The Problem with “Chronic Cardio”

We have been sold a concept of conventional/cultural “wisdom” that the path to health and wellness (and of course weight loss) lies in substantially elevating our heart rate (let’s use 80%+) for a sustained period of time at least several days/week. Chronic cardio subscribers will often train this way 5, 6 and even 7 days week. For the vast majority of folks this also means some repetitive motion type of activity like running, eliptical, cycling etc.

To be fair, I know there are people out there with a more “moderate” approach to exercise.  And while these are all pretty vague terms, moderate for many can really mean infrequent or inconsistent. If weight loss and getting in shape is your goal, you can see the problem with realizing returns.

So you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t!

But seriously…

Let’s start with some of the insidious problems and catch 22’s of chronic cardio or repetitive aerobic exercise:

1. It DOESN’T help you become a better fat burner! Many people undertake this kind of exercise regimen in order to lose weight – to burn fat. Here’s the rub: sustained higher intensity cardio demands a lot of carbohydrate/sugar. So when you keep feeding your engine carbs and sugar that’s the first thing it will look for as fuel while you diligently undertake all of this exercise in the name of leaning out. It can even look to burn your existing muscle mass (not really conducive to getting that toned look right?).

Guess what your body won’t look nearly as much for as a viable fuel source when you are feeding it a steady stream of carbs and sugar? Fat!

*Excessive processed carbohydrate and sugar consumption are causing the nation a slew of metabolic dysfunction and disease. It’s just a ton of glucose and insulin to deal with everyday. Can you see the irony in doing a bunch of high intensity exercise all week in order to be “healthier”, so that you can feed your body a steady stream of sugar to support the constant output?

2. It can jack up your hormones (got cortisol?), contribute to excessive systemic and acute inflammation and depress your immune system. Basically it can be a cumulative stressor. Not the good kind of stressor (think minimal dose, maximum benefit). The kind that slowly beats you down week after week, month after month, year after year.

There are no shortage of cumulative stressors in most people’s lives. Job stress, marital stress, poor nutrition, too much booze, not enough sleep, too many meds etc.

Think about the compounding effect of adding all that intensity and volume from some form of high intensity repetitive exercise on top of a system that is already highly stressed…

*P.S. stress and lack of sleep are diametrically opposed to leaning out.

3. Using repetitive movement as your primary source of exercise creates problems and deficiencies. Running is easy to pick on. We see a LOT of clients who have been running for years with little change in their body composition/overall appearance and who have a host of structural problems as a direct result of the constant pounding through all that mileage. Sure they have maintained some sort of aerobic base by running but they also tend to be VERY imbalanced. Typically they are weak, have little to no core strength, are very front side dominant and lack strength and awareness around all the big muscles on the back side, have posture issues and their tendons, ligaments and other supporting structures are all very weakened as well.

Again there is an unfortunate irony that plays out here. People are diligently pursuing health through “exercise” but simultaneously beating the hell out of themselves and falling well short of a sustainable, wholistic model of fitness and wellness.

*P.P.S. I’m not hating on running :). I like to do some running occasionally. And I get it. If running is  your passion then run. I’m simply disclosing our observations over the years working with probably close to a 1000 individuals. And we see similar patterns in cyclists or people that have been stuck on cardio machines in the gym over the years.

Here’s an alternative model for a more Balanced Approach to Fitness and Health. Just to get your gears turning…

1. Try 2 or 3 days/week of varied, less intense (think 65-70% output) sustained movement or activity. One day it’s a hike, another day it’s a bike ride, another day it’s snow shoeing, another day it’s a swim. If your goal is to lean out, try this fasted during the first part of  the day. You can do this alone or even better with your partner or friends. This approach can be more engaging and fun, help teach your body to use fat as fuel, get you off the steady IV of carbs and sugar and relieve the structural stress of chronic repetitive movement.

You can pair this with doing some short intense sprints with big rests relative to the work 1 or 2 days week. You can sprint on the bike, rower, on foot, in the pool, on skis, etc. Again this helps keep the stimulus varied and engaging as well as train a part of your energy system that many neglect, the anaerobic system. For some this is best delayed until a baseline level of health and fitness are achieved.

2. Work on chipping away at the stressors in your life (see above laundry list :). Specifically food and lifestyle. Here are some great resources to help get you started:

3. Find yourself a good strength/balanced fitness coach and build some core to extremity strength. This will help teach you good bio-mechanics and motor recruitment patterns, balance out your physical structure (front to back, right to left, push vs. pull) strengthen your muscles tendons and ligaments, maintain bone density, key up your metabolism and prevent injury.

I hope you found something in this article useful. Please post your comments and experiences. And most of all have FUN with your training and fitness!


Ian Starr
Owner/Coach Balance Athletics