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Cardio for Heart Health

Friday, March 08, 2013

I had a really odd (to me) realization last night.

I do my weight work (strength training) for fitness reasons. I love feeling stronger, more capable physically. I love knowing my bones are strong and my joints and tendons and ligaments and such are remaining healthy. A side effect of weight work is more muscle which is a minutely faster metabolism, but I don't lift to lose weight.

I was doing my cardio for weight loss reasons. Not entirely, of course, because I do enjoy being physically active in general. What I mean, though, is that when I planned my cardio I generally wasn't think of improving fitness. I was thinking about how many minutes would equal how many calories burned, and whether I needed to eat more or less food.

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That's a temporary, doing it to lose weight, mindset.

Cardio shouldn't be something I am doing "to lose weight".

Yes, it has that benefit. But that shouldn't be the only reason we go to a Zumba class or run or ski or kayak or ice skate or stay on the elliptical for an hour. I'm not suggesting people stop doing cardio when they are losing or maintaining their weight. I am saying that MY biggest focus on cardio had become: How many minutes do I need to burn enough calories this week? Which form of cardio is easiest to do while burning enough calories?

When I revised my workouts to a 4-day split Upper Body/Lower Body, the only thoughts on cardio I had were doing a minimum of 15-20 minutes on weight days solely to warm up and 60 minutes on the 3 non-weight days. It was all about making it fit with the weight work and still get enough calories burned each week.

In addition, I haven't been pushing myself to do much on the Stair Step machine because it is harder for me while supposedly burning less calories for time spent. I can run on the treadmill, but generally don't because it burns so much less.

WAIT!

I've been AVOIDING certain cardio ... over calories burned and challenge?

Yep, that's when it struck me how wrong my mindset has been on this.

Heck, February's ER visit and the cardiologist saying I should focus more on cardio should have penetrated more, but it took this realization to hear his recommendation in a new way. At the time I just shrugged it off. I do plenty. I do enough to mostly meet the heart health recommendations. (Heck, probably more because of all my brisk walking.)

But I never actually do my cardio with a focus on improving my fitness. Somewhere deep in my psyche I had the dieter's mentality toward cardio, that I had to do as much as I have been to lose weight. I have been determined not to be one of "those people" who feel it is necessary to do 1-2 hours of cardio a minimum of 5 days a week just to maintain (an exaggeration, but given some people's comments not too big of one), but until I swapped to more weights I was pretty much doing just that. When I think of cardio, I think of it as more calories out so I can have more calories in.

There are very real FITNESS reasons for doing cardio. Heart health is the obvious one. Weight work benefits the heart as well, but in different ways. Both are needed for the best effects. Cardio also works the respiratory system in a way weights doesn't. My lung capacity doesn't have to increase to pump iron. It does to move faster and further. The whole idea in aerobic activity is air, getting more life-giving oxygen in the blood. It's not just about the heart and lungs, either. Throughout the body the entire artery, vein, capillary system is improved to get that oxygen where it needs to be -AND- to carry the wastes and toxins to where they can be eliminated. And, of course, exercise can improve the mood.

I think part of my problem has been lacking a good way to measure non-weight fitness progress from cardio. I don't have high blood pressure. I didn't even at my most obese. My resting heart rate has always been in the healthy 60s range. I did end up out of breath climbing stairs, and that has certainly improved -- but it's not something I measure with numbers. I do the occasional fitness tests related to what it takes to get my heart rate to 85% maxHR and how fast it settles back down, but haven't ever taken the time to do specific work to improve them.

So that's what is on my mind today. I want to review and revise the cardio that I do to be more in line with my long-term lifestyle goals. Instead of minutes and calories burned, I want to define specific goals related to lung capacity, endurance, and challenging myself -- then tailor my choices and activities in cardio to that. Shorter and more intense workouts might be in order at times.

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Just wanted to add something in light of the comments so far.

The mindset thing wasn't about being frustrated that there aren't easily measured numbers from cardio. I actually do see the progress over time in a lot of ways. My brisk walks are faster. My 5k times are better. I did a 10k. I can run a mile in less than 13 minutes. I can do 30+ minutes on the elliptical set to level 6 when my first time on it was 5 minutes and level 1. I do the recumbent bike on level 8 maintaining an 80+ RPM, sometimes pushing for 95-100, sometimes pushing to level 10. There are a lot of milestones of progress in my cardiovascular health.

The problem is that I wasn't using those as my reason to do cardio. They were just "cool improvements" that happened along the way. My reason for doing cardio was for the calories out and the ability to have my calorie range over 2000 versus around 1500. My primary focus when picking what I did each day was whether I needed the burn or rest more, and that decided the level and the choice of machine.

I've done more Recumbent Bike simply because SP's tracker gives it the highest burn per hour of the things that I do. It's a good burn, yes, but that's not the right reason for sitting down on that seat and pedaling.

I have more fun, to be honest, when I sit down on the Recumbent Bike and decide to see just how high I can get the RPM and how long I can keep it there. When I set little goals (or as KING_SLAYER put it - benchmarks), I challenge myself and have more purpose. By setting those goals or benchmarks with a focus on greater endurance, less gasping for air, and other obvious health / fitness indicators, I think I will get much more out of my cardio.

I definitely don't hate cardio. I just don't want it to feel mandated in order to lose / maintain weight. I want it to feel important to maintain physical health and fitness. That's the mental shift I'm making.
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  Member Comments About This Blog Post:

PKCTTS 3/9/2013 5:42PM

    I'm certainly no cardio queen - it's the hard part for me. Because of the heart healthy nature of that beast, I've started really increasing the intensity so that I can cut down on the amount of time. LOL

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JUSTAGIRL45 3/9/2013 2:46PM

    Great insight on Cardio! It really makes me re-think my motives.

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ILOVEMALI 3/8/2013 9:22PM

    Thanks for the reminder. I'll remember this on our hike tomorrow! Have a great weekend

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MERRYMARY42 3/8/2013 9:11PM

    loved your blog, I go to my exercise classes to be more fit, balanced, and also to lose weight emoticon although the weight just does not come off, but I do feel so much better,

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KATHYM617 3/8/2013 8:44PM

    Great post -- I think this is an issue many of us struggle with but don't really give much conscious thought to. For me, I've always been inspired by my dad. He's in his 70s and bikes 15-20 miles most days (he has always been very active -- this is what he has been doing for the better part of a decade now). He does it because it gives him mental space to really think about things and because it makes him feel good -- in a long term way, not just a short term one. He bikes the same route daily and tries each day to have a new best time. When he has one, he sends himself an ecard of congrats, which cracks me up but is a bit brilliant in my mind. For him, it's not just about the physical improvements but also about the protection cardio can give to one's mental acuity with aging. Moreover, it's not at all about his weight or the burning of calories.

Like my dad, I also try to go for longer and/or faster over time and assume that it is an accurate gauge of my general fitness level. But I have had periods where I obsess over the calories burned and/or intensity level. And those tend to be the periods when I burn out and get frustrated. So now I am trying to focus on doing what I enjoy, cardio-wise. Which means I am running a lot more. (And missing swimming a lot more -- I really wish I could afford a gym with a pool!)

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DOVESEYES 3/8/2013 8:42PM

    I've found KING_SLAYER is very wise and usually right...:)

Love this blog it gets me thinking...

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SHERIO5 3/8/2013 5:37PM

    Don't you love learning new things? emoticon

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KING_SLAYER 3/8/2013 4:36PM

    Yep. We can gain so much from cardio work, but it is hard to measure on a day to day or week to week basis. Weight we can track on the scale, strength training we can track by weight, set and reps, but actual cardio has no real trackable quality, besides minutes spent. Of course one could sign up with a university that is doing a study on cardio and they will have all of the tools to measure the little things that we can't measure at home, like lung capacity. The only way that I know of to track cardio health is through benchmarking. Time yourself on a 1 mile run or walk (or elliptical, or stairs, or rowing, etc), then spend a month doing your cardio and then re-test yourself in the same way to see if you have gotten faster. That's about the only way to check that I can think of that doesn't involve lots of expensive equipment.

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CIPHER1971 3/8/2013 3:36PM

    I know what you mean, Strength gives such obvious benefits, and personally I find alot of cardio boring.

I hope you find the right thing / things for you

Take care

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KRICKET4 3/8/2013 3:23PM

    Wow, does everything really have to be measurable in numbers?
I do tons of cario every week, mostly Zumba and hiking.
How do I measure my progress?
Doing 7 miles uphill with a 4500' elevation gain and not dying is a good measure :)
Breezing though an hour of Zumba and wanting to do an hour more, 'cause all I feel is nicely warmed up is a measure :)
In other words, I do cardio for fun, and it helps me maintain nicely, without having to track food or anything else.

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