Are you completely relieved, ready to settle back down to complete your first marathon in style — no doubt a Netflix marathon, spanning the couch and bed?
Just kidding. You aren’t off the hook that easy. This isn’t about skipping all exercise as much as becoming smart about it.
If you’ve ever tried to become a runner when it’s not a natural inclination already, you understand that endurance cardio is not easy and can even set you back. Plantar fasciitis and bad knees are just the beginning. Over seven million Americans each year are treated for sports and recreation related injuries.
Furthermore, excessive cardio could be inflicting unseen and unfelt damage, as well. Before you idealize that ultra-iron-tough-mud-blood-marathon, we’re going to walk through some of the reasons you should stop doing cardio — at least this form of it — right away.
Obviously, we need to be clear about our terms when proposing such a dramatic shift in priorities. Cardio is short for cardiovascular, which means the intent is to utilize and strengthen one of our most important body systems. All body systems are important, but a weak cardiovascular system will not transport blood, oxygen, and nutrients, affecting every other system in a profound way.
In short, yes, you need to exercise to improve your cardio health.
Broadly, exercise can fall into one of two categories. Aerobic exercise must be sustained and require an increase in heart and breathing rates, and it’s generally considered to be a cardio workout. Anaerobic exercise, like strength training, creates a lack of oxygen to the muscles, but comes in bursts and does not create a sustained increase in heart and lung activity.
Moderate aerobic, cardio work is certainly supported as an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Taking it to the extreme, however, is another story. Unfortunately, ultra marathons and endurance cardio have become an idealized goal, idealizing attempted transformations from sedentary to distance athlete. Some things really shouldn’t be tried at home.
With that kind of excess in mind, here are five reasons to stop cardio right now:
1. Nutritional needs.
We’ve all marveled at the outlandish training diet that Michael Phelps follows. Marathon runners “enjoy” heavy carbs in preparation of a big run, as well. When you really think about that kind of simple carb and sugar intake, though, what are the long term effects?
Worse yet, with these images in our minds, an endurance cardio workout can fool us into thinking food choice doesn’t matter and carbs are justified in any form. Here’s a tip: if you aren’t a trained endurance athlete, you don’t need to eat like one!
2. Physiological stress.
Some people feel relaxed and energized after a long run, believing that the work helped to release stress. Mental and emotional stress do have big impacts on the body, making stress relieving activities important. But the run itself may have added physiological stress. This kind of stress is quantified by the production of free radicals, created during aerobic exercise. The longer and more intense the cardio, the more we need to help the body recover from its physiological stress level and free radical production.
3. Immune depletion.
Whether it’s the shift in nutrient intake to the sugar load of carbohydrates, the physiological stress, or pushing the body to exhaustion, marathon runners are faced with a drop in immune function after the big event. In fact, individuals who train seem to be more susceptible to respiratory infections thanks to this immune modulation, while acute exercise does not have the same effect. Once again, training and endurance work adds stress to the body and requires special care that the average person should not have to worry about.
4. Heart health.
This is probably the strongest argument against heavy, distance cardio for most individuals. Beginning with observations in animals, researchers are concerned that the heart may not respond favorably to long-term endurance cardio. Later, concerns were monitored in people, with preliminary studies indicating problems with the right ventricle of the heart in athletes participating in intense endurance work. Even more concerning, a 2011 study evaluated lifelong endurance athletes and found that half of them suffered from myocardial fibrosis, a thickening of the walls of the heart.
Moderate exercise is universally recommended for heart health, but the impact that heavy endurance training has on the body and heart in particular should not be undertaken lightly.
5. It’s just not necessary.
Rarely will a doctor or health organization recommend endurance training for improved health. Moderate exercise is more than sufficient for heart health, weight loss and maintenance, and overall wellness. In fact, when overweight women were observed over the course of a full year, simply walking consistently was the most effective form of exercise. Even when intensity is require, burst or high-intensity [interval] training (HI[I]T) appears to be safer for the heart than long term endurance work. Choose something you can enjoy consistently for best results — you don’t have to be an endurance athlete to be healthy.