Why You Should Read This:
- Even though Americans have increased rates of aerobic exercise for the past 40 years, the rate of obesity has consistently risen while the percentage of overweight adults have remained almost constant.
- The original research showing a link between exercise and reduced risk of coronary heart disease was flawed in design. Aerobic exercise was never looked at individually. Actually, when reviewed, most of the data involved work-related physical activity that included lifting heavy objects in short bursts. Similar to cardio intervals and strength training.
- The national exercise guidelines are outdated. Recommendations for endurance cardio need to be laid to rest because modern methods are superior. Other than being ineffective for fat loss, endurance cardio is both time consuming and a precursor to injury.
- Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the father of aerobics, has changed his message about cardio. At first, he said, “there’s no such thing as too much.” Then he suggested Americans do “cardio in moderation.” Now he thinks “cardio is part of a balanced approach that should include strength exercises.”
Cardio is an exercise option. I want you to be aware of the risks. I also don’t want you to rely on it for sustainable weight loss.
“The Soft American” by John F. Kennedy
That’s the title of an editorial piece that ran in Sports Illustrated in December 1960 by the president-elect.
He was warning America that physical activity was decreasing at the expense of new conveniences like white collar jobs and television. Exercise was thought to be an activity reserved for athletes and military men.
America was getting scrawny or getting fat. Both outcomes were linked to a decrease in health.
President-elect Kennedy sounded the alarm before a public health crisis. A sedentary lifestyle would “help to strip and destroy the vitality of a nation” and “physical fitness is the basis of all the activities of our society.” He went as far as saying physical fitness, “is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.”
Kennedy demanded a nation-wide effort fix our failure to be fit. He wanted to get Americans moving again.
Soon after, in the mid-1960s, a young military doctor named Kenneth Cooper proposed a solution.
Running the Wrong Way
Dr. Kenneth Cooper created a physical conditioning program for the U.S. Air Force and NASA. The goal of the program was to make sure the hearts and lungs of astronauts and airmen were fit to fly. Since the program was good enough for space travel and the military, he thought it would work for the general public too. It was a radical invention. What was it? Aerobics.
Aerobics was published in 1968 by Dr. Cooper, and it was a smash. He cleverly played off the term “aerobic,” which means “requiring free oxygen,” to physical activities that need a lot of oxygen and be done over long durations.
a) improved cardiovascular fitness
b) may be decreased the risk of heart disease
To stay fit, according to Dr. Cooper’s Aerobics, meet a specific amount of aerobic exercise weekly through:
- Cross-country skiing
- Running (jogging)
That was the solution.
A physical activity everyone could do. It was considered safe, low-impact and most importantly – easy. You could do this no matter your age or sex.
Cooper told the New York Times that the number of adults who exercised regularly increased from 24% in 1961 to 50% seven years later in 1968.
There was no doubt – Dr. Cooper and his book answered the questions of how to get Americans moving again. But were they more fit?
By the 1970s, the idea that cardio was a preventative method was common knowledge across the world.
More Reasons to Run
Beyond the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research that Dr. Cooper founded in 1970 in Texas, the Cooper Aerobics Center with hotel and spa, and being credited helping the Brazilian soccer team win the World Cup in 1970, there were more reasons to lace up your Nikes.
There was promising insights early, and not just from Cooper, but his colleagues as well.
Some potential benefits to aerobics were:
- Adding year to you life
- More vitality
- Stress relief and relaxation
- Increased sex drive
While some findings were anecdotal, by 1989 the Cooper Institute gathered enough empirical data to fully claim the link between physical fitness and lower coronary risk factors. The Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) published the longitudinal study of 13,000 participants, clearly proving the relationship between exercise and decreased mortality.
The more fit a participant was, the lower the chances were for heart disease and cancer. Living longer was independent of other risk factors like smoking or cholesterol level. The message was simple: get moving, live longer.
Aerobics soared in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. Dr. Cooper was dubbed as “the man that got America running, ” and the jogging craze went global.
He wrote four more books by 1982 that sold a total of 12 million copies. Media outlets like Good Morning America and The Today Show gave Cooper a platform to spread his message. Newspapers nationwide like the Chicago Sun-Times, the Tribune in San Diego, and the Star Tribune in Minneapolis interviewed Cooper as well.
And if you didn’t want to lace up and run, you could slide on some shoes and dance.
Aerobic dance was next. You can thank Richard Simmons for the spandex and leg warmers.
The recipe for success was:
(more the better)
(easy enough to last 60 minutes)
(at least three times a week, but every day was ideal)
Where Are We Now? Five Decades of Cardio Later
Now, 50 years later, we all know of aerobics or cardiovascular exercise as just “cardio.” While the name is different, it’s still the same – long, steady-state endurance activity.
Running is still popular. 19 million Americans joined a running event in 2013. And 65 million Americans consider themselves regular joggers.
The average person at the gym hops on a piece of cardio equipment, treadmill, elliptical, or stationary bike, and checks out for 30 to 60 minutes. Dance classes are still popular, instead of Jazzercise, it’s Zumba.
You’d think we’d be in pretty good shape by now, right?
But, you already know it. Americans are fatter and more unhealthy than any point in history.
This is not the result Kennedy envisioned when he wrote that call to action in 1960. We’ve gone from “soft” to squishy. Two out of every three American adults are overweight, and another one out of three is considered obese. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 365,000 deaths as a result of obesity and inactivity in 2000. It’s the second leading cause of death in the U.S. behind smoking.
Heart disease claims one out of every four lives in the United States at 600,000 people every year.
So, we are still stressed out, fat or scrawny. And you can add depressed and tired to that list.
Following traditional common sense, there are only two possible reasons for this:
- Either Americans still are not exercising
- Or, Americans are not moving enough
Here is the crux of this post, and it’s a hard reality to face; I get it. You’ve been marketed and indoctrinated with cardio as the savior to our nation’s pride and dignity for 50 years.
The only problem: cardio won’t save us because it’s only one small part of the exercise puzzle.
65 Million People Can’t Be Wrong, Right?
Yes. And yes, cardio has not lived up to its hype.
The truth: cardio (long, steady-state cardio) is:
- Not needed for a healthy heart
- Not effective for weight loss
Newer finds also prove cardio:
- Doesn’t help you age well
- May make your weaker
It’s important to know the history behind cardio and other fitness myths (remember low-fat diets) so you can do what works. The doctors, government, media, and celebrities get it wrong, but you can do right by yourself.
Cardio has been understudied and overhyped. Over reported and blindly experienced. The numbers are not adding up in favor of good health and fitness.
But what about the research?
There were clearly some conflicts of interest with the Cooper Institute (for aerobic research) designing and running research. Moreover, the research was based on the time. There’s new, updated information now. But before I go there, let’s look at what’s been called undisputable evidence of cardio health benefits.
A Closer Look at Cardio Research
There are recent studies that show cardio does help you lose weight. The questions need to be:
- How much cardio?
- How much weight loss?
A 2007 study published in the Journal of Obesity showed an hour a day of cardio for one year resulted in four to six pounds (1.8 to 2.7 kg).
Wait. Stop. Read that line above again.
After 365 days of running for six a week 60 minutes, women who were new to exercise only lost four pounds (1.8 kg) and 1.4 cm (½ inch) off their waists.
Men, we did slightly better. Six and a half pounds lost 9 (or 3 kg) and 3.3 cm (1.3 inches) of the waist.
There were no results shown until participants did cardio for a minimum of 250 minutes per week. Or 4.2 hours per week. Or 218 hours per year. At the least. Minimum.
For the full benefits, of cardio, you would have to do cardio six days a week or 312 hours per year.
Does wasting 312 hours to lose only four to six pounds sound revolutionary to you? It seems like a waste of time to me.
There is a better way to lose fat. It’s called high-intensity interval exercise (HIIE). It only takes 20 minutes per day, three times a week.
And you can actually get heart health benefits from it too.
This would only 78 hours a year. What would you do with an extra 234 hours of time?
The Truth Behind Weight Loss and Exercise Research
Exercise like high-intensity interval exercise and strength training have been proven to be better for fat loss than moderately intense cardio like walking and jogging.
After 15 years of research, Dr. Stephen Boutcher concluded in the 2010 Journal of Obesity that:
- High-intensity intermittent sprinting exercise seems to be more efficient than other types of exercise at decreasing subcutaneous and abdominal body fat.
- HIIE results in a significantly more fat loss in women compared to steady-state cardio.
- Regular HIIE significantly increases both aerobic and anaerobic fitness.
And for strength training – your body burns more calories when you have more muscle mass. So, an exercise program designed to lower fat mass while increasing lean muscle (like bodyweight circuits) can help you achieve a lean, muscular body that is healthy too.
Dr. Cooper marginalized strength training back in the 1960s.
He only suggested “some basic calisthenics” in his program. In his mind lifting weights was only good for, well weightlifting.
Strength training was looked down at because:
- It could lead to injury
- Could cause disproportionate bulking
And sprinting was a waste of time because aerobics was the golden ticket.
From there on, it was anti-strength training anti-sprinting message. It was cardio-or-bust.
And a bust it is.
Early adopters of cardio like Dr. Cooper, Jim Fixx, Dr. George Sheehan, and Brian Maxwell, were biased and ignored studies that disproved what they enjoyed.
The Government Guidelines are the Worst Offender
Even though the evidence is clear, more cardio is not good for weight loss or health and could be dangerous, government recommendations for cardio have gone up.
The current Healthy People 2020 Initiative aims for 300 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 150 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week. On the less reasonable side, that’s 42 minutes a day, seven days a week! Who has time for that?
And what about strength training? It’s listed as “optional.” It’s suggested without any specific guidelines.
What if the recommendation included 75 minutes of high-intense interval exercise?
- That would make 75 minutes enough,
- 150 too much,
- and 300 minutes insane.
Steady-state cardio is still being advertised and implemented as the gold-standard for health and fitness. These amounts are not realistic for most people and don’t yield substantial results. Online sites like the Mayo Clinic and WebMD are also at fault, merely regurgitating the government guidelines.
Ask the average doctor, and you are likely to hear: walk 60 minutes every day.
If you are not in a position to afford a personal trainer or you don’t know what blog to read for effective fat loss – look no further.
I’m going to break down the cardio myth and explain the new high-intensity strength training program for you here in a few installments.
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