The state of fitness in America has an interesting dynamic. On the one hand, a vast majority of people fall short of the minimum recommendations for cardiovascular exercise as set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week). These are the masters of none. On the other hand, we have a smaller but significant population who meet or exceed these standards. A large percentage of this population likely exercise regularly because they have found something that they love. That’s great, but it probably means that, while they are meeting the standards, they are one trick ponies. Meaning they are logging countless hours and miles doing only one kind of cardiovascular exercise. Neither population meets the definition of a balanced cardiovascular program.
My Balance Series demonstrates the 3-legged stools of fitness. Cardiovascular training is built on three variables: intensity (how hard your workout is), duration (how long your workout is) and frequency (how many times per week you workout). What’s missing is the mode – what you do for your workout. The reason why that isn’t part of the formula is because it is irrelevant in terms of reaching that 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week standard. But it isn’t irrelevant when it comes to two important things: adherence and injury . For the Masters of None they haven’t found that mode they really enjoy enough to make a commitment to it, therefore, they aren’t able to achieve exercise adherence for basic fitness. For the One Trick Ponies they’ve found the mode that they love and they’ve achieved adherence. But because they enjoy it so much, they perform only that form of exercise excluding all other modes. That repetitive, unbalanced form of cardio can take it’s toll on bones, joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments particularly as the body ages.
Master of None
Forget the standards. Forget whatever you’ve heard is the best mode of exercise, what burns more fat, the best time of day to exercise, the best length of a workout, the number of days a week you should exercise – forget everything. The standards, I believe, discourage instead of motivate. What is the best mode of exercise? The one that you enjoy. What burns more fat? The exercise that you actually do because you enjoy it. What is the best time of day to exercise, the best length of a workout, and number of times per week? The time of day, duration and number of times per week that you can regularly fit into your schedule. The standard (150 minutes or 75 minutes) isn’t where you begin, it’s the eventual goal. Begin by sampling different modes of exercise. When you find something you enjoy, start off by aiming for 60 minutes a week of it for 2-4 weeks. Perform it at an intensity that gets your heart pumping but not one that gives you discomfort. Then add 30 minutes per week for another 2-4 weeks, and so on. If you get bored with that exercise, begin sampling again. If you find 2 or 3 things that you enjoy, all the better. Cycle through those and you will keep your workouts fresh and you’re more likely to achieve exercise adherence.
One Trick Pony
No matter how fit we are, aging happens. Even if you’ve progressed your workout properly, updated your footwear religiously, taken the proper rest and recovery days, the miles you’ve logged don’t come without a price. If you’ve been doing the same workouts since your teens or 20s, somewhere around your late 30s and early 40s, you’re going to start noticing aches and pains you didn’t have before. These are the first signs of the damage that’s been done through repetitive motion and stress. It may be that you can make some changes to alleviate the symptoms or slow the damage – cut back on weekly mileage, take more recovery days, substitute some runs on the treadmill. But this won’t solve your problem and certainly doesn’t stop the deterioration.
Here’s another thing that happens around the same age. The human body is amazing because of its adaptability. All those years of training has turned your cardiovascular system into a well-oiled machine. It takes more miles and higher intensities to get your heart rate up and, thus, burn as many calories during and after your workouts as you used to. Just when you’re trying to cut back due to the aforementioned pain or life’s demands that also tend to increase around this life stage (hint: kids), you might notice an increase on the scale you’ve never experienced before. The body craves variety. It’s telling you in several different ways that it’s time to change things up.
You don’t need to abandon your beloved workout, consider taking just one day per week to do something different. I came to running in my 30s. I love running. It is my favorite form of cardio. I do cardio four to five times a week, but I run only once a week and I progress my mileage slowly. Why? Because I want to be able to do my weekly runs for the rest of my life. If you have a workout that would devastate you to have to give up, do yourself a favor and put some balance into your cardio routine.
No matter which end of the spectrum you are on when it comes to cardiovascular fitness, you can make small changes to get you closer to balance. In your open mindedness you will discover new activities, people and places on that journey to balance that you could not have anticipated. In a way, putting balance in your cardio may also put more balance in your life. In either case, you are broadening your horizons and inviting in the new. Sometimes the unexpected can bring the greatest reward.
Author’s Note: Always consult your physician before beginning any new exercise program.