Performance Specialist Jeff Richter, CSCS, USAW talks cardio and optimizing your time for better results.
There are many people who wouldn’t label themselves “fitness fanatics” and are just looking for the most efficient way to exercise that provides the best results in the least amount of time. So when it comes to the amount of cardio that is required to maintain a healthy lifestyle, we need to first understand what cardio even means in the first place. There seems to be a universal idea that “cardio” is a compartment of fitness that includes distance running, jogging, biking, swimming or other related forms of aerobic exercise. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I would instead encourage everyone to look at cardio as anything that disrupts your internal balance, or homeostasis, due to your heart beating faster to provide more blood to the muscles being worked. Your body knows that when it receives any form of stress, the heart has to work harder so we can both return to homeostasis and make an adaptation to the challenges presented. Cardio is therefore a result of exercise, not a category in-and-of itself.
If you are looking for the most time-efficient form of cardio that will maximize the return on your “effort investment” to keep you healthy, you are in luck because it is possible to accomplish more in less time when it comes to your fitness; however, this style of training will challenge you. If you are looking for the least amount of exertion required to stay healthy I would encourage you to ask yourself this question, “What other areas in my life do I expect to give minimal effort to receive maximal results?”. I’ve never heard anyone say “How many donuts can I eat and still have a six-pack?” or “How can I give the least amount of effort at work and still get a raise?” It doesn’t work this way in life. There is no easy way out. The “easy way” out in fitness ironically requires more training time – running, jogging and walking for a long time could certainly be an intro level form of exercise for some people, but in general, those styles of training require more time for a minimal return on investment and are not as intense (measured by heart rate) as other forms of exercise.
For example, a three month study by Utter in 1998 showed that the addition of 45 minutes of aerobic exercise at 78% of max heart rate five days a week for 12 weeks had no effect over dieting alone. There are countless other studies that prove that long distance aerobic training done at low levels of exertion have minimal effect on your body composition and overall health. On the contrary, adding in high intensity bouts of exercise through sprinting, interval sprints and metabolic weight training have the greatest effect on your body composition through fat-loss and muscle preservation and strengthening. By grinding through tough bouts of exercise you optimize your effort investment and get done with your workouts in the shortest amount of time.
Practically, performing interval sprints with a 1:2 work to rest ratio could be a great place to start – sprint for 30 seconds and then recover by walking for 1 minute before repeating the 30 second sprint. Repeat that process 10 times and you have yourself a difficult workout that finishes in 15 minutes. In addition, I highly recommend Tabata training for exercises such as squats, pushups and lunges or sprint bouts. The Tabata Protocol entails the following: 8 intervals of 20 seconds all-out intensity exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest. This can be done with just your bodyweight and then progressed into adding resistance from weights.
Here’s a challenge: Perform squats for 20 seconds, rest 10 seconds and repeat 8 times and tell me if you feel “cardio.” I guarantee you will! In fact, you will feel more cardio than traditional cardio training! So, will you push yourself hard for a short amount of time to achieve maximum results?