Content warning: disordered eating behaviors.
Dear Swole Woman,
What is the problem with cardio? Yes, I know, lifting heavy is the ultimate workout. But I see a lot of girls that squat really heavy, and they look like they need some cardio; I never see them sweat. They have this powerlifter look (nothing wrong with powerlifters, it’s just not the body type I’m aiming for). And they never do cardio. It’s like they are scared of losing their butt?
Why are people so afraid of cardio? By the way, I incorporated running in my weight lifting program (yes, it will not kill your gains) and I finally started seeing my abs, something that strength training alone couldn’t do. So, I guess my question would be, what is with all this cardiophobia? Thank you, I always read u. -Veronica B.
The other day I was scrolling through a curb-thrifting Instagram account when I saw the most beautiful and hopeful of sights: a Peloton bike that looked, for all intents and purposes, like it had been put in the trash.
To you, it might seem possible this person gave up. But to me, it’s possible this person is now free. But let me explain why I think this way.
As someone who lifts weights, I love, love, love to hate on cardio (which can take many forms, including running, cycling, spinning, walking, really any activity that is low enough in intensity to be more about burning calories than building muscle. This also essentially includes Pilates, yoga, and any “strength training” that uses little 2-pound weights and more than 15 or so reps). Even though I do cardio on occasion, I love to disdain it, vilify it, resent it. I love to warn other people away from its pitfalls, its overpromises and underdeliveries.
I would never tell someone point blank to never do cardio, but I do question most people’s default to cardio as the beginning and end of exercise.
My “hate” for cardio is partly superficial and might best be understood as more like a sports team rivalry; many lifters and runners mutually poke fun at what each other’s sports of choice represent more so than any literal factual realities about them. Big dumb macho aggro meatheads lift weights; elitist ivory tower silver spoon intellectuals do cardio. I lift weights, and have lots of friends who do cardio who tell me they love this column and read it all the time, but still would never in a million years touch a barbell. We love, appreciate, and respect each other, even if we don’t fully understand or even endorse each other’s choices. That is in part because everyone is on their own journey, and even in the most perfect world, there is not a one-size-fits-all-for-all-time exercise solution.
But at the time cardio came into my life, it was particularly bad for someone like me, who had long ago lost the thread of “having a functional relationship with my body.” I was already down the path of counting calories and hating my body and trying to “lose weight,” and the “x calories burned per minute/per hour” of cardio just gave me even more reassuring, devastatingly precise math with which to hate myself. Walking burned x amount of calories per hour; biking burned 2x calories; running burned 3x calories; the elliptical would tell me it burned as many calories as it thought it could get away with, whatever would keep me paying my gym membership, just short of sounding unreasonable. I had long heard that lifting weights didn’t translate as precisely into a neat “calories burned per x amount of time” figure, which meant I rejected it out of hand as being worth my time. Why would I bother with exercise whose purpose was not to burn calories, and thus make me thinner? Why not do the exercise that seemed most optimal for burning calories (running)?
Of course, I wasn’t then entirely educated on what exercise does, in a holistic sense. I just wanted to “lose weight,” and thought losing weight was the answer to any and all aesthetic and health issues. If you’re not thin, you get thin, and if you get thin, you stay thin, and you do all that by doing cardio.
It turns out that this is not how health, or even aesthetics, works. I learned the extremely hard way that I could lose lots of muscle by eating too little by putting all of my eggs in the cardio basket, meaning not only that the “toned” physique I hoped was somewhere at the bottom of my weight range would never emerge, but that in the time it took to learn that, I would do actual damage to myself with the cardio-based understanding I had of what exercise was meant to do. I would suffer brownouts when I stood up, feel cold all the time, think about food constantly, feel pathetically weak any time I tried to do anything that required a little strength like throw a ball or move a piece of furniture, and lots of other delightful side effects.
My baseline mental health obviously played a big role here. But these were also the effects of structuring the way I ate and exercised (even in a clearly survivable way, because I’m still here), around calories in and out, and the less the better. When you diet for too long, you get into this craven state where your metabolism is so depleted by your lack of muscle and depressed endocrine system that it works to put weight on you, which leads someone who lives by caloric math to lean even harder into cutting down their calories and ratcheting up their cardio. If you can’t manage that, you regain the weight as body fat, probably get stressed out about it, and begin the process all over again, chipping away at your muscle and your overall health for another round.
I had my own problems, but the cultural enthusiasm for cardio fed them like lighter fluid. Food was the sparsely awarded prize, and exercise was penance and punishment. When I learned to lift weights and actually progress from the 5-pound dumbbells to the 15s and then 25s and then to barbells and plates, I learned lots of things that turned out to be the opposite of what cardio had taught me: My body could do things other than “not be fat;” I could actually eat way more food than I’d been eating if I fixed my metabolism problems in part by building a little muscle; exercise can actually make me feel better and more capable and occasionally like I have wings, and not just sore and burned out; that gaining weight can fucking rule.
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I don’t hate cardio itself so much as I think it has been vastly overrated, for a really, really long time. Following the advent of jogging in the 70s, cardio became the everyman’s exercise, the type of activity you did if you nominally wanted to be healthy, but maintain a sufficient façade that you don’t care that much about how you look. Lifting weights was for people who wanted to be literal bodybuilders; cardio was the thinking man’s workout, because it produced endorphin-fueled epiphanies and, in our idealization of it, a long, lean, damn near aristocratic appearance (here it must be mentioned that these are also profoundly white, Western European body ideals of recent mint). These are all unfair and untrue things, but they persist.
Here is the thing: I know that cardio is good. All exercise is not made equal, and just as lifting weights has its unique benefits, so does cardio. The price of entry for cardio is low, much lower than other sports. You put some cardio-friendly shoes on and go outside. You don’t really need a particular location or much equipment. You can be practically asleep and get some cardio in. Cardio is particularly good for heart health, and running even makes your heart squeeze a particular way that swimming doesn’t. An ideal exercise “diet,” so to speak, would involve a variety of different ways of moving.
But here is the other thing: Very, very few of us learned to properly lift weights or even do decent calisthenics like pushups or squats when we were in gym class (I have heard the kids do more of this now, which rules). But we were surely made to run various distances. Our collective cultural love of cardio is practically nepotism; we do it because it’s what we know, and it’s what we know because we do it. It doesn’t matter that it actually doesn’t help that much with a lot of the things that most of us want out of exercise, like to maintain our muscles and physical capability, to have decent posture and mobility, or to have a positive relationship with food.
You mention that cardio allowed you to see your abs, and technically, that’s all legal and fair game. (To be clear, this is an aesthetic goal, not a health one; visible abs are not an indicator of health.) Cardio does help burn calories in a pretty straightforward way! And if you’re not overdoing it along with a grueling diet, it does of course make you overall healthier; as part of a balanced exercise regimen and diet, it doesn’t necessarily mean you lose muscle.
I think in an ideal world, we’d be able to come by aesthetic goals honestly and free of trauma/baggage/self-hatred/unfair external pressures. But the reasons most people want to look a certain way is not for whatever those pure motives might be (fun? Experimentation? boredom?), and is instead about a lot of bad, inadequate, self-hating and self-defeating feelings. This might seem like painting with a broad brush, because so many tiny, abbed-up fitness influencers seem so happy. But I’m here to say, either they are the super genetic elite where that is somehow actually fine for them, or they are really gritting through and faking it.
I’ve been writing about lifting weights for nearly five years now, and this whole time I’ve been watching people circle restrictive diets in the form of paleo and then keto and then “gluten-free” and “clean eating,” and “calorie burning” activities like Pilates and then barre and then the Bikini Body Guide and then SoulCycle and then Peloton. I’m not sure we have yet fully absorbed the limits of cardio, let alone the downsides of making it the almost exclusive focus of what exercise is. Cardio has gotten too much airtime for too long.
I see more publications and people talking about lifting weights than ever before, which is great and I’m thrilled that lifting is finally starting to get its due as part of the whole exercise picture for everyone, rather than an extreme sport for people who emerged from the womb jacked and tan. But as long as cardio dominates the exercise scene, living and breathing by its parasitic attachment to the cult of “burning calories” and “losing weight,” I’m going to smack at it with both hands until it learns its place and leaves so many of the people I know and love who are trapped in its clutches alone.
Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.