There’s nothing better than a really good spin class/aerobics class first thing in the morning - it’s a great sweat and an incredible endorphin boost.
But sometimes it seems like cardio has overtaken every other fitness activity. More and more of the women I know are turning into serious aerobic exercise junkies (cardio bunnies) and I’ve begun to see a pattern of these women who are spinning, dancing, and running three, four, even five times per week. They all tell me that they feel like they should be in incredible shape—but they’re not. So what gives?
Despite being so active, these women commonly describe being tired and anxious, having trouble sleeping, and finding it difficult to shed “the last 10 pounds.” Many also have hormone imbalances such as PMS, irregular periods, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), and even infertility.
Here are some warning signs that you might be over doing the cardio—and the 3 things all balanced fitness plans need.
First warning sign: cortisol spikes
An excess of cardio, particularly when it is the ONLY form of exercise, increases the ‘stress hormone’ Cortisol. Cortisol should be high in the morning and low by afternoon, staying down through bedtime. When cortisol is high, your blood sugar and blood pressure go up, you store more calories as fat—especially around your abdomen—and your immune system is suppressed. You may also have a hard time sleeping and can experience anxiety or that “wired” feeling at night.
If it’s chronically high, it can increase hormones like testosterone and subsequently estrogen, while simultaneously decreasing hormones like progesterone, causing disruptions in the menstrual cycle and acne.
Second warning sign: high blood sugar
Right after that morning cardio sesh, many women will naturally be hungry and will load up on carbs (oatmeal or cereal) without adding much-needed protein or fat, when cortisol is already naturally high.
Unwittingly, this is setting yourself up for another common health issue cardio junkies suffer from: high blood sugar which can be an indicator for Metabolic Syndrome, an imbalance in the body’s ability to handle blood sugar.
So, what’s the deal with cardio overload?
The extra time put in on a spin bike or treadmill does nothing to build muscle (which increases resting metabolism) or calm the nervous system and relieve stress.
Research now shows that cardio is not particularly helpful for weight loss either. The body becomes “used to” the calorie deficit from long aerobic sessions and stores energy as fat to compensate. In addition, studies show that most eat more after cardiovascular exercise exercise, and cardio bunnies in particular overestimate the amount of calories the burned while working out.
But the answer isn’t more cardio, starving yourself or hyper-focusing on calories—it’s looking at the kinds of exercise you’re doing and the kinds of foods you’re fueling with. Here’s a three step plan that balances training and nutrition to get results.
1. Replace Swap two cardio sessions with weight training sessions. Lifting weights and building muscle increases your basal metabolic rate, which accounts for 60–75 percent of calories burned daily (another 10 percent goes to digesting food while, for, most people, only 10–20 percent goes to physical activity of any kind). Resistance training has been shown to boost basal metabolism and fat burning for 24-plus hours—something cardio doesn’t do.
2. Restore Doing restorative exercise like yoga isn’t “useless” for weight loss; it both strengthens and lengthens the muscles and connective tissue, while simultaneously reducing stress and, therefore, cortisol (one of the major reasons for weight gain and hormone imbalance).
3. Eat Don’t starve yourself. Increase your protein, fat, and fiber intake. The way the body metabolizes a cup of broccoli isn’t the same as how it metabolizes a cup of soda. The veggie, for example, is metabolized slowly—which means that you’re avoiding the insulin spike that leads to sugar being stored as fat. Protein is the most satiating of the macros (protein, carbs and fat) so ensuring you have a good source of lean protein with each meal will keep you fuller longer.
Incorporating more weight training, restorative training and managing your nutrition with a healthy balance of protein to help with muscle retention, healthy fats and higher fiber carbs will help to keep your cortisol in check so that you can start to see the results you’ve been working so hard for.