What are the most important benefits of cardio?

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As you saw in the last two blogs, there are two distinct factors that make movement a cardiovascular exercise (cardio):

  1. Moving a large amount of your muscles circulates more blood through your cardiovascular system causing your heart to beat stronger (not just faster).  
  2. Moving continuously for longer than two minutes so your body starts relying on your oxygen-using, longer-lasting system for fueling muscles.

That continuous, large-muscle type of movement creates a cascade of events in your body with instant or, in other words, Real-time Results such as:

  • De-stressing. The hormones and chemicals produced when your muscles contract in this way shift your nervous system out of the stress response and into the relaxation response (as long as the way you are doing cardio is not more stress-producing for you).
  • Lowering blood pressure. To help your blood vessels handle the increased pressure of the stronger heart contraction, your body releases nitric oxide, a chemical that relaxes blood vessels. This stays in your system for up to 22 hours after one bout of moderate intensity cardio, helping to keep blood pressure at a healthier level.
  • Better blood sugar levels. Because your muscles are using the sugars (glucose) in your blood to help fuel muscles, cardio helps you manage elevated blood sugar levels. Cardio also send signals to the receptors in muscles to be more sensitive to your own insulin. This helps lower blood sugar instantly and for a few hours after you stop exercising.
  • Boost sleep quality. Cardio during the day means that night you have a better chance of falling asleep easily and sleeping more soundly through the night. As we all know, a good night’s sleep means a better tomorrow.
  • Better digestion. The repetitive, continuous movement of cardio helps your digestive system improve its mobility, making it work more ‘smoothly’ from top to bottom.
  • Lifts mood. After about ten minutes of cardio, your brain releases a dose of various brain chemicals that improves mood, calms your nerves, and boosts your ability to hands life’s stressors. These are the same chemicals that are in many mental health medications. They are also the ones released when you eat comfort food. The difference is that cardio releases them in the balanced way that they were designed to elevate your mood naturally.
  • Immune protection.  is boosted for up to several hours. One way is by increasing natural killer cell activity—the first line of defense against colds and flu as well as most forms of cancer.
  • Improves focus. As little as ten minutes of cardio increases the ability of your brain to focus. Cardio can be used as an immediate and effective part of treatment for people with ADD or anyone living in this fast-paced, distracted culture.
  • Strengthens memory. Each bout of cardio stimulates the growth of new brain cells like nothing else does. Your brain releases BDNF, a chemical that has been called Miracle Grow for the brain. Even better, it boosts the parts of the brain that stores memories. Exercising before an exam has been shown to help students improve grades and exercise has helped people concerned about memory loss with aging get more out of brain-training exercises.  

Take a moment to ask yourself, Which of those Real-time Results of cardio really got my attention? These are the results of cardio that are most important. Why? Because they matter most to your brain.  

Even though sometimes it doesn’t seem like it, your brain is hardwired to take care of your body in every moment. When you use the long-term benefits of cardio, like weight loss or health protection, to get motivated to do cardio, it just does not work. Your brain is most motivated by what will make you feel and function better now.  

There are, however, a few Real-time Results of cardio that are not helpful because they are based on misconceptions and marketing.  The top three Empty Results to watch out for are:

  • Sweat: All that large muscle, continuous movement produces heat. That increases your body temperature, possibly causing you to sweat. Whether you sweat depends on many factors including genetics, hydration level, your clothing, the type of activity you are doing, the temperature of the air, the humidity of the air. The fact is that sweat does not mean you ‘got a good workout’. It only means you need to drink more water to rehydrate.  
  • Muscle burn: Feeling the burn may be an outdated saying, but the connection between muscles burning and the benefit of exercise is still alive and well in the minds of many.   You might be told you are ‘working’ certain parts of the body, implying that the burning sensations means you are burning more fat in those areas. The reality is that the burn is just the sensation of muscles fatiguing, not fat melting.  
  • Burning calories:  Although it appears to be pretty easy to find out how many calories you burn with cardio, it really isn’t. The calories your body burns, even for the same exact level of exercise, vary too much to be predictable and the numbers flashing in front of you are only a rough estimate. Burning calories is not as important as we have made it out to be.  More important for weight loss is doing cardio to feel better now, so you are less likely to reach for food to do that.

Take a moment to create your own list of Real-time Results from cardio to help you stay naturally and easily motivated to use this incredible resource for feeling and functioning your best every day.  

Next week, we’ll take a tour through the unique Real-time Results of strength training.  

Whole-heartedly,

Janet

The fine bottom line of cardio intensity

Rethink Exercsise

 In the last blog, I talked about why cardio is so much more than just getting your heart rate up. With all the advice about the intensity of cardiovascular exercise lately, let’s take a look at what happens when you exercise at different intensities so you can make a choice about the right level for your body.

Oxygen: Remember that when your body has the equipment to use oxygen, it can fuel your muscles in a more sustainable way. The more equipment, the wider the range of exercise intensities your body can handle without getting tired and needing to stop. If the equipment that uses oxygen to produce energy is lacking, your body will have to go back to using the short-acting, non-oxygen-requiring system for producing energy. So, when you reach a level of exercise where your body cannot keep up with the demand for more oxygen to produce energy, your body will shift to the energy-producing system that runs out quickly.

What you practice gets stronger: This is why someone who does not move for extended periods of time will very often get tired faster, whereas a regular exerciser who has built up the equipment needed to use that aerobic system can last for a long time. Your body is a use it to keep it system.  Like any good system, when one part is not working well, another part will pick up the slack in order to keep the system working. When it comes to the cardiovascular system, even if you have a disease that limits one part of that system, other parts will adapt—as long as they get the signals to do so. Cardiovascular exercise signals the whole system to get stronger in any way it can. This is why someone with lung disease or heart disease is especially in need of cardiovascular exercise, to signal the rest of the system to pick up the slack. When the heart or lungs don’t work as well, the muscles will compensate by building more equipment so they can use oxygen more effectively.

Carbon dioxide: If, during a cardiovascular exercise, you kick it up to a higher intensity, your breathing will reach an uncomfortable level. This is not your body wanting more oxygen—it is your body trying to get rid of carbon dioxide, the byproduct of the non-oxygen-using fuel system. That uncomfortable shortness of breath is called the ‘anaerobic threshold’. It is a sure sign your body won’t last much longer unless you lower the intensity.

Breathing vs. heart rate: This is why your breathing gives you a better idea about the function of your cardiovascular system than heart rate does. You can sense it, without having to measure it.  Plus, without taking a special test to measure your maximal heart rate, your exercise heart rate range can only be predicted (and not very accurately).  Your breathing level, however, is a real-time measure of what is happening in your body. The ‘comfort’ of your breathing lets you know if you have the equipment needed keep fueling muscles. When you are breathing uncomfortably, it is a sign the system is not prepared to keep up and your body is relying more on the non-oxygen, short-lasting fuel system.

Building stamina is possible for any body: For someone who is very fit, this happens at a much higher intensity. For someone who has not built up the oxygen-using system equipment, this happens at a much lower level. For anyone, though, when you exercise regularly, your body adapts by building more equipment for the oxygen-using fuel system, because it is a much more efficient way to fuel your muscles.

“Cardio” or “weight loss”: If you are looking to burn more calories and fat because you want to lose weight, don’t get side-tracked by trying to decide if you should do the cardio program or the weight loss program on your treadmill. Yes, your body uses more carbs at high intensity and fats at lower intensity, but in the end it really does not matter. Your body will break down fats to replace the carbohydrate (glucose) stores when you are resting after exercise. You don’t need to choose between getting more cardio or burning more fat. It’s all good.

The fine bottom line: What is more important for weight loss as well as overall fitness and health is how consistently you do cardio. Remember, after about three days of not doing cardio, the ‘equipment’ starts to get rusty. That’s why it’s important to consider how your brain perceives the exercise too.  Your brain is hardwired to avoid what is uncomfortable.  If you push the intensity to ‘get a better workout’ and are wishing every minute away, your brain is much less likely to want to go back and do that again—and there goes consistency.

motivating intensity

That, my friends, is the fine bottom line of cardio. Do cardio at a moderate to motivating challenge for your breathing. Each time be sure it is the intensity level that feels good physically and mentally, so your brain wants to exercise again. Some days the motivating challenge is just getting started and enjoying a moderate intensity. Some days it could be a higher intensity because it feels good to push a bit harder. But on all days, if you are going to get the health and well-being benefits, it needs to feel motivating, not uncomfortable.     

Next week, I’ll list all the amazing Real-time Results you get from doing cardio in a way that benefits your whole person.

Cardio. How much is enough?

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In this last week of our Happy “Whole” Heart series, we summarize the research on cardio to give you the bottom line on how to enjoy the health benefits.

How intense does cardio need to be?

  • Moderate:  your breathing is at a comfortable level.
  • Vigorous:  your breathing is at a comfortable challenge.
  • You do not need to push to an uncomfortable breathing level unless 1) you enjoy it or 2) you are training to compete.

How often do I need to do cardio?

How long should a session of cardio last?

  • Moving most of your body continuously for at least 10 minutes helps your cardiovascular system gain more stamina.
  • String those bouts together in the way that works best for your body and your lifestyle to achieve 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity or 75 minutes a week of vigorous exercise.
  • However, just doing cardio leaves us missing some benefits of exercise.  If you want to preserve your metabolism, bone mass, muscle strength, and function for daily life,  switch out 30-60 of those minutes a week for a well-designed strength-training routine.

Bottom Line:

  • Do cardio at a moderate to comfortable challenge level for your breathing three days a week for 30 minutes (this can be broken up into 10 minute bouts as needed).
  • Do a well-designed strength training routine twice a week.

The fact is, “more than 50% American adults still do not meet these minimal requirements for cardiovascular exercise based on self-report, and only 10% of American adults meet these minimal guidelines when activity levels are measured with activity monitors.”  *

Why, with all these great benefits, are so many still not consistent enough with cardio?

Could it be in part becasue guilt reduces our brains ability to make changes? Could it have something to do with all the conflicting recommendations that stray from the solid evidence, making cardio overwhelming? When information about the benefits of cardio only leaves you feeling stuck, it is not helpful at all. It’s time we get back to basics and start enjoying a happy “whole” heart!


Ready for information presented in a way that builds confidence that you can stick with a cardio program? My new course called Cardio Confidence is designed to do just that.  Learn how to apply the science of healthy cardio to get the results you want in a way that lasts.

* Source: Exercise and the Cardiovascular System. Lavie, C, et. al.  Circulation Research (American Heart Association Journal) July 2, 2015.

Cardio protection. Instantly.

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Ready for some more amazing “Whole” Heart health news about cardio? If you are someone who likes instant results, you will really love this one!

Scientists estimate the long term effects of exercise training only explains 27-41% of the cardio-protective effects of exercise. That means all those great benefits seen in people who have a sufficient level of cardiovascular fitness are not just from being fit. What is giving the protection then?

It is starting to look like most of the heart protection from doing cardio comes instantly, with your first session. Scientists are calling it exercise pre-conditioning.  They found that there is an early phase of protection for the cardiovascular system for two to three hours after a bout of cardio. Then there is a “more robust and longer period of protection that emerges after 24 hours and remains for several days.” They found each session of cardio is “reactivating protective pathways and leading to ongoing beneficial effects.”

Wow! This is so amazing! Usually an exercise program that promises instant results is a red flag for a myth-based exercise program. Yet this is science-based information and it’s free and ready for you to enjoy after one moderate-intensity bout of cardio.

Regular cardio will provide strong cardioprotection that cannot be explained by the changes in risk factors or the changes over time in coronary arteries. Cardio has the ability to activate several pathways that bring immediate protection against heart events and reduce the severity of a heart event. Cardio acts as a physiologic first line of defense against heart attacks.

Reminder: this is a guilt-free journey—it’s just more information to highlight the positively powerful effects of doing cardio regularly. In the next blog, I’ll summarize how simple it can be to enjoy these benefits.


The beauty is in the details! If you feel stuck between wanting these great benefits and limited by your body, lifestyle, or lack of motivation, check out my new online course called Cardio Confidence.  It’s like having a consult with a  clinical exercise physiologist. You will learn the fact-based, user-friendly tools I share with my clients for getting the health, weight loss, and brain benefits while working around physical and lifestyle limitations.  


Source: Association of Exercise Preconditioning With Immediate Cardioprotection: A Review.  D. Thijssen, PhD., et.al. Journal of the American Heart Association.  November 29, 2017.

Cool cardio facts

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We are on a Happy “Whole” Heart journey and there is so much great news to explore!  If  cardio is something you know you should do, whether you “just do it” or can’t do it,  you are in for a surprise! Today I share some very cool facts about cardiovascular exercise.  But first, a word of caution.

As highlighted in the first blog of this series, my goal is to inspire confidence, not guilt. As you read, if you feel guilty for not doing cardio for whatever reason, take a breath. This is not just one of those “do it because it’s good for you” or “here’s what could happen if you don’t do it” motivational blogs. Cardio that works with how your body and brain are designed boosts your energy and your motivation. When cardio leaves you feeling better physically and mentally, you are getting the “whole” heart health benefits. So if guilt or doubt starts to creep in, know that I won’t leave you hanging on  to guilt or fear as a motivator!

Cardio prevents heart disease.

  • Regular cardio leads to a 42%-44% reduction in the risk of developing heart disease.
  • Even people who got fit later in life reduced heart disease and cardiac deaths by  44%-52%, despite changes in body weight.

Cardio protects even if you have heart disease. 

  • It reduces the risk of dying from the disease.
  • It reduces the number of times you are admitted to the hospital.
  • Cardio improves prognosis after a heart event.
  • The benefits are greater than those seen from medications alone.

Cardio protects even if you have risk factors.

  • Protection is seen even in people with hypertension, obesity, type two diabetes.
  • People with risk factors who are fit have a better prognosis than people who are not fit with no risk factors.

    If you are at high risk with lots of risk factors, one of the absolute best ways to lower your risk is to improve cardiovascular fitness.*

If these facts inspire you, great! If reading this instills guilt, fear, or doubt because of low motivation, physical limitations, or limited time, stay tuned. You will see cardio IS possible!


Ready to lose the guilt and discover how cardio is possible?  Check out my new online course called Cardio Confidence.  It’s like having a consult with a  clinical exercise physiologist. You will learn the fact-based, user-friendly tools I share with my clients for getting the health, weight loss, and brain benefits while working around physical and lifestyle limitations.  


* Source: Exercise and the Cardiovascular System. Lavie, C, et. al.  Circulation Research (American Heart Association Journal) July 2, 2015.