Let me start off by saying that there is no better way to waste your time than to run on treadmills for hours on end. Treadmills with LCDs and other fancy equipment are not what gyms are made for, lifting weights is. The legendary American weight training guru Vince Gironda, who trained a number of top Hollywood actors and various bodybuilders in the ‘50s and ‘60s, had many ideas that were way ahead of his time. One of them was to train women with pure weights to give them the results they had been craving for after years of fruitless cardio. And now it seems that after all these decades, we have come full circle to be face to face with Gironda’s ideas, as professionals and researchers question the place of cardio and aerobics in everyday fitness regimens.

The term ‘aerobics’ has a very interesting history associated with it, which most people are unaware of. In the mid-1960s, a physician and now well-known author, Dr Kenneth Cooper gave the concept of aerobics to the world in his book The New Aerobics. The word wasn’t given a specific definition but just signified the presence of oxygen. Cooper linked the word aerobics to cardiovascular health, stating, “doing cardio would produce health benefits for the heart.” He also added, “aerobic and anaerobic are two separate systems,”—this separation is what most of us have come to believe and still do.

However, in the decades that followed, numerous research studies were done on this subject and almost all of them found the opposite to be the case. For example, in Body by Science, the authors Doug McGuff and John Little explained, “Aerobic machinery can only function through anaerobic pathways,” and that the two systems are not as separate as Dr Cooper believed them to be.

They also said that strength training, in fact, is the best way to train the heart, because it stimulates all the components of metabolism.

A very interesting point was put forward by Dr Al Sears from the Center of Health and Wellness in Florida, USA. He said that most people die from sudden heart attacks due to shock and not from a tired heart. So the best thing for most people would be to strengthen the heart in a way that it can withstand shocks, which is best done through resistance training. This is evident from the fact that all weightlifters, bodybuilders, throwers and sprinters have larger and stronger hearts compared to those of long-distance runners that are smaller and weaker. Now let’s have a look at the various reasons why aerobics doesn’t do what you always thought—and wanted—it to do.

That’s not fat you’re losing

Say, you burn 295 calories by doing an hour of cardio for seven days in a row. This would burn a total of 2065 calories in a week. Bravo, you feel good about yourself now, don’t you? Though how many calories does a pound [0.45 kilos] of fat have? Answer: over 3500 calories. So at the rate you were going, it would take you approximately 12 days to burn a pound of fat. The sad thing about this is that all those calories lost don’t just come from your stored fat, but from your muscles.

When you do cardio regularly, your body has two mechanisms which kick in…

One is a survival mechanism in which your body tries to deal with exercise stress by getting rid of all unwanted weight, which would allow it to go on for a longer time. And what does the body deem as ‘unwanted weight’? It’s your muscles. For proof, look at the body of a marathon runner and how it has adapted to the demands of his sport. While his body perceives muscle as dead weight and gets rid of it, it also stores all the body fat for future survival. This is the reason why marathon runners have a higher body fat percentage than a sprinter.

The second mechanism is the adaptation mechanism. This is the reason you stop getting results after a couple of weeks with the same amount of exercise as your body gets used to it and doesn’t burn as many calories as it once did.

Now, some might say that there are people who have lost weight from cardio but the question to ask is where was that weight lost from, body fat or muscles? This is why when an overweight person starts with excessive cardio, his fat starts hanging around his belly and arms as he loses the supporting muscle structure underneath. Competitive long distance runners are genetically gifted for such a sport and they practise that way because their sport requires it. If you want to compete in a marathon, please go ahead but just don’t take such an activity as the base for fitness.

stop-running-start-lifting-2-300x158Why muscle matters

So why shouldn’t you lose muscle mass and why is more of it better? The simple thing is that the more you have, the more effective your metabolism will be and the larger the number of calories burnt by the body at rest. And since, muscles are metabolically active, you might be glad to know that the body uses calories from your stored fat to maintain muscle mass. What this means is that you are burning fat even while you’re asleep!

The other good thing about training with weights is that you burn more calories after that kind of a workout than you would after doing cardio. So it’s not just about the calories you burn during the workout but about the calories you burn after it as well [the scientific term for this being Excess Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption or EPOC]. After your weightlifting session, your muscles break down and they get repaired by the body as you take in proper nutrition and rest. And it is while you rest that your body takes calories from fat to help rebuild your muscles.

The dangers of cardio

It isn’t just that cardio is ineffective; it is potentially harmful, what with the systematic stress it inflicts on the body. The human body is under more stress today than at any other time in history—be it from a polluted environment, erratic lifestyles or poor eating habits. This stress causes the formation of free radicals leading to inflammation, which has been proven as the major cause of all lifestyle diseases like type-2 diabetes, hypertension, heart ailments, arthritis, brain disorders, weakening of immune system, cancer etc. Excessive cardio is one of the leading causes of the rise in cortisol, a stress hormone, which promotes fat storage, protein catabolism and ageing. Cardio workouts are also one of the main reasons for overuse injuries. Strength training, on the other hand, improves muscle mass and bone density giving you strength and balance in the joints and, at the same time, increases your metabolism, which would otherwise slow down with age.

Women should lift too

If you go back in history, our grandmothers never went for a jog, nor did they do hundreds of crunches every day. However, they were still fit and active as a fiddle and ate their hearts out. The simple reason was that they were physically active the right way. By lifting buckets of water, washing clothes, carrying heavy bags for long distances, grinding wheat in a chakki [stonemill], fetching out water from wells, they were unwittingly performing heavy weight-bearing workouts.

However, women don’t have to go back in time or turn their backs on centuries of progress, they just have to visit their gym and lift weights! Remember that women have 15 – 20 times less of the hormone testosterone than men, so they cannot build bulk or muscle shape even if they lift much heavier than any guy in the gym. What they are going to get with such a workout is pure fat burn, a toned body and glowing skin. Strengthened joints and a disease-free body are the other significant perks.

After reading this, it would seem like I completely hate cardio, but I don’t. All I am asking you to do is not engage in medium–intensity, long-distance cardio. High-intensity sprints or even moderate-intensity brisk walks are the best ways to target fat. If you want to jog or cycle for long distances, please do it if it makes you happy and if it opens you up to a healthy lifestyle. But just be informed that there are better—and safer—options.

Did you know?

The number of calories burnt as reflected on your treadmill display after a good run is not what you think it is. After you climb onto the treadmill and feed in your weight, age and other details, this information is used to calculate your BMR or basal metabolic rate, in other words, calories you burn when your body is resting and doing its basic functions. Say, an average person burns 2500 calories per day, which comes to around 105 calories per hour. So if, after an hour on the treadmill, the display shows 400 calories burnt, the actual number of calories burnt due to the run would be 400-105=295 calories. The rest you would’ve burnt regardless.

This was first published in the July 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Akshay Chopra
Akshay is one of the most qualified and experienced health, fitness and nutrition consultants in the field. An athlete, coach, nutritionist, author and over all a defence forces officer and a former pilot - all rolled in one. A transformation expert, he is known for taking over those cases which most professionals have given up. He is the co-founder and Fitness Chief of one of the most research based gyms in the country "Body Mechanics" and just launched the Human Design School.

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