Cardio exercise and resistance training provide different yet equally-important benefits for your health, well-being, and appearance, but I’ve noticed that many exercisers (even long-time veterans) tend to love one type of fitness and absolutely hate the other. Runners typically hate lifting weights and weight lifters can’t stand jogging. To really increase your longevity, physical and mental well-being, and overall quality of life, you really need to fit both into your exercise plan. I’ve already gone over the benefits of resistance training, so it seems only fair to outline why every one should do some kind of aerobic exercise (cardio).
Strengthen your cardiovascular system
I think people understand that the big point of doing cardio is to strengthen their cardiovascular systems (it is right in the name after all), but I don’t think people quite understand why that’s important. Your cardiovascular system (or cardiopulmonary system if you want to throw the lungs into the mix) is your heart, blood, and the huge network of blood vessels that supplies fuel, oxygen, and nutrients to every tissue in your body. Getting this system strong and efficient will give you more energy on a daily basis and make any activity you do feel easier. It also protects you from the very real dangers of cardiovascular disease.
In our modern word, heart disease is the number one killer and deaths from strokes are not far behind. Periodically increasing the blood flow through the system keeps the entire network strong, responsive, and healthy. As I mentioned in the benefits of strength training article, the dangers from high blood pressure and other risk factors increase when your blood vessels become unresponsive. Stiff, inelastic blood vessels can’t handle changes in pressure which forces your heart to work harder than it should. This eventually thickens the left ventricle of your heart and drastically increases your likelihood of dying from heart disease. Cardio strengthens your heart properly so it takes less effort to pump blood throughout your body (putting less pressure on your blood vessels), and it keeps your blood vessels flexible so they can easily manage pressure changes.
Cardio exercise also reduces other significant risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood and raise levels of HDL cholesterol. It also reduces glucose levels in the blood stream and improves insulin sensitivity, even in obese people that didn’t lose weight once they started exercising. You don’t need to see immediate benefits on the outside to receive significant improvements on the inside.
Cardio is brain food
All exercise is good for your body in one way or another, but cardio provides unique benefits for your brain. Your brain has tremendous energy demands each day and all that increased blood flow during aerobic exercise not only trains your brain to use energy more efficiently (just as the other tissues in your body do as you get more fit), but it also trains it to be faster and more adaptive. Cardio releases important compounds like brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) that improves neurogenesis (the growing of new brain cells), stimulates the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and increases neuroplasticity (the ability for your brain to restructure itself to adapt and learn). This results in improved cognition, memory, and response times in the short term, and it drastically holds off cognitive decline as you age. Two areas of the brain linked to memory and learning, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, are incredibly susceptible to the effects of aging. Frequent cardio generates new neurons in these important regions, even in adults. Interestingly, resistance training and high intensity interval training do not seem to provide these benefits. Like I mentioned above, different training types provide different benefits and you’re limiting yourself if you limit your training.
Improves your mental health and well-being
All these positive changes to your brain are not just limited to learning and memory. I’ve noticed that people have no problem connecting memory and problem-solving to the brain, but we don’t seem to connect depression and other mood disorders to brain health. For some reason, we see mood disorders as some kind of personality failing rather than a structural illness within the brain (and one that can be corrected). In fact, mood disorders tend to be one of the first and most profound side effects of prolonged drug abuse.
The brain is an organ like all the rest. Leaving it to atrophy from sedentary behavior or harming it with poor diet and drug use will cause negative symptoms to creep up. Conversely, giving those tissues the exercise stimulus they need for optimal health (in this case cardio) has been shown to improve mood even 24 hours later, reduce the physical and mental side effects of stress, improve disorders such as depression and anxiety, and even boost your creativity. Disorders like stress and anxiety seem to respond better to higher intensity cardio, but I tell people all the time that simply going for a daily walk is a great way to lessen the symptoms of depression and improve mood.
Strength training is great at mobilizing stored body fat (releasing it from fat cells), but it’s not very good at burning it for fuel. The abrupt and intense muscle contractions during resistance training are fueled by sugar. Your body may release fat due to an abundance of noradrenaline in your system, but once you finish your workout, all those fatty acids floating around in your system will get put right back into your fat cells. Cardio is the key to actually burning off the fat before it can be stored again. This is why I always recommend doing your cardio after lifting weights. It’s an excellent one-two punch that will help increase the fat-burning effectiveness of your cardio session.
People always ask me about the fat burning zone because they’ve heard that only low-intensity cardio burns fat. That’s not actually true. Your body uses both fat and sugar for fuel all day long. Different intensities change the percentage between the two nutrients, but you never exclusively burn one or the other. Well, actually, the only time you are burning 100 percent fat is when you’re asleep (of course, it’s not very much). At lower intensities you burn more fat and at higher intensities you burn more carbohydrates, but when you really step on the gas to up the intensity of your workout, you’ll burn more fuel in general. Yes, the percentage of carbohydrates in the mix will be higher, but the total amount of fuel being utilized will be much higher as well. As I’ve mentioned previously, don’t focus too much on calories burned anyway if you’re trying to lose weight. Just pick a form of cardio you enjoy and do it to improve your metabolic profile, health, and for the additional benefits below and the weight will come off.
Improves your sleep
I mentioned the importance of sleep in a previous article and cardio has been shown to shorten the time it takes to fall asleep and improve overall sleep quality. Training your cells to use fuel more efficiently is one reason why cardio quickly makes people feel more energetic throughout the day, but the fact it helps them get deeper, more restorative sleep may be a bigger factor.
Improves immune function
Poor sleep causes a spike in the stress-hormone cortisol the next day. This hormone has been shown to interfere with proper immune function. As I mentioned above, aerobic exercise helps improve your sleep which will reduce the release of cortisol. Additionally, cardio itself is a stressor that trains your body to use less and less cortisol in response to other stressful stimuli. That’s why cardio is also so effective at reducing stress and anxiety. Life’s little stresses will become less and less impactful to your mood and your immune system as your body adapts. Increased blood flow during cardio also delivers white blood cells and antibodies throughout the body at a faster rate. Invading viruses and bacteria can actually be detected and dealt with earlier than normal with frequent exercise, and the higher temperatures during aerobic exercise act similarly to a fever to suppress bacterial growth and limit the length and severity of illnesses. If you want to get an extra-immune boost from your cardio workout, take it outside to improve the diversity of your microbiome.
Improve asthma control
People with asthma tend to avoid physical activity because they fear it will trigger an asthma attack, but this only leads to worsening symptoms (and all the other problems that come from avoiding activity). Reviews have shown that people with asthma receive the same benefits from aerobic exercise as those without the condition and that they do not suffer increased or stronger asthma attacks during or following exercise. In fact, one study found that routine cardio improved the subjects’ asthma control. These studies also found that cardio tended to improve their mood and quality of life (because of all the benefits mentioned above).
Weight-bearing exercises with frequent impacts like running, jumping, hiking, and even walking are great ways to stimulate bone growth. While activity during our adolescent years really lays the foundation for bone density, it’s still possible to increase bone density later in life. At the very least, frequent cardio will help prevent bone loss and help ward off osteoporosis. Cycling and swimming have their benefits, but when it comes to bone health, these are exercises that actually increase bone loss. You need to mix some type of weight-bearing cardio with frequent impact into your routine to keep your bone density up.
If you’re not a cardio fan, but you want to receive all these great benefits in your life, I would suggest starting with one of our BeatBurn apps. You can read more about them here, but basically I designed them to help cardio-haters actually enjoy their workouts. I’ve found that people that don’t like cardio really seem to hate the monotony of it. They tend to just count down the seconds until this long, dull, continuous movement is finally over. By breaking up the routine into a series of intervals, it will not only keep your brain distracted with frequent changes, but you’ll get better results. Our beat-sync feature will also trick your brain into enjoying your cardio, rather than dreading it. It’s a great app for cardio fans as well with workouts that will even challenge veterans. See why thousands of people use BeatBurn every day and consider it an essential part of a great workout.