Almost all of my prescribed programs for beginners involve strength training only, not cardio. That means lifting (relatively) heavy weights.
I am insistent, in fact, that you do not do any form of cardio to start out.
Here’s why: while cardio may be great for heart health, general health, it has horrible return on time.
One study showed that a it took an average of 35 hours of cardio to lose 1 lb of fat. Further support can be found in a meta-analysis, a “study of studies” examining the relationship between cardio and weight loss. The researchers conclude “Our results show that isolated aerobic exercise is not an effective weight loss therapy in these [overweight and obese populations].”
In many people, especially the beginner, cardio will exacerbate hunger (beyond the amount of calories that you burn) and increase the pain of dieting.
But shouldn’t I still be doing cardio for overall health?
Recall that I said that in learning to love fitness and become intrinsically motivated, you will undergo what I call the “rewiring of the brain.” Part of that rewiring is realizing that while some activities seem “healthy” (I don’t think anyone would ever call cardio unhealthy) that does not automatically mean they should be part of your regimen.
More important than whether or not an activity is healthy is how it fits into the big picture. What impact does that activity have on your limited resources of time, money, and willpower? How does the activity affect your overall fitness feedback loop?
Cardio, for example, may take time away from activities like sleep (if you do it in the morning before work) or strength training if you only have 3 hours/week to exercise. It’s not uncommon for cardio to cause a level of hunger that makes you want to consume more calories than you burned. These are all detrimental, and common, examples of cardio negatively impacting fitness motivation.
There is also a very important psychological benefit from shifting your energies towards weight training and away from cardio.
After a weekend of bad eating or indulging in a Thanksgiving meal, pounding on the treadmill’s pavement is often “payment” for your actions; exercise is an acute caloric expenditure.
This creates a certain mentality around exercise – people think of it as paying off a credit card bill.
Strength training, however, gets you to think of exercise in a different light.
Strength training builds muscle, which increases your ability to burn calories both through a higher resting metabolism and the ability to lift heavier weights. Add the fact that you’ll be simultaneously plain ol’ looking better naked, and suddenly exercise serves a very different purpose.
Rather than “paying off a credit card bill,” exercise now becomes slowly paying for a house. You are building an asset, not punishing yourself for an expense.
You can see how this has tremendous psychological benefit. It doesn’t end there.
Most of you will probably have a day where you derail from your diet and eat everything, including the kitchen sink. Old you would have wanted to pay your dues on the treadmill. But from a physiological perspective, strength training does something very different.
If you are training using my prescribed methods, which you can find on this blog, that overconsumption of calories actually helps build additional muscle, thereby further increasing your ability to burn calories.
You might feel stronger and more energized at the gym in the following days. Most importantly, you’ll mentally beat yourself up less for indulging in food.
In other words, strength training dampens the negative impact of screwing up on your diet from a physiological perspective. All of these things contribute to the rewiring of your brain that will get you to love exercise.
The shift from cardio to strength will teach you an important lesson, for cardio is representative of many things in fitness.
What might be healthy in isolation may be unhealthy in the grand scheme of things. Is something like cardio truly healthy in the scheme of your own fitness if it decreases your adherence and prevents an important mental shift around exercise?
Therefore, judging something’s “healthiness” cannot be done in isolation. It is different from person to person. It depends on your physiology, psychology, environment, and lifestyle. The converse is true as well: things normally deemed as “unhealthy” in isolation may be healthier in the large scheme of things. (Alcohol can be one of these things.)
As someone who’s been in the trenches of startup life, I am making the call that cardio is not conducive to your lifestyle… right now. At least not until this important mental shift is made and you can see that you can be successful without cardio. If you truly enjoy running and have copious amounts of time, you can add it back later.
The greater point is that you cannot think in black and white, healthy or unhealthy. That’s the only way to experience enlightenment and the “rewiring of the brain.”
Strength training can be intimidating at first, but there are ways to get started with it. I highly recommend checking out Man vs. Weight’s “Calisthetics training for beginners” guide to get started.
Further Reading: Why Tracking Calories from Exercise Can Sabotage Your Weight Loss