If you’re searching for some inspiration to start cardio training, you’ve come to the right place. This article delivers four super-important reasons why cardiovascular exercise should form the basis for every training routine.
As we’ll see, cardio is the more effective exercise for reducing body fat. In the age of the burgeoning ‘obesity epidemic,’ fast-food apps, and the ‘just eat’ mentality, cardio is arguably more needed today than it’s ever been.
But, if you have the stamina to make it through this blog, you’ll discover that cardio is more than a one-trick pony. Cardio confers many more benefits besides weight loss.
With the help of leading health and exercise experts and the man who wrote the official fitness program for NASA, we’ll take a look at the many surprising ways that cardiovascular exercise forges ‘total well-being.’
Benefits of cardio
What follows are four key health and fitness benefits of cardiovascular exercise.
To keep the content concise, I’ve briefly outlined the key points of each benefit. In addition, I’ve enlisted the support of leading scientists and publications.
For those left wanting a more comprehensive insight, links to relevant reading material have been included.
Benefits of cardio quick finder
Benefit of cardio #1: Reduced body fat
Benefit of cardio #2: Protects against heart disease
Benefit of cardio #3: Promotes strong and healthy bones
Benefit of cardio #4: Improves mental health
Benefits of cardio #1: Reduced body fat
Of all the reasons that people continue to maintain an exercise program or decide to embark on one, ‘to lose weight’ has to be in the top five. I’ve got no statistics for you but having worked in the fitness industry for over 20 years, I can say it’s the most prevalent reason I’ve encountered – by a country mile.
Yet, while a substantial majority of all exercisers harbour the aspiration to trim up, few go about it the right way. A pervasive misunderstanding is that all exercise was created equal in its capacity to burn fat. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
What’s the best exercise to burn fat?
Studies have been conducted to investigate the fat-burning efficacy of different types of training methods. An instructive example of such a study is outlined by Danial Liberman.
‘One randomised control study that compared the effects of cardio and weights on overweight and obese adults found that individuals prescribed just weights barely lost any body fat but those prescribed twelve miles a week of running lost substantial amounts of fat, especially harmful organ fat,’ (Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest & Health).
Cardio and calorie control are key to weight loss
Kenneth Cooper, the man tasked by NASA to develop an exercise program to keep astronauts fit in zero gravity environments (aka space!), identifies weight loss as one of the chief benefits of cardio. ‘Aerobic exercise is a realistic way to lose weight and keep it off.’
But Cooper was a realist. He doesn’t mislead us into the false belief that exercise is the best way to improve body composition. ‘I want to emphasise that, generally speaking, exercise should be only an aid to weight reduction, not the exclusive technique,' (The Aerobics Program For Total Well-Being).
Want to lose weight?
If your goal is to lose weight the single most important lifestyle change you can make is your diet. Cooper justifies his argument by outlining the unbelievable efficiency of the human body.
For example, to burn off a measly 70 calories – one and a bit bourbon biscuit – you’d have to walk at a fast clip for 20 minutes. And to ‘lose 1 pound of fat through exercise, you have to burn up 3,500 calories,’ which is about 1000 fewer than is required to run a full marathon!
With that said, if you plan to use cardio to control your weight, you’d be wise to reform your diet as well. (Get started with these super-healthy plant-based recipes.)
Related: Folks Over Knives plant-based cookbook
Benefits of cardio #2: Protects against heart disease
The heart is an immensely powerful muscle. Unlike skeletal muscles, it doesn’t stop contracting and relaxing for a single second. All day every day it keeps the beat. It’s been said that across an average lifespan (82 years) the heart will tick two billion times! And unlike your car engine (a kind of mechanical equivalent) your heart will not need an annual service, MOT, or parts change. If looked after it will silently purr away under the hood unnoticed and largely unappreciated for your entire life. That, I think you’ll agree, is quite remarkable.
However, all is not well in the Western world when it comes to heart health. In the US, coronary heart disease (CHD) is the leading cause of premature mortality. According to Dr Greger, author of the hugely popular book How Not To Die, CHD kills more people per year than prostate cancer, Parkinson’s, suicides, breast cancer, liver disease (both cirrhosis and cancer of the liver), high blood pressure, and diabetes – combined!
Though things are a little less dire in the UK, we’ve got nothing to celebrate. The British Heart Foundation identifies ‘heart and circulatory disease’ as a major health concern that together ‘cause a quarter of all deaths in the UK.’ In its many forms, CHD costs 160,000 lives every year – ‘an average of 460 deaths each day or one every three minutes,’ (British Heart Foundation – 2023).
Combating the king of noncommunicable diseases
In studying nonindustrial peoples, anthropologists have collected ‘powerful evidence that coronary heart disease and hypertension [high blood pressure] are largely evolutionary mismatches,’ (Exercised). That is, they are not natural biological processes and thus must be attributed to other factors.
There is an abundance of research that strongly suggests that the culprit is lifestyle. While ‘genetic variations’ help ‘load the gun of chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease’ it is lifestyle that ‘pulls the trigger (Exercised).
And though there’s still heated debate concerning the exact lifestyle factor that contributes to the increased risk of CHD, a growing consensus points an incriminating finger at a high-fat diet and insufficient doses of cardiovascular exercise.
How does cardio exercise help fight heart disease?
The potency of cardio in fighting heart disease is second only to diet. But what are the characteristics of cardio that make it such an effective weapon against the single most deadly disease? Below I’ve outlined two.
If you recall in the introduction to Benefit #2, I said that the heart is a muscle. Consequently, ‘It responds to (endurance) training much the same way as skeletal muscles, such as the biceps, by increasing in size and strength/power,’ (The Complete Guide to Sports Training).
Engaging in aerobic exercise is to the heart what bench pressing is to the pectorals. And like skeletal muscles, if you regularly stimulate your heart it will respond by becoming bigger, stronger, and better. But cardio causes a veritable cascade of enormously beneficial biological adaptations. Some of them include:
An increase in stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped out of the heart with each contraction)
A decrease in resting heart rate
The enlargement of arteries and veins (also known as vasodilation)
Increased density of capillaries (capillarisation)
Cardio can help keep your cardiovascular system free from fat
In conjunction with strengthening the heart and improving the efficiency of the vascular system, cardio burns fat. We’ve already considered this quality of cardio, but it’s worth reflecting on how it helps reduce heart disease risk.
A high-fat diet and sedentarism are associated with atherosclerosis – a process by which fat deposits accumulate and clog up the arteries. Said to be a precursor of CHD, ‘Atherosclerosis is where your arteries become narrowed, making it difficult for blood to flow through them. It increases your risk of heart attack and stroke,’ (NHS – 2023).
Cardio, along with other lifestyle changes, can help reverse atherosclerosis. In the book Exercise Benefits and Prescriptions, the authors outline the many mechanisms by which aerobic exercise reduces heart disease risk. For example, cardio has been shown to
Decrease blood clotting
Lower blood pressure
Reduce blood cholesterol levels
Produce a ‘more favourable ratio of HDL to LDL-cholesterol’
Increase insulin sensitivity
Collectively, the authors conclude, ‘these changes will all contribute towards decreasing an individual’s chances of suffering from CHD,’ (Exercise Benefits and Prescriptions).
Related: Dr Dean Ornish's Programme For Reversing Heart Disease
Benefits of cardio #3: Promotes strong and healthy bones
A concern held by many people is that cardio exercise is bad for your bones and joints. It’s believed that regular running, the most criminalised of cardio exercises, ruins the knees, wears out cartilage, causes stress fractures and hastens the onset of osteoarthritis.
Is there any validity behind these beliefs or are they just vaporous mistruths propagated by ‘runophobes’ and ‘anti-exercisers’?
To debunk the myth that we’re not compatible with cardio and that running wrecks your knees and whittles away your joints, Daniel Liberman takes us on a fascinating tour of the human body. On this tour, he brings our attention to the many biological adaptations that collectively support the argument that we evolved to cover a lot of miles on foot.
Below I’ve briefly summarised the most prominent adaptations.
We evolved to run
Cardio generates copious body heat which would quickly cook us if it wasn’t for our unique ability to keep cool. Most mammals regulate body temperature by panting – using their throats and tongue to evaporate heat. But panting imposes constraints that impede sustained aerobic activity. Humans, by contrast, evolved a ‘magnificent cooling system,’ that ‘effectively turns the body into a giant, wet tongue,’ (Exercised).
Sweating enables us to use the entire surface area of our skin to evaporate heat energy. This evolutionary adaptation allows us to maintain safe core temperature whether we’re running marathons in the Sahara Desert, rowing the Atlantic, or cycling across continents.
The human heart provides more evidence indicating that our ancestors frequently engaged in aerobic exercise. ‘At rest, the heart pumps about four to six litres of blood each minute, but during running it might pump as much as five times more to supply hardworking muscles and cool the body.’
Compared to our closest animal kin, chimpanzees, which have smaller, stiffer hearts, the human heart is ‘voluminous and elastic.’ These features enable us to ‘efficiently squeeze large volumes of blood with each beat,’ (Exercised).
Big bums and slow-twitch muscles
Other adaptations include the shape and size of our glutes, the muscle fibre mix of our legs, and the nuchal ligament at the back of our heads. Taking each one in turn, studies have shown that the enlargement of the gluteus maximus muscle serves to stabiles our gate and power motion. If our bums weren’t as big, we’d be more unstable when standing and we’d tire quicker when running.
The muscle fibre mix of the average person’s legs is comprised mostly of ‘fatigue-resistance’ or ‘slow-twitch’ fibres – up to 70%. Chimpanzees only have around 32%. Because the human muscle fibre mix is slow-twitch dominated, we are more adapted to endurance exercise.
Running for food
The previously mentioned nuchal ligament, the last adaptation we’ll consider, ‘helps keep our heads from jigging about too much’ while running. This is hugely advantageous when considered in the context of how some early hominids hunted.
‘Persistent hunting’ involves running prey, usually antelope, to exhaustion. Anthropological studies of contemporary hunter-gather tribes that still use this method have documented persistent hunts that last for three consecutive days. During this time the hardy hunters would cover multiple marathons.
Of course, to effectively apply this method, persistent hunters must be able to sustain a steady jogging pace for hours at a stretch without overheating or fatiguing – at least not before their prey does. Also, a ‘steady gaze’ is needed to track the animal across undulating terrain.
Back to bones
Having considered a range of unique biological features that strongly suggest our ancestors were perennially mobile, we now need to bust the myth that cardio – namely running – is bad for our bones.
Kenneth Cooper cites studies that completely contradict that myth. Research has shown that ‘bone strength is related to physical activity’ (The Aerobics Program For Total Well-Being). Much like muscles, bone ‘tends to get stronger and thicker the more it’s used and exercised.’
A quirky study demonstrated this point when it revealed that professional tennis players ‘tend to have larger and stronger bones in their ‘playing arm’ than in their other arm.’
After analysing dozens of carefully conducted studies, Liberman concludes that ‘running and other forms of physical activity help promote healthy cartilage and may protect against the disease [osteoarthritis].’ (Exercised).
To sum up, if you want to develop strong bones that can weather the effects of ageing and are resistant to osteoporosis, Cooper and Lieberman prescribe exercise – particularly weight training programs and running.
Related: Best Running Machine for the home gym
Benefits of cardio #4: Improved mental health
Our final benefit of cardio considers how it helps improve mood and mental well-being. But before we venture into the benefit, let’s take a look at what some leading professionals are calling an emerging epidemic.
Globally it’s been estimated that close to a billion people are suffering from some form of mental health disorder.
According to the charity Mind, ‘1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England.’ These problems range from anxiety and mild depression to debilitating psychological breakdown.
The toll this takes on people’s lives is impossible to quantify. Sadly, many people suffer in silence (largely due to the unacceptable stigma still attached to mental health) and some turn to medication as a means of mitigating the misery of mental ill health.
The impacts of mental health in the UK
1 in 4 people experience mental health problems
Every day 1 in 6 people have symptoms associated with mental ill health
Mental illness is the second leading cause of disability in the UK
Mental health disorders are responsible for 72 million lost workdays
The annual economic impact of mental health in the UK ranges from £34 to £99 billion
It’s been estimated that the total cost of mental health, which includes lost productivity and the treatment process, exceeds £105 billion
Upwards of 70% of people suffering from mental health receive no treatment
Mental health disorders are on the increase
Treating mental health
One of the most common methods of treating mental disorders is prescription medication. According to Gov.UK, over 7 million people take antidepressants (about 17% of the adult population). And between 2021 and 2022 the number of prescriptions issued increased by 5% to a whopping 22 million (BBC – 2023).
However, as the statistics appear to indicate, the drugs don’t work, they just temporarily attenuate the symptoms. Worse still, drugs impose harmful side effects that put people at risk of secondary conditions.
Thankfully, there are alternative methods of managing mental health, methods that come with positive side effects. Take exercise as an example. Studies have shown that aerobic activities – such as running, cycling, and swimming – are an effective intervention for treating anxiety, stress, and depression. Exercise also elevates ‘positive mood states in both normal and clinical populations.’
Cardio can improve mood and mental well-being
The effectiveness of exercise in reducing mental health has not gone unnoticed. An increasing number of doctors are prescribing exercise as a treatment method for stress, anxiety and mild forms of depression. Even the NHS mental health self-help guide features exercise as a recommended coping strategy.
If you’re left wondering how exercise alleviates such psychological disorders, the mechanisms are manifold. The author of the informative book Health Psychology, suggests that it could be ‘due in part to the release of endogenous opiates’ – also called enkephalins, endorphins, and cannabinoids.
There’s also the empowerment hypothesis. Implementing an exercise regime confers a sense of personal control. It feels good to take decisive steps toward improving our health. In addition, regular exercise participation promotes self-efficacy.
Furthermore, the many positive health effects of exercise – such as the reduced risk of chronic disease, the improved capacity of the cardiovascular system, and the reformation of body composition – confer a sense of well-being.
Benefits of cardio conclusion
Throughout this extensive article, we’ve assessed a comprehensive range of key benefits associated with cardio exercise. On our travels we’ve seen how cardio can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, currently the leading cause of premature mortality in the West.
In addition to decreasing disease risk, we reviewed the weight-loss-promoting effects of cardio. Of all exercise modalities, cardio is king of the fat burners.
The final two benefits of cardio considered how it strengthens bones while boosting mood and mental well-being.
And to think, if you integrate cardio exercise into your general training routine, you too could bag these benefits! Get started today with these cardio workouts:
Need more fitness training ideas?
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