Ready to hear the fitness hill I will die on? You do NOT need to run to be healthy or fit. In fact, I wouldn’t even recommend running lots for optimal health or wellness.
Running was one of the first mainstream forms of fitness and has been popular for 50+ years, so it comes as no surprise that when we think of exercise, we think of running. But somewhere along the way, we as a public got it into our heads that running was not only necessary for health, but one of the best overall things you could be doing for your body.
The truth is steady-state cardio (cardio that you do at a consistent pace for at least 20 minutes), does have a great number of benefits. It’s just not necessarily the best form of exercise for most people.
I have an entire podcast about why I think strength training is SO much more impactful for most people’s goals, whether those are physique changes (or getting “toned”), improved energy, overall strength, longevity, or generally feeling functional.
But I thought today — just to give a balanced perspective — I’d share with you 6 really good reasons for doing cardio.
Reason 1: Cardio Is Fun
At least it can be. I personally hate running. That said, I have always loved spinning. I can get on my spin bike and JAM OUT. It’s probably the most fun workout in my repertoire. If you play a sport that involves a lot of running like tennis or soccer or basketball, but hate just running for distance, you probably feel the same way.
Rather than utilizing cardio to reach physique or weight goals, add in cardio that you love just for the pleasure of it. From a results perspective, I would be willing to be you’ll gain more cardiac fitness long-term from an activity you love than one you hate.
Reason 2: Cardio gets us outside
Yes, you can unroll your yoga mat on your porch and do a flow, or drag your weights into your driveway, but it’s a lot easier to go for a walk, run or bike ride outside. You get that nice boost of vitamin D from the sunshine, and it can help manage your circadian rhythm.
Reason 3: It’s good for mental health
A daily walk, run, or ride, (or any other outdoor exercise activity) is a great way to disconnect from our screen-driven world. You can breathe in the outdoors and just unplug for however long your workout is. This can be a great boost to your mental health compared to doing the same things on a treadmill or stationary bike at the gym. Because 99% of the time, what’s attached to those? Screens. You can often see people watching the news walking through the row of cardio machines at the gym, and frankly, that doesn’t sound de-stressing to me.
Reason 4: It’s family friendly
I’ve definitely had my kids around me while I lift weights in my home gym, but you do have to be more diligent with them around. If you love working out because it’s your “me time” maybe that hyper-vigilante “don’t let the kids get hurt in the gym” workout is not the type of experience you want to have. What can be a lot easier is putting them in a stroller or a bike seat and going out for a walk, run or ride with them. They’ll get a lot of those same outdoor benefits, and you don’t have to figure out a childcare solution just to get your workout in.
Reason 5: Cardio allows you to turn your brain off.
There are days when even counting sets and reps is mentally taxing. Likewise, remembering which exercise comes next (please, write it down and make it easier on yourself) can require more brain energy than you may want to spend on a particular day. With steady-state cardio, you don’t have that. You probably have a loop or route that you know you want to take, and you can just go. Your mind can wander, and — dare I say it — in some cases the cardio can almost be a little meditative.
Reason 6: Cardio helps build specific skills
If you want to be able to walk and climb hills without getting so winded, or run around with your kids playing tag, or bike around your town without being drenched in sweat, how should you train that? By walking and climbing hills, running, or biking. Yes, fitness is transferable to some extent, but our bodies tend to get best at the specific skills we’re practicing. Just like doing squats is going to make you better at squats, the same applies to endurance cardio. So if your goals are less oriented toward general wellness or physique and more targeted toward specific activities, those are the activities you should practice.
So how do I start?
The simplest answer is you just start. Just like with weightlifting, you want to challenge yourself when you work out, without feeling like you want to die. Over time you increase the weights and get stronger; this is called progressive overload. Now, with weights that can mean more weight, more sets or more reps. With cardio, that means more distance, the same distance at a faster pace, or upping the challenge by taking on something like more hills. Just like with weight training, if something hurts or feels off, don’t push through the pain.
Keep in mind: Nowhere in this list of reasons to do cardio did I mention innate suffering as a benefit. If it hurts, back off, figure out why something is hurting and either address that issue, or move to something that feels good and nurturing for your body.