Science has now shown us that traditional cardiovascular training, like working in your “fat burning zone” (65–75 percent of your max HR—where you are breathing heavy but not out of breath) for long periods of time does not do everything we thought it once did. It’s a great start, but we now know there are better modes of doing cardiovascular activity that will not only help you lose weight faster but help your heart and lungs get stronger. This is done by way of interval training, which is basically going back and forth between high and low levels of cardio output.
We now know that the disadvantages of doing traditional steady rate cardio not only has a great chance of reducing your heart and lung strength and size (your body’s natural adaptation to this long type of stress is to become more efficient, which means a smaller heart and lungs that are more efficient and need less energy—like a V6 compared to a 4 cylinder) but it also can cause you to store more fat. Not to mention it reduces your skeletal muscle mass for the same reason, which reduces your metabolism—the less muscle you have the less energy you burn (in your cardio and throughout your day). On top of that, once your body gets used to doing some sort of elevated activity on a regular basis that uses fat for its source of energy, the body will prepare for this activity by making sure you have enough fat in storage. This is why it’s so easy to hit a plateau doing regular cardio activity—your body figured out the energy equation to maintain efficiency. It’s also one of the reasons why our body will gain fat once we stop doing that cardio activity.
Doing interval training challenges your body in a way that causes your heart and lungs to become bigger and stronger (and potentially your skeletal muscles). It also puts your body in a state of recovery that causes your body to burn more calories long after you are done with your cardio session (this is called EPOC—excess post-exercise oxygen consumption), which could last anywhere from a half hour to forty-eight hours—as opposed to traditional cardio where you only burn what you burn while doing the activity. Doing intervals also allows us to reduce the amount of time you spend doing cardio. You can achieve significantly more benefits from twenty minutes of intervals than you can doing forty minutes of traditional cardio.
With interval training, not only would you put your body in an elevated recovery state for longer, but you also will be sending signals to your body that it is in danger, like that of running from a predator, and that causes your body to want to be lean. Consider that our ancestors (even going back about 100-150 years ago) had survival mechanisms in place that helped us survive under different situations of stress. We slowed down our metabolism and gained weight when food was scarce and we lost weight when we were under threat of attack from predators (animals, warring neighbors, etc.)—a lean body is a faster body. However, since we don’t have these same environmental stresses (but these survival mechanisms are still in place) we can recreate the same reaction in the body by doing cardio that stimulates this survival mechanism.
Another thing to consider about cardio activity is that it is not totally separate from resistance training. Think of cardio like light or fast resistance training and resistance training like heavy or slow cardio—just different ends of the same spectrum. In fact, when you get your heart rate up during resistance training you are creating a similar scenario of interval training while doing cardio. Personally, I only add interval cardio into my workout on days I don’t do resistance training and I do a few intervals so I am done within 10-12 minutes. Or might add it at the end of a workout if I feel I didn’t get enough stress through my resistance session. I should also add that if your goal is to be better at running long distances then you have to train that way but it should not be expected to lose weight after the initial start of a traditional running program. Lastly, if you were going to do any type of long distance cardio that stimulated fat burning I would suggest long walks. Walking is something that our bodies are already used to and walking for extended periods won’t cause the same reduction in muscle mass (or heart and lung strength or size) or cause the body to store body fat but will allow you to burn a large amount of calories—among many other health benefits.
In my next post I will cover some ideas on how to implement interval training into your workout.
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