Running. Cycling. Swimming. Rowing. Dancing. Walking. Stair climbing. Exercise circuits. All of these are common forms of cardiorespiratory exercise, what many people simply call cardio, that can be found in most fitness facilities. We know that along with resistance training to develop muscular strength and flexibility training to improve joint motion that cardiorespiratory exercise is one of the key components of a well rounded exercise program.
First, cardio is a bit of a misnomer, technically, if you’re breathing, you’re doing cardio. When muscles work they require oxygen to help produce the energy that fuels contractions; that oxygen is delivered via the cardiorespiratory system (your heart, lungs and blood vessels). Deoxygenated blood is pushed to the lungs. The lungs bring oxygen in from the air and place it in the bloodstream and the heart pumps the oxygenated blood to the working muscles. Whew, there’s enough physiology for today, but that’s what happens inside your body when you move.
Cardio can be ANY activity that elevates your heart rate to pump more oxygenated blood to your working muscles. However the body’s metabolism has to convert fats and carbohydrates, glycerols and glycogen, respectively, in muscle cells, into adenosine triphosphate to fuel muscle activity. Different levels of intensity will use different metabolic pathways – low intensity exercise relies on glycerols and oxygen, intermediate intensity – glycogen and oxygen, high intensity either glycogen without oxygen or ATP stored directly in muscle cells. So technically metabolic conditioning is a more appropriate name than cardio.
That said, there are many well established benefits of metabolic conditioning (met con) such as reducing the risk for developing heart disease, lowering cholesterol, reducing unwanted bodyweight and promoting good health, but are these the only reasons that you should make it a regular part of your exercise program? We know that met con is important and can provide the benefits mentioned above but let’s be frank it can also be arduous work that just isn’t that much fun.
In order to help you find the motivation to add regular metabolic conditioning to your fitness routine I’ve taken the liberty to identify some other, not-so-well known benefits of these workouts.
- If the thought of spending a lot of time by yourself on a cardio machine simply isn’t that excited then you might want to consider taking a movement-based group fitness class. Indoor cycling, Zumba, interval training and dance classes are led by an instructor who coaches you through the workout and are a great way to have fun by exercising with other people. An additional benefit is the opportunity to expand your real-life social network by getting to know other people in the class. (My former wife used to be my cycling instructor, so I’m speaking from experience – even though we didn’t work out, she’s an amazing person and an awesome instructor).
- Networking at the gym isn’t just for social relationships, if you don’t go for any other reason, working out regularly at a health club frequented by your colleagues or at the company’s fitness center might enhance your career opportunities. Going out for a run in the morning won’t lead to the executive suite in the afternoon but there is a reason why many leaders make time in their day for working out, it helps them be more productive. If you want that promotion or job change then hitting the gym for your cardio workouts gives you the chance to get to know other professionals in your field who can keep you informed of any career opportunities that might be available.
- If you’re one of the thousands of people who enjoy downloading and listening to Podcasts then make your workout time the time you listen to your favorite on-demand audio content. Listening to your favorite show while going for a walk or run or on your favorite machine at a health club is a great opportunity to do two things at once. You can listen to this episode of All About Fitness where I interview Dr. Scott Trappe of the Ball State Human Performance lab about the study they published on the lifelong benefits of performing aerobic exercise – they studied exercisers in their 70s and found some amazing things about how exercise slows down the effects of aging.
- Okay, time for some of the health-promoting benefits of met con, but this one is often overlooked and rarely mentioned by most doctors. Regular steady state exercise that focuses on your aerobic metabolism (which can be monitored by exercising at an intensity where you are able to talk) can enhance mitochondrial density in your muscle cells. Mitochondria are cell organs that help convert oxygen to energy; adding more to your cells can improve cellular function and can be an important component of slowing down the normal biological aging process. The take away? Adding a little bit of consistent, steady-state met con to your life can not only help you feel younger but look younger as well. Learn more about STEADY STATE TRAINING HERE
- Met con can help your body be able to deal with stress more effectively. Exercise elevates levels of epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol, hormones that are produced during time of stress because they help produce energy. (These are part of your body’s natural ‘fight or flight’ response and function to provide immediate energy to handle tough situations). If you don’t exercise on a regular basis and have to deal with stress your body will become very jumpy and jittery when faced with a tough situation. Regular exercise can give your body the ability to know how to handle and deal with these hormones when they are released into your system.
Circuit Strength Training can be a VERY EFFECTIVE form of metabolic conditioning
- In addition to giving you the ability to be able to deal with stress more effectively regular met con can help you improve your physical fitness to be able to handle an emergency situation that may require you to be physically active. No, I’m not talking about a zombie apocalypse or alien invasion (although working out would increase your chances of survival); anyone who has lived in a major urban area knows that on occasion there are emergencies like major snow storms, electrical outages, floods or other unforeseen events that can severely disrupt the ability to drive or use mass transit. Don’t you want the comfort and confidence of knowing that you have the ability to walk (or run) home in case something happens to the transit system and the trains aren’t running, or the internet crashes and you can’t get an UBER?
- Strengthen that muscle between your ears! Metabolic conditioning can enhance your cognitive function and reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and for those reasons alone should be a regular part of your life. Met con enhances brain function in two ways: 1) increasing oxygen flow to the brain; and 2) by boosting production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) a protein responsible for promoting growth of new brain cells. Regular physical activity that elevates your heart rate is an important component of staying mentally (and physically) fit during the aging process.
There is no guarantee that doing metabolic conditioning can provide all of these benefits. But I do know one thing for sure, if you are NOT doing it then you are limiting the chances of experiencing these life-enhancing benefits. You don’t need a health club membership, expensive home workout equipment or costly workout apps; simply making the time for long, brisk walks or looking for periods of brief activity like climbing the stairs or walking for short errands are ways to add more activity to your day. However exercising at higher intensities does provide results sooner.
To learn more about metabolic conditioning and how you can do it on your own, pick up a copy of Smarter Workouts: The Science of Exercise Made Simple, there is an entire chapter on met con along with 7 workouts that you can start doing right away!