Why Cardio Is Key: The Top Three Health Benefits You Can't Ignore
Cardio is one of those exercise activities that seems like everyone wants to avoid. It’s true that you don’t necessarily have to kill yourself with endless, mind-numbing cardio for hours each day to be able to get lean and fit, and you should immediately unfollow the influencer that’s telling you that’s what you have to do. In fact, I get some of my best cardio workouts in 20-30 minutes, and if I’m doing a Tabata workout on the Airdyne, I actually spend more time in my warm-ups and active stretches than the workout itself! (In case you don’t know, a Tabata is usually something like 8 rounds of 20-second MAXIMUM effort sprints with 10-second rest periods between each round).
It’s probably because I’m always looking up things on Google that are related to exercise and weight loss that every time I watch YouTube videos, I get an ad with a guy who talks really fast and says you shouldn’t do cardio for fat loss. Is this claim correct?
First couple of things that you need to consider are the types of fat that you’re trying to lose. The guy in the Youtube ad is most likely talking about fat loss for aesthetics, namely because he’s always shirtless and features lean models in the ad. That type of fat is called subcutaneous fat, which is just under the skin and is, generally, not that harmful, but a lot of people don’t like it because it may appear unappealing (examples include flabby arms, back fat, muffin top, etc.).
The type of fat that every person needs to be concerned about is visceral fat. Visceral fat is a type of fat that accumulates around the internal organs in the abdominal area. Excessive amounts of visceral fat can lead to a number of health hazards, including an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver, insulin resistance, and even cognitive decline. One of the most effective ways to battle visceral fat is cardiovascular exercise, and here is how!
Increased Energy Expenditure
Whether you’re talking about visceral or subcutaneous fat, fat is just stored energy. Each day, your body burns a certain amount of calories that is different from person to person, as it is affected by the person’s age, gender, activity level, and it can be affected by factors, such as stress and sleep. When you are consuming more calories than you burn, your body is going to store the excess calories as fat. Whether the excess calories are stored as subcutaneous or visceral fat is usually related to age, gender, genetics, and fitness level (among others). Nevertheless, since fat is namely stored energy, that means the way to reduce fat mass is by using that energy and essentially training your body to become more effective in burning fat for energy.
Just an FYI, I am going to be mentioning “HIIT", which is short for “high-intensity interval training”. This is a type of workout that involves short bursts of intense exercise, followed by short rest periods.
The metabolic rate is basically how fast the body burns calories — the slower the metabolism, the more likely one is to gain weight. The International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism published a study in 2012 suggesting that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) led to an increase in metabolic rate in healthy adults. This means more fat is burned at a higher rate to help the body recover.
Few people are aware that cardio, and not just lifting weights, can build muscle mass. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research published a study in 2014 that looked into high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and researchers determined that this form of cardio actually led to an increase in muscle mass and a decrease in body fat in overweight adults. Since muscle mass is more metabolically demanding than fat, this means more calories can be burned.
Did you know that most fat is burned off AFTER your workout, more than during the workout itself? High-intensity interval training (HIIT) cardio workouts are highly effective in increasing post-exercise energy expenditure, which is the body continuing to burn calories after exercise has ended. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Obesity says HIIT produced a higher post-exercise energy expenditure when compared to steady-state cardio in obese women.
Only in recent years has inflammation been garnering the attention that it deserves. Chronic inflammation is linked to a variety of health conditions, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Partaking in cardiovascular exercise is one of the most effective ways to reduce inflammation, thus reducing the risk of the aforementioned chronic health conditions.
Do you know about cytokines? They’re signaling molecules that can trigger inflammation in the body. A 2012 study in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity suggests that as little as one moderate-intensity workout may lead to a decrease in cytokine production in healthy adults.
Were you aware that body fat can produce cytokines, thus contributing to inflammation? The journal Obesity Reviews published a study in 2014, which said that regular exercise reduced fat tissue inflammation in obese individuals. The key to this is that you have to exercise CONSISTENTLY!
The gut microbiome consists of trillions of tiny bacteria in the digestive tract and it plays an important role in regulating immune function and inflammation in the body. The journal Frontiers in Immunology printed a study in 2019 where researchers found regular exercise led to improvements in the gut microbiome and reduced inflammation in healthy adults. As long as your workouts are moderately challenging and at least three times a week, it can make a giant impact in saving you from inflammation.
Reduced Insulin Resistance
In 2017, the Center for Disease Control came out with a report saying over 100 million Americans (close to one-third of the total population) is diabetic. More concerning is the December 2022 report that predicts type 2 diabetes for people UNDER 20 years old is trending for a 700% increase by 2060!
Insulin resistance is where your cells become less responsive to insulin, which may lead to high blood sugar levels and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. One way to reduce insulin resistance is with cardio.
By increasing the body's glucose uptake, this can improve insulin sensitivity. A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 2012 found that moderate-intensity aerobic exercise increased glucose uptake in overweight and obese individuals. Aim for 20-30 minutes of cardio that has you breaking a good sweat.
When muscle cells are lacking the ability to transport glucose from the bloodstream into the cell, this may be a sign of insulin resistance. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness suggests that HIIT improved muscle glucose transport and insulin sensitivity in overweight and obese individuals. The improved muscle glucose transport can improve performance in weight training, thus increasing muscle mass.
When inflammation is serious enough, this may lead to insulin resistance. The researchers from a 2019 study that was published in the Journal of Diabetes Research found that aerobic exercise reduced inflammation and improved insulin sensitivity in overweight and obese individuals with type 2 diabetes. It is likely that adding a healthy diet to the increased exercise may further reduce inflammation.
The best thing about cardio is that it can come in various forms. You can run on a treadmill at your gym or at home, down the beach, around the block, or in a scenic hiking trail. If running isn’t your thing, there’s also cycling, skating, boxing, or even rowing. Additionally, when you don’t have a lot of time to workout, a high-intensity workout can take as little as 5-15 minutes. Or if you prefer to use your cardio workouts to clear your head, then a long, steady state workout is perfect for you. Whichever form of cardio you select, it can help you reduce the dangerous visceral fat, inflammation, and insulin resistance.