What is Cardio?

In the world of cardiovascular health the Cooper Institute in Texas is the go to organization. Dr. Kenneth Cooper coined the term ‘cardio’ in the 70’s and his research on cardiovascular health and exercise created many of the fitness trends today, most notably, the huge popularity of running.
As the correlation between exercise and health became evident, Dr. Cooper and the Cooper Institute began conducting research on the cardiovascular benefits of exercise. Their findings showed that exercise improved the health of the cardiovascular system. They looked at varying levels of intensity and exercise duration and created the idea of maximum heart rate and target training zones.
Today we use the word cardio to describe exercise intended to benefit the health of our cardiovascular system, in particular our heart and lungs. The Cooper Institute’s findings suggested that low to moderate intensity exercise, about 50-70% of maximum heart rate, improved the health of the cardiovascular system and led to an improvement in health markers such as cholesterol levels, blood lipid levels, and blood pressure.
So today we think about improving our health and often the first thought is to make sure we get in our ‘cardio’. For the majority of us this has come to mean activities such as jogging, treadmill running, stationary cycling, ellipticals, and other exercise machines that allow for moderate long duration exercise. In fact the term has become so pervasive in our culture that most large gyms have ‘cardio’ training areas dedicated to treadmills, stationary cycles, and elliptical machines and we shop fitness stores for ‘cardio’ equipment.
There were a few things that were missed in the research revolution began by the Cooper Institute. As they researched long duration moderate intensity exercise they saw the improvements to the cardiovascular system and rightfully decided that this was a good modality to elicit positive effects. However, they forgot a couple of things.
They never bothered to research the cardiovascular benefits of other methods of exercise on the cardiovascular system. For example high intensity interval training and weight training. While jogging and cycling became vogue these other forms of exercise, by default, fell out of style and eventually became dissociated with cardiovascular health.
They also never looked at the other effects these forms of exercise had on the body. For example the effects on the joints and bones from hours of jogging or the effects on metabolism boosting muscle mass resulting from long duration, moderate intensity exercise. What we know now is that running and jogging are extremely demanding on the body and without the proper conditioning and training, wreaks havoc on many people. We also know that the more long duration, moderate exercise you do, the more your body seeks to minimize muscle mass in an effort to conserve energy. This means you have less muscle and a slower metabolism, not to mention less strength and support.
The times, they are a’changin’!
What is the purpose of your cardiovascular system? It is to provide your muscles and other tissues with oxygen and nutrients to fuel whatever activities they are engaged in. So if your body is moving, your cardio system must work to fuel the activity. Hence, other exercise modalities must also affect the cardiovascular system.
And even the Cooper Institute is coming around.
Just last year the Cooper institute changed their exercise guidelines. They decreased the amount of ‘cardio’ (low to moderate intensity long duration exercise) recommended and began to recommend strength training and high intensity interval training. That’s right – even the famous Cooper Institute is advocating a change in the way we view exercise. And regardless of what you think about their previous recommendations, they have decades of data and research behind them, so when they speak we should take note.
There is no need to train your body separately for strength and cardiovascular health. The two work synergistically. The right exercise program will keep both your muscles and your heart and lungs healthy, after all, that is how they were designed to work.
The time of ‘cardio days’ and ‘strength days’ is dead. Anyone still building programs based on these tired principles needs to get caught up with current knowledge and training practices. And if you hear a so called fitness ‘professional’ talk about your ‘cardio’ day – fire them. Do not pay them money. You can get better advice from the newsstand.

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