t the best way to lose weight or improve your fitness, and could even be detrimental to your health.

Terms such as “chronic cardio” or “cardio trap” are now being used by health and fitness professionals to describe the drawbacks and inefficiencies of an excessively cardio-focused exercise

regime.

The benefits of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) have been proven, but while it’s previously been assumed that more repetitions lead to better cardiorespiratory fitness levels, an analysis by the University of Stirling, Scotland published in January suggests that people who do fewer repetitions during HIIT workouts may get better fitness benefits than those who complete more.

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Over time our bodies adapt to repetitive aerobic exercise, using oxygen and energy more efficiently, thereby hindering fat loss. Endurance cardio has also been linked to an increase in the body’s production of the “stress” hormone cortisol. If cortisol levels remain raised over time, our bodies become more sensitive to insulin and store fat (particularly in the abdominal area). Serotonin, thyroid function, growth hormone, testosterone and oestrogen levels are all disrupted.

Pushing yourself without placing your body in a prolonged state of stress is key. Food choices are of upmost importance and, regardless of your workout, you need to avoid overeating. Variation in routine allows for psychological and physiological stimulation; nevertheless, repeating activities such as high-intensity sprints or heavy lifting can allow you to follow your progress and programme your workouts for maximum effectiveness.

For those new to exercise, initial weight loss from cardiovascular exercise may be deceiving and it may take longer to notice diminishing results. For those who do steady-state cardio workouts on a regular basis, a plateau in fitness and aesthetic improvements might be more obvious.

How to break the cycle and avoid the ‘cardio trap’:

Increase the intensity and reduce the time

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts usually require performing exercises at maximum effort for between 30 seconds and a few minutes. Instead of running at a moderate pace for an extended period, try some sprinting (eg eight 100-metre sprints) with a minute or two break in between.

Tabata Training: eight rounds of any tough exercise at maximum effort for 20 seconds, followed by a 10-second break. Squat jumps, burpees, Prowler pushing are good examples. Repeat the same exercise for all eight rounds.

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Lift heavy objects

Focus on lifting weights and performing resistance training with good technique, including pushing and pulling actions. Challenge your strength with full body functional movements such as dead lifts, squats, overhead presses. Explore not only lifting conventional weights, but also “awkward” objects such as flipping tyres and carrying stones. Not only should you vary the weight, you should also vary the volume, so that sometimes you are lifting as heavy a weight as possible for a few repetitions and other times repeating more than 10 repetitions. Vary the tempo or pause midway through a movement.

Reduce stress

Pushing yourself without placing your body in a prolonged state of stress is key. Avoid overtraining; instead be less sedentary on a daily basis and do low-intensity cardio such as walking. Keep general stress levels at bay with daily mindfulness or meditation. Avoid overeating, and opt for a nutritious and varied diet of whole foods, while avoiding excessive caffeine, alcohol, processed foods and refined sugars.

Christiana Philips specialises in health, nutrition and fitness coaching at Ursus Fitness, Sai Ying Pun, where she helped introduce strongman-style training to Hong Kong. She is also a qualified instructor in martial arts, flexibility training, weight training, cycling and adolescent fitness.