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In defense of cardio

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    One of the things I’ve noticed more and more, especially among the paleo community, is a rejection of sustained cardiovascular exercise. The biggest offender, it seems, is the good old-fashioned run. Running has thousands of years of recorded history behind it–and proven applications in almost every sport and combat profession–but these modern Groks think all that mileage has just been, at best, a waste of time. I’ve also known weightlifters who completely reject cardio for fear of losing size or strength, and while I can understand their concern if they want to win bodybuilding competitions (and maybe sacrifice their health in the process), I think they’re missing out on perhaps the cheapest and most effective exercise there is.

    There are many ways to do cardio, but I prefer running for its simplicity. It requires no equipment, no special skills, no training, and no trip to the gym. Many people may be too heavy or too out-of-shape to run, but that’s a temporary condition except for those with permanent injuries. It shouldn’t be a surprise that almost everybody can become a runner, since we’re clearly designed for it. Long-distance running is one of the only physical activities at which we can actually compete with most of the animal kingdom.

    One of the biggest health advantages of cardio over other ways of exercising is that it is very efficient at burning visceral fat, which is the “belly fat” that accumulates around your organs. Unlike our benign subcutaneous fat, which is what women carry on their hips, visceral fat causes systemic inflammation, eventual metabolic disorder, and a host of other inflammatory ailments. Our beer bellies are dangerous and chemically active. Studies have shown, however, that sustained cardiovascular exercise can burn this fat away relatively easily. As far as I can tell, no other exercise is so effective, and neither is simple dieting. Even weightlifting, which is excellent for building a strong, healthy body, has almost no effect when it comes to visceral fat. To burn it, you must do aerobic exercise.

    The main disadvantage of running is that it is damn hard. If you’re out of shape, it takes perseverance to keep hitting the road every day, because you’ll suffer through a lot of soreness, hard breathing, and just overall fatigue. But the blood, sweat, and tears are worth it, because you will be transforming your body, recovering the lost stamina of your youth, and protecting yourself from chronic diseases. And you don’t have to start all at once. Walking, with short intervals of jogging, can help build conditioning until you’re able to maintain a light jog for a longer period of time. If you keep it up, almost anyone should reach the point where they can run 30-60 minutes at a time, which is an incredible workout for both body and mind.

    Last May, when I was in horrible shape, I began going on daily walks with my wife and did the “couch to 5k” program (that you can find through a google search). We ran our first race in July. My time was far from impressive, but I now run for 30 minutes several times a week, and plan to progress until I can run an hour a day. The effects have been nothing short of amazing. My energy levels and mood are improving, and my chronic pains and sleep problems are disappearing. My obsession with finding the right diet is also disappearing, as my body becomes more tolerant of a wide variety of foods. In fact, I find the diet recommended at this site–rather than strict regimens of nothing but protein and vegetables–is by far the best for physical recovery.

    Running may not be the best for recovering anorexics who need to gain weight, but for anyone else with health problems, I think serious cardiovascular exercise is worth a try. Even people who look thin (the skinny fat) may have dangerous levels of visceral fat. There’s just no substitute for exercise, even if you can control your weight through diet. For most of human history, people have had to do hard physical work most of the day, and for us modern workers, a good run most days of the week may be the perfect way to balance our sedentary lives.


    Hey David, I can tell you really enjoy your runs. I have been reading/hearing that running is hard on the joints. Maybe it is safer on a treadmill, but that’s boring. It sounds like you are not having that problem.


    I experienced some pain around my knees for the first few months, but I would always back off and take a break if it got too bad. At one point early on I entered a 5k race and ended up walking for half of it because of the pain. I then took a week off and started up again very gradually.

    Now my joints have gotten much stronger. I am running a higher weekly mileage (16-17 miles this week versus maybe 5-6 miles when I had pain), yet the soreness in my joints is far less. I still get sore–probably that’s true even of elite runners–but it doesn’t feel like there’s a risk of injury, and it did feel that way when I started.

    There’s some controversy over whether running actually causes knee injuries, because even sedentary people get joint problems. It’s just part of being a human and bipedal, I guess. In my own experience, I feel like the running is protecting me from injury, because of increased strength in the connective tissue. But I recognize the possibility that 20 years from now I might think differently.

    I actually had a bad knee injury from wrestling back when I was in high school, so I think there’s always a risk with any kind of exercise. But I wouldn’t want to go back to a life without exercise now, even if there is some risk of occasional problems.

    I agree with you about treadmills. I need the distraction of changing scenery, and will seek out an indoor track instead on days when the weather is bad–though outdoor runs are the best. This winter, I’m thinking about adding some swimming too, just to get some variety on the days I have to exercise inside. You are correct that running on a treadmill is easier, but the body adapts to meet the stresses of pavement running, which is why training on a treadmill is insufficient if you want to run a few road races eventually–and I highly recommend them for the camaraderie.


    Hi David :)

    I’m curious – how are you getting on with your cardio? Are you still enjoying it, feeling good and seeing progress?



    Hi Sal,

    Still enjoying it! I’m taking a couple of days off right now after a long run on Saturday (well, long for me anyway…). It was the first 10k course I’ve run in MANY years, and it was a big jump from the 3-4 mile runs I’ve been doing. Full disclosure: I walked a bit in the middle, so I’m not quite there yet. :(

    On Thursday, my wife wants us to start a 5k training plan. It’s a mix of easy runs, fast intervals, hills, and long runs. We’re entering a 5k “Turkey Trot” on Thanksgiving, and we’re hoping for a couple of PBs (personal bests).

    Unfortunately, my progress in the gym is slowing down, so I might need to bump my calories up a bit to keep gaining strength. It’s definitely not easy pursuing strength, speed, and stamina goals, while also trying to lose weight.

    Are you also a runner?


    You’ve inspired me to consider running! I don’t like the gym scene so I feel kind of limited in what I can do living in the Midwest. I’ve started taking short walks with my baby and will gradually build up to longer walks. I’m 9 weeks postpartum and I don’t want to stress my body too much. One thing I have wondered about is the difference in body composition I see in runners. I have a friend who used to run 30 miles a week and still had a ‘thicker’ figure. Another friend is a runner who is very slim. Running doesn’t always seem to be a sure fire way to burn fat; the former friend carried most of it in her midsection as well.


    Great to hear! I’ve been working at it about a half year now, and I’m still a true believer. Those walks you’re doing are a great way to start, and even for runners I think walking is important, because it’s such an effective, low-impact exercise for days when your legs are too sore to go fast–not that walking alone isn’t enough to see major physical and mental changes.

    Like you, I’ve noticed the different body types in runners. I think there are few issues going on with those who still have weight problems that seem concentrated in their trunk. The first problem is that they may completely ignore resistance training, which is the best way to build and maintain muscle in your limbs. The second problem is that they may think running gives them carte blanche to eat anything they want, which is probably only true for serious athletes. And third, they may have the belly as a holdover from years on the couch before they started running. Right now I don’t look like a stereotypical thin runner either. I still have a bit too much belly fat because I haven’t lost all the weight I need to yet, but I also do heavy strength training, which means I will never be super skinny (not that I want to be). I do not believe that running is giving people beer bellies–even if running alone can’t always fix the beer belly.

    It’s also possible to look very fat and have low visceral fat. Sumo wrestlers, for example, have huge rolls on their midsection, but it’s all at the sub-cutaneous level, since they burn all their visceral fat off with their vigorous exercise. They’re actually pretty healthy until they retire, when many continue to eat the same meals without doing the exercise. My dad is also physically health in his mid-60s, despite a huge belly, because he exercises regularly and (presumably) burns off the really dangerous fat around the organs. He continues to be so big just because he snacks constantly.

    Big or small, I still think that daily activity is about the most important thing we can do for ourselves. I’ve second-guessed my views on diet many times, and often go back and forth on what or how much I should eat, but daily exercise has done nothing but good for my health, my confidence, and even my work and personal relationships. Exercise isn’t a silver bullet that will solve everything, but I think you’ll find your life only improves if you keep up your walks (and congratulations on your new baby!).


    Thank you for the response! I was thinking of starting the couch to 5k program this spring or summer when my son decides to sleep through the night. Right now I am so sleep deprived that I can’t consider serious exercise. How many times per week do you run in comparison to the strength training? Do you get to a point where running is enjoyable?

    As far as diet goes, I’m recovering from bulimia so I really don’t want to do anything remotely restrictive. That being said, now that I don’t restrict I crave fairly ‘healthy’ foods and rarely want meat or anything heavy in fat. I know diet can be very effective with exercise, but I think that’s just too risky in my situation.

    One more thing- my boyfriend was a runner and ran on a fractured femur (a result of running). Injuries like this have given running a bad rap- is this just a consequence of over training?

    Thanks so much for responding!


    I admire your desire to start an exercise program even while you have all the responsibilities of a new child. I guarantee you will see benefits if you can keep it up over time, even if you can only do a little. The important thing is just to get some activity in for a few hours a week.

    My current program is to run 3x a week and lift weights 4x (mainly squats, dead lifts, bench press, overhead press, barbell rows, pull-ups, and dips). After the weights, I’ll usually do some time on the exercise bike or take a long walk, just to have a little cardio every day. My usual run is about 4 miles, though they range from 3-6.

    I think the couch to 5k program is outstanding, but it could be hard depending on your current level of fitness. Even after finishing the program (which is basically how I started), I still had a lot of difficulty running a 5k without walking for part of it. It took several months before I got over all of the beginner’s pains, but I was extremely out of shape when I started. Even now I wouldn’t say running is easy. There’s no doubt it’s a demanding exercise, which is part of what makes it so rewarding. I always enjoying finishing a run (!), but I would say 33% of the time the run is really hard, 33% it just feels like routine, and 33% I feel really good.

    But I don’t have any concerns about injuries. There were times during the first several months when I had pain in my joints and limped around a bit, but now I just get what I consider normal soreness. It’s certainly possible to over-train like your boyfriend, but millions of people all over the world are able to get themselves into running shape, and if a person trains right, I think it should be protective against injuries, at least for hobby runners. There are plenty of studies that call into question the idea that running is bad for your joints. Sedentary people get joint problems all the time too.

    As for diet, I mainly eat what gives me energy and makes me feel good. I slow down considerably when I don’t get enough carbs, and I don’t recover as fast if I don’t eat enough protein (for me, that means at least 100 grams a day). If I’ve burned a ton of calories, I might feel like I need a pizza and beer. Other times I eat more moderately. As long as you don’t go to extremes, you should be fine.

    I’m excited that my thread was motivating to you. I think you’ll do great!


    Thanks for your advice. I am not in good shape at all; I’m naturally pretty muscular but I noticed I lost muscle tone (especially my core) during ED. I also think pregnancy may have contributed to loss of muscle tone because I notice I have a harder time getting off the floor from a seated position and things like that. Anyways, thanks again for your help and I’ll let you know how I do!


    David, glad to see you are making good progress running. I recently started running as well, and i would like to know if you are using a heart rate monitor. I have debated the good and bad of cardio for a while. Coming from the Paleo community many focus on intervals and intensity, yet people forget that even “reformed chronic cardio’er” Mark Sisson recommends low level aerobic work. From what i can read, that means finding the right heart rate, and most of what i read comes back to the Maffeton Method which is 180-age and then subtract ten. For example, I’m 40 so my target heart rate range is 180-40 = 140 (top end) and minus 10 = 130 (bottom end). When i run i keep my heart rate at 130-140. For most people this seems VERY slow. I have to jog at a snail’s pace and walk some to keep my heart rate this low and I thought I was in “good” shape; however, by keeping out of the anaerobic range you don’t wear your body down and as you progress aerobically, you are able to run faster and faster at the same heart rate. The key is that running too hard (too anaerobic) is stressful (most on this forum are trying to decress stress) and the only way to know if you are working out too hard is to check heart rate. Staying in the pure aerobic range reduces stress and increases energy. Some believe it helps increase mitochondrial energy by helping them burn more oxygen ( similar to what Danny Roddy is trying to do by eating sugar). Just two weeks of training aerobically has boosted my energy levels. Let’s see where i am in 3-6 months.

    I’m not saying anaerobic training is bad, just that its powerful medicine and until you have a very strong aerobic base you don’t want to add anaerobic training. Also, you can overtrain aerobically if you do no weight training and no anaerobic work. It’s about balance, but most of us are out of balance (too stressed) and aerobic training can help.


    It’s amazing how well your comment resonates with my current thinking about exercise. For precisely the reasons you described, I’ve started adding more slow, easy work-outs into my weekly routine, while reducing the intensity of my main work-outs. For cardio, I still do three runs per week, but only one of those runs is for speed. On the other two I keep an easy pace, which I define as a level that allows me to breathe comfortably through my nose. But in addition to the runs, I’ve added regular neighborhood walks, low-impact body weight exercises, and even swimming (though I’ve only gone once so far). Then on my weightlifting days, after I’m finished lifting, I do 30 minutes on the exercise bike at a fairly easy pace. I haven’t been aiming for a particular heart rate, but the sensor on the bike tells me that I’m averaging around 140 beats a minute, which sounds about right according your method (I’m 34).

    By reducing intensity in all but one run a week, I have a greater capacity for more low-intensity cardio, which I’m finding excellent for stress levels. The low-intensity work doesn’t provide the same kind of rush as the high-intensity does, but it doesn’t lead to a crash either, which is probably more conducive to long-term well being.

    I’ve even extended this philosophy to the weight room. My routine over the last several months has been in the 5-8 rep range for each set, occasionally even dropping down to 3 reps when I want to increase weight. My strength gains were good, but the heavier weights were really starting to wear me out. I’ve decided to switch to reps in the 10-20 range (depending on the exercise) using lower weights. My goal is to reduce the stress-load of the work-out, while also developing more muscular endurance, which I’m lacking because of my previous focus on low reps.

    Good luck on your new running program. It’ll be interesting to see how much you can increase your speed even while keeping your heart rate below 140. I’m sure building up your base in a controlled way will be more enjoyable than killing yourself every run, which is probably what burns out so many beginning runners.


    Thanks David, sounds like you are I have similar philosophies. Currently, i’m only doing about 30 min, 5 min warm up, 20 min run and 5 min cool down. I also do some slow biking (due to the more specific musculature most people recommend using a slightly lower heart rate when biking). For me, the goal is less about “fitness”, but more health focused. My personal workout goals are focused on kettlebells, but my high intesity workouts were draining me. My current understanding is that having a good aerobic base is the foundation of health and then you can add some intensity on top of that base.

    Some of my inspiration has come from this old video of the Polish National Weightlifting team doing some aerobic work for what is arguably the least aerobic sport in the world. You only need to watch a few minutes. My favorite quote is “the exercise provides the oxygen needed for long hours in the weight room.” Clearly they do some varied, cross country runs mixed with calesthenics. (assuming this isn’t some propaganda tape.)

    One interesting point on improvements, i have read that you should test how far you can run at the same heart rate. As long as that is improving, stick with the aerobic work in the target heart range. Once you are not making improvements, start adding the faster, harder runs once a week while still doing aerobic work to maintain the aerobic base.

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