When it comes to cardio, some people believe that more is better. You might notice it in the beginner who sweats it out on the elliptical machine day in and day out or the runner who thinks they need to be pounding out the miles seven days a week. While their efforts may seem admirable, you can have too much of a good thing.
The Right Amount of Cardio for You
There’s no doubt that cardiovascular exercise is good for you. It burns calories, strengthens your heart and lungs, lowers the risk for developing depression, helps to slow down the decline in cognitive health and decreases the risk of many diseases including coronary heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
The amount of cardio you should do over the course of a week depends on a lot of factors including your fitness level, how hard you’re working out, your current health status, the other activities you do in a day and your individual training goals. If you’re training for a half-marathon, for example, your cardio needs are going to be much higher than someone who’s only reason for doing cardio is to lose fat.
For substantial health benefits, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that adults get a minimum of 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.
In other words, if you’re looking to maximize your results in the shortest amount of time, combining low-intensity exercise sessions with a few vigorous workouts (interval training) will get you there. That’s because interval training allows you to accomplish the same amount of exercise in less time.
If you can reduce your 30-minute steady-state cardio workout (i.e., walking or elliptical) to 15 or 20 minutes of interval training (i.e., sprints on the treadmill), you can still reap the same cardiovascular and calorie burning benefits in a shorter amount of time.
The key to higher intensity training, though, is that you shouldn’t do more than two or three sessions a week. For example, you might do three 30- to 45-minute steady-state or low-intensity cardio sessions and two 20-minute high-intensity interval workouts in a week.
Too Much of a Good Thing
With all the heart health and calorie burning benefits that come from participating in regular exercise, it seems hard to imagine that there could be any negative effects of working your aerobic system daily. But unfortunately, too much exercise can have a negative effect on your physical and mental health.
Known as overtraining or overreaching, doing too much exercise can result in decreased performance, chronic sore muscles, increased colds and infections, persistent fatigue, depression, sleep disturbances and much more.
When you’re overtraining with cardiovascular exercise, the negative results also include a loss of muscle mass, which is something you should avoid at all costs.
Rest Days Matter
Though it may seem counterintuitive, one of the best things you can add to your daily routine is the occasional day off. Doing the same amount of cardio every day can inhibit your recovery, causing you to lose muscle over time. But if the thought of taking an entire day off sends your anxiety into overdrive, then you might want to consider an active rest day.
These light days should include low-intensity exercise, such as walking or a gentle swimming workout, done for shorter durations than those included in your normal workouts. The goal is to just simply move your body.
Making Time for Other Activities
Cardiovascular exercise shouldn’t be the only physical activity you do. You need to leave enough time in your overall workout plan for strength training. The CDC recommends adults perform at least two non-consecutive sessions of strength training each week. If you're devoting all your time to cardio, you’re missing out on the health benefits that come with hitting the weights.
So, how do you fit it all in?
You can do cardio and weight training on the same day, but if you go this route, make sure to shorten the amount of cardio you do on weight-training days. Also, mixing in spurts of cardio between weight training sets keeps your heart rate up and can serve as a cardio session. Boot camp-style classes are a great example of how you can combine aerobic and anaerobic exercise into one workout.
If you can’t quite seem to give up the notion of taking a day or two off from cardio each week, then make sure to choose a variety of activities to participate in, while also varying the intensity and duration.