The Myth of Cardiovascular Training

In a previous post, I stated there were only two reasons people perform steady-state aerobic exercise.

  1. Endurance training.
  2. Fat loss.

Sport-specific endurance training makes sense. For fat loss, cardio is the least effective strategy. Someone told me that I forgot to include the third reason, which is cardiovascular fitness. My opinion is that steady-state aerobics is absolutely not necessary for cardiovascular fitness. Not smoking and brief high-intensity weight lifting are all you need for a healthy heart.

Photo by KayVee.INC

When I was in college I ran two sub-4 hour marathons and had a resting heart rate in the 50s. Since the late 90s, I haven’t run at all. Not a single block. I go for long and short walks plus I lift weights. I only lift weights 1 or 2 times a week and then for less than 30 minutes. I haven’t broken a sweat exercising in many years. Even though I am older and exercise far less than I used to, I am in the best shape of my life and my resting heart rate is still in the 50s.

How is this possible? People tend to make the mistake of treating the human body like a machine. Whereas a machine will have an optimal operating environment, for survival purposes a human being must be able to perform across a wide range of energy demands. Nature is not static, nor is it linear. In nature, the duration and intensity of movement are highly varied with a bias toward energy conservation. Steady-state aerobics violates these principles.

A healthy human heart has a varied beat. Back when I was a runner I bought a heart rate monitor. I was young and dumb. Although the heart rate monitor was a useless training tool, I did learn something by wearing it. When running for distance, your heart rate will fall into a narrow zone. The variations disappear. This is not healthy.

Art De Vany in his podcast interview with Russ Roberts explained how a varied heartbeat is essential for cardiovascular health.

Human heartbeat somewhat chaotic–a lot of different controllers acting on it simultaneously; it’s a lot of feedback loops and controllers affecting it. Fractal heartbeat is a sign of an adaptive, complex dynamics within the heart; makes it resistant to shock and to stress. If you jog excessively, you train the chaos out of your heartbeat–it becomes a metronome. The two forms of death from heart failure are, one, too little chaos in the heart, and two, too much randomness–not chaos but white noise.

A common mistake is believing that resistance training does not provide cardiovascular benefits. Weight training strengthens the heart. This is why it is recommended for patients for rehabilitation after a cardiac event. From Importance of resistance training for patients after a cardiac event:

Cardiovascular benefits have also been observed from resistance training, such as improvements in peak oxygen uptake, stroke volume, and cardiac output (12). An additional benefit for cardiac rehabilitation patients is the efficacy of resistance training in improving cardiovascular disease risk factors such as hypertension, dyslipidemia, and insulin sensitivity.

The belief that one could isolate and train just the aerobic pathway originated in the mid-1960s by Dr. Kenneth Cooper. Even though science has since proven that this is impossible, gyms and trainers keep the myth alive that you need to do more cardio. It is not necessary and potentially harmful.

Want a healthy heart? Get off the treadmill. Focus on brief periods of intensity and not duration. Embrace variety in movement and energy demand and reject fixed movement steady-state exercises.

UPDATE 2018: Understanding My Bias Against Cardio

UPDATE 2019: 👨‍⚖️Rendering a Verdict on Cardio


Add yours

  1. More info: Don Matesz posted Study: Strength Training Lowers Blood Pressure Equal to Medication or Aerobics which states:

    A study published in the Oct 2010 issue of the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research by Collier et al [1] reports that resistance training (3 sets, 10 reps; upper and lower body at 65% 1 repetition maximum) produces greater increases in limb blood flow and a greater reduction of blood pressure at (40 minutes postexercise) when compared to aerobic exercise.

  2. I came upon your blog when I was researching intermittent fasting. For years I have always ate only one meal a day, and now I can see why that is beneficial.

    How do you practice your intermittent fasting? How many hours go by in between meals, are you a 24 hr. faster or even more? I find this fascinating. Would you be willing to post an average week or day of what you eat and how you go about this?

  3. @Shelia – I change my fasting strategy with the season. Currently testing a daily 16 hr fast. At the end of winter, I will post my results.

  4. First of all, thank you so much for your blog. I’ve spent the last two days reading a lot of the postings you’ve made over the last several years, and I feel I’ve learned a lot.

    Regarding cardiovascular training, let me just say that I get a great feeling of satisfaction, when I can ride my bicycle faster than I did last time, even for 20-minute intervals (longer than I like).

    I prefer to do 1-minute or 30-second all-out sprints, then rest for a minute, twenty times, but sometimes my trainer wants us to do 10 or 20 minute pieces. I feel good after both usually, especially when I beat a prior best, or beat my buddy that is neck and neck with me. I want to do a 100-mile bicycle ride this summer.

    The reason I am mentioning all this, is because my top two goals regarding fitness & health are: 1) Feel good 2) Stay healthy and be able to live and do all the things I love doing as long as possible.

    Those are vastly different goals than I had in my 20’s, when they were simply: 1) look good 2) get buff (I’m an ectomorph, so that was a constant battle).

    I value what you are saying, that interval training (short intense bursts) is good, and steady-state aerobic is bad, possibly especially for me (ectomorph). But, I just can’t help the fact that I enjoy long rides sometimes, especially when I’m pushing my envelope. Admit it: You probably felt pretty bad-ass about yourself, back in the day, when you ran a sub-4 hour marathon, or beat a personal best.

    Anyway, my point is, if I have one, that I also value the psychological enjoyment of certain endurance activities, even if interval training might be superior for my health.

    Two more unrelated thoughts, relating to other blog posts of yours:

    1) Cash does not protect you from inflation, which is also a possibility besides deflation. Why not protect yourself from possible inflation, as well as possible deflation (i.e. go long commodities (not gold or real estate), save pre-1965 silver coins, save current U.S. nickels, buy everything you will need for the future right now, acquire skills and friends, pay off debt, own your home free & clear with land for a garden (or have a non-recourse mortgage at the very least).

    2) It is obvious you already do this, but since I have found the concept to be so valuable, I wanted to specifically mention this concept: when you have an idea that sounds good, first look for DISconfirmation of your idea, before looking for confirmation. For instance, obesity may not lead to increased diabetes and mortality risk, even though that’s what the mainstream thinks, because they aren’t looking for disconfirmatory evidence of the hypothesis that obesity leads to increased mortality risk.

    Bottom line… awesome blog! It got me really thinking, which I don’t do enough. 🙂

  5. @Chris – I totally get the ectomorph angle. We have long limbs and typically excel at sports such as running, biking and skiing. We also tend to do poorly doing compound movements in the free weight room. I’ll probably never bench 300, but that puffed out bouncer will never run a decent marathon. We do what we excel at.

    I do think endurance training is the ONLY good reason for steady state training. If that is your sport – I say go for it. I did a 50 mile bike ride and had a blast.

    Funny you should mention commodities, I just started reading “A Trader’s First Book on Commodities”. I’m also busy challenging my deflation thesis and will post when I have thought about it more.

  6. @Chris – Thank you for the nice comments.

  7. Marcos Taquechel

    Apr 15, 2011 — 1:39 pm

    The “cardiovascular concept” became so popular and so ingrained in people’s psyche that no one questions it’s purpose or validity. By performing it one feel good, so it must be good. Since the purpose of our muscular structure is to move our body and move objects against gravity bearing weigh; seems will demand a heavier cardiovascular workout than any other activity. I use to run at the gym for 40 min. Now I ran for only 10 and lift heavy weights for impact and with some variations. My workout takes only a little over an hour and I feel better than ever, more power, more stamina, sleep better.

    Your idea of HR chaos is very interesting; we certainly don’t have millions of years of sustaining HR for very long periods of time, but the variation of HR is evident in our activities.

    Going back to the weigh barring, it seems the body really likes that. I think it produces the most dramatic effects in the heart and glandular system. Our bodies were made to work. A few hundred years ago we did nothing but heavy work, after the industrial revolution most people live in a body slumber and don’t know.

  8. @Marcos – Thanks for the comment. My workouts are now down to 10 minutes every 5th day. They are brutally intense though. I’m much leaner and more energetic now than when I was marathon runner.

  9. About your lower heart rate….as you age your resting heart rate decreases. So it’s not accurate to compare it to when you were younger.

  10. have you seen michael mosley on the truth about exercise? the researchers on the show found that 3×20 sec sprints done 3 times per week was enough to increase vo2 max and improve insulin sensitivity

  11. @Joel – I am a fan of sprinting. I consider it more of a strength movement.

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