What is cardio? Put simply, it is as important to being healthy and looking good as lifting weights is and it does much more than just help you lose a couple of pounds. Here is a definition and ten reasons why you should cherish the idea of doing cardio.
What Is Cardio?
“Cardio” is short for “cardiovascular”, a term used for the circulatory system consisting of the heart and blood vessels in your body. What people usually refer to when using the word are endurance exercises that strengthen this network. These exercises are done for longer stretches of time, making the heart beat faster and pumping more blood through your system, the blood carrying nutrients and oxygen to every cell.
Any activity that gets your heart rate to about 50 – 75% of the maximum can be classified as cardio. To find out your maximum, you can roughly calculate it as 220 minus your age (if you are forty years old, for example, it’s 220 – 40 = 180). It doesn’t matter if you do that with running, biking, dancing, tennis, skateboarding or whatever else you prefer, as long as it gets you in that range.
Now why would we deliberately choose to do this, make our hearts beat faster and get all sweaty and exhausted? There are ten good reasons:
1. Cardio helps you lose weight
Moving your body around burns more calories than just sitting in front of the television. And the faster you move, the more calories you burn. Think about it this way: If you want to lose weight and currently eat 3,000 kcal a day, you can accomplish shedding some pounds by either eating less or burning more calories.
Cardio also burns more calories than weightlifting, which usually consists of moving a weight for around 45 seconds and then taking a break for a minute – most of the time you spend weightlifting actually are those breaks.
2. Your heart is a muscle
Especially weightlifters often don’t seem to realize this, but the heart is a muscle that needs exercise like any other. Otherwise it will get weaker and weaker.
Imagine your heart like a six-cylinder engine: when it’s brand new, all six are ready for you, just waiting to put out that big roar of power. Then, for the next twenty years, you drive that motor with just two of the six cylinders, because you want to save fuel. The other four never move. That is, until you decide that after all that time you want to crank that old baby up again. How do you think those four long-neglected cylinders will react?
3. A stronger circulatory system delivers more nutrients
When you do cardio, your body’s cells need more oxygen and nutrients. To keep up with this demand, it will strengthen the delivery system bringing it to them: the lungs get more capacity, the heart is able to pump more blood and the blood vessels are reinforced.
For your cells, this strengthened system means that they get more nutrients delivered all the time. Where before your cardiovascular network was like a maze of narrow side streets, it is now a bunch of wide lanes where no delivery trucks get stuck in.
4. Cardio’s stress means less stress
The other nice thing about this is that outside the times you actively do cardio, the whole system will actually have to work less: the average person has a heartbeat of around 80 – 90 bpm, a moderately active runner comes in at 60 – 70.
It is similar to a really narrow oil pipe, that has to run under full pressure to deliver 500 gallons / hour. A bigger pipe can deliver the same amount, but stay much below its maximum capacity, causing a lot less wear.
5. Cardio keeps your brain younger
A study done at Boston University examined how fit people’s brains were in relation to the fitness of their hearts. Its findings? People with weaker hearts had less brain volume than those of the same age whose hearts were stronger.
The weaker your heart, the less blood it is able to transport and the less blood is transported, the less oxygen and nutrients may get to your brain – it will age faster.
6. Cardio makes you a better thinker
Our brains benefit from this in another way as well: when we move, they have to process more information at once. You have to keep track of where you are going, what might be moving into your path, what that couple is doing over there on the lawn etc.
When overweight children were made to exercise, their math and thinking skills improved, without any special tutoring. Simply because their brains had learned to process more information.
7. Cardio can ease depression
Many people who suffer from serious depression have to take some heavy drugs to keep them under control, but your body actually provides its own, when you let it: Running releases endorphins, hormones that enhance mood.
This can lower the amount of medications you have to take and therefore also limit the side effects many of these drugs come with.
8. Cardio can improve your sleep
About half of the world’s population suffers from sleep problems, either trying to fall asleep or the sleep’s quality. Here too, an ever-increasing amount of drugs is used to combat it, while just recently it was shown that obese persons taking sleeping pills have a higher risk of death.
Yet once more our bodies are able to help themselves when given the right incentive: regular cardio improves the beneficial stage 3 and 4 slow wave sleep and can make you sleep longer and let you fall asleep more easily. Even people who suffered from chronic insomnia and did just some light cardio in the evening fell asleep 54% faster and slept 37% longer than other groups.
9. Cardio increases bone density
Especially women, when they get older, suffer from an illness called “osteoporosis”, a thinning of the bone tissue and loss of bone density. If you have ever seen an older lady with a stooped over back, chances are you have seen a prime example of osteoporosis.
Together with strength training, cardio can vastly increase your chances of preventing this from happening.
10. Cardio improves your self-confidence
Many people who mainly lead sedentary lives feel that their bodies are more of a vehicle than a part of themselves: unreliable and only grudgingly doing what it is supposed to. Working with your body, influencing how it feels, seeing it accomplish things you willingly set it out to do – these can entirely change your perspective.
Especially taken together with the other effects of cardio – the weight loss, the better sleep, the alleviation of depression – this can make an important difference to your self-confidence (PDF).