Chronic Cardio is a pattern of frequent, sustained workouts of medium-to-difficult intensity with insufficient rest between sessions. The repetition and intensity puts the body/mind into a state of extreme stress. The stress activates the fight-or-flight mechanism, resulting in the release of cortisol and causing the body to crave carbohydrates. In order to recover from the immediate trauma and be prepared for tomorrow’s onslaught, hormonal changes switch the body into “fat storage” mode. Chronic Cardio, it can safely be said, ain’t pretty.
What’s Chronic Cardio? And Why Should I Avoid It?
Putting it simply, Chronic Cardio has 3 determining factors. The physical workouts are
- Frequent and sustained
- Of medium to difficult intensity, and
- With insufficient rest between sessions.
So, we’re not talking here about your heart pumping as you make your way up that steep mountain track on the chance Sunday when the sun happens to be shining. That sort of situation happens, maybe, once a month. Whilst the climb might take 45 minutes and require a sustained effort, there isn’t a pattern of frequency, which means your body has a chance to rest and fully recuperate afterwards. But if you do that three or four times a week then, yes, it becomes a case of Chronic Cardio. Too often means that the body never has a chance to fully recover: it remains in a constant state of stress.
How hard your heart pumps during your workouts is relevant. It determines whether your body is working aerobically or anaerobically. This impacts on whether you’re burning fat or sugar for fuel. Strangely enough, how hard your heart should pump to keep your workout healthy depends not on your level of fitness, but on your age.
75% of the Maximum Heart Rate, or 180-minus-your age
The cut-off point to achieve optimal benefits from an aerobic workout without triggering the fight-or-flight stress mechanism is 75% of the Maximum Heart Rate, or 180-minus-your age. Known in endurance circles as ‘the Maffetone Formula’, this easy to calculate rate is accredited to Dr. Phil Maffetone, who has tested it on thousands of athletes over decades.
What’s Wrong with Anaerobic Workouts?
Workouts conducted over 180-minus-your age are Anaerobic. Anaerobic means ‘without oxygen’. It means the level of difficulty is high enough to cause an oxygen shortage. Glucose doesn’t require oxygen to burn, hence anaerobic exercise burns glucose. Frequent, sustained anaerobic workouts with insuffucient rest between sessions – that is, Chronic Cardio workouts – do more harm than good. They:
- burn a greater percentage of glucose over fat (the up-regulation of glucose burning can last up to 24 hours after the workout)
- lead to carbohydrate (sugar) cravings, resulting in insulin spikes and fat storage
- ‘program’ the body to prefer glucose as fuel, both during the workout and throughout the day
- trigger the production of stress hormones
- produce lactic acid in muscles (the ‘burn’ sensation)
- compromise the immune system, leading to illness
- destroy white blood cells
- elevate cortisol levels due to the stress mechanism
- suppress testosterone levels
- trigger chronic systemic inflammation
- increase the risk of injury and trauma to joints and connective tissues
- accelerate ageing
- reduce cognitive function
- lead to burnout
What’s So Good about Aerobic Workouts?
Workouts conducted below 180-minus-your age are Aerobic. Aerobic means ‘with oxygen’. It means the level of difficulty is low enough to utilize oxygen. Fat requires oxygen to burn, hence aerobic exercise burns fat. Two to five hours a week of easily paced movement is essential for health. Aerobic exercise:
- optimizes fat metabolism both during the workout and throughout the day
- doubles the normal resting rate of the metabolism
- ‘programs’ the body to operate more efficiently at rest
- optimizes cadiovascular function
- multiplies muscle mitochondria
- increases the stroke volume of the heart (how much blood is pumped with each beat)
- improves lung capacity to receive oxygen
- strengthens bones, joints and connective tissues
- enhances performance and recovery, minimizes injury risk, makes the body more resilient for brief, high intensity workouts
- boosts the immune system by optimizing anti-ageing hormones and enhancing the circulatory system.
What’s The Black Hole of Physical Exercise?
Workouts which are too difficult to be aerobic, but not difficult enough to be categorized as ‘brief and intense’ are regarded as being in ‘The Black Hole’. The Black Hole is above 180 minus age, and up to about 85% of maximum heart rate, and many serious exercisers spend the majority of their time here.
This is the classic heart rate of Chronic Cardio. Exercising at this rate feels productive, but in fact it overrides the benefits of aerobic activity, and isn’t intense enough to activate the gene optimizing benefits of brief and intense anaerobic workouts. Of course, if you’re hanging out in the Black Hole, you’re burning primarily glucose… and craving carbs in the aftermath.
When people who have been used to a Chronic Cardio pattern switch to low-level aerobic exercise, they usually feel that they’re not working hard enough to receive any benefit: No Pain, No Gain. But over weeks, months, and especially in the long term, the benefits will accumulate.
For life long health, strength and flexibility, everyday aerobic exercise should be combined with brief and infrequent high intensity strength workouts plus the occasional all-out sprint. And care should be taken to avoid The Black Hole.
Interestingly, this same pattern will also guarantee optimum performance for fitness professionals. 75% of Maximum Heart Rate, 180-minus-your age, is the standard formula for everybody. But a very fit 80 year old may well be able to sustain a slow jog and remain under his 120 beats, whereas a metabolically compromised 35 year old may trip the balance simply by climbing a few stairs. The important thing is to get moving, no matter where you’re starting from.
Get a Heart Rate Monitor
To understand your own heart rate limits, a heart rate monitor with a chest strap and a wrist watch is cheap and effective. Set it up so that it sounds whenever you hit your limit. You’ll soon get to know the physical signs.
Most importantly, increase your daily movement. Move frequently at a slow pace. Take the stairs, walk an extra block, take telephone calls, stretch, breath deeply, roll around with your dog, play feathers-on-a-string with your cat, kick a ball, climb a tree , whatever – just move.
At the same time, avoid grains and cereals, sugar, legumes, alcohol and dairy.
Give yourself a chance to live an awesome life through optimum gene expression.
What is Inflammation and When is It Unhealthy? It’s worth remembering that inflammation is only unhealth when it gets out of control.
Chronic Systemic Inflammation: the Signs & Symptoms Some of these you’ll probably think are normal.
Is Your Leaky Gut Getting You Down? Yes. Probably. Almost Certainly.
Have you ever been – or are you – caught in the trap of Chronic Cardio? Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments. The ‘No Pain, No Gain’ mindset is so common in our society, I imagine we’ve all been there at some point.
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