Thursday, January 9, 2014

What if "CARDIO" doesn't exist?

Greetings, fellow humans!


I'm now ready to put "cardio" in the same bin with "heart healthy whole grains" "artery clogging saturated fat" and "a good supportive shoe".

Don't get me wrong, fellow humans... I love to move!

(August 2014 update... I am now available as a personal trainer at Synchronicity Wellness Hooray!)

Vigorous physical movement is vital to my physical and mental health. Hiking, biking, trail running, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu... Numerous things that I have LOVED throughout the years could easily be considered "cardio" by most people.

If you love exercise bikes, treadmills, ellipticals, etc... Have fun! I'm not suggesting anyone stop doing any of that stuff. However, I now have pretty good reason to believe the term "cardiovascular fitness" is a cultural misunderstanding of biology.

Please allow me to give a "plain English" explanation:


About 10 or more years ago, my wife and I were a walking stereotype of Boulder, CO:

  • We were young(ish), slightly tan, and relatively fit.
  • She was a full time yoga teacher, and I was a full time massage therapist.
  • We had the typical medium-sized athletic dog that we would take for hikes on the steep trails near town a few times a week. 
  • We rode our cruiser bikes downtown to have sushi with our insanely beautiful friends. 

Essentially, you could have pulled us off a "GREETINGS FROM BOULDER!" postcard.


One day, we ran into my friend "Bob" (not his real name) who we hadn't seen in a few years. He invited us to join him and a group to hike three "14ers" in one day. (To those who don't live in the Rockies, this means we would be hiking up and down three 14,000+ foot tall mountains in one day.) This is the kind of thing Boulderites do for fun, I swear!

A few days later, we meet up early in the morning at Bob's place. That's when my wife and I realized we had accidentally found ourselves surrounded by another Boulder stereotype: the Uber-Athletes! You know,  The folks who train with heart rate monitors, have clothing and footwear sponsors, test out fancy new fabrics and gadgets for companies, model for fitness photo shoots... Yeah, like that. During the early-morning-coffee-in-the-kitchen conversation, we discovered a key factor we hadn't considered... Bob is now a competitive marathon runner. Actually, to our surprise, so is everyone else going on this hike except for the two of us!
But wait, it get's better...
"We've got a race coming up," one of these uber-athletes casually mentions, "and we'd kinda like to use today as a training day. So.... hopefully, you two don't mind if we keep a pretty good pace?" She says with  smile.

My sweet wife and I looked at each other with thinly veiled dread and agreed that we'd try to keep up with these kind and friendly folks... And then we got to the trail:

These "cardio kings" (and queens) couldn't keep up with us! "Oh, that's right," We thought, "These people are pros! They're pacing themselves. We know nothing about pacing. We better slow down, or they're going to just blow past us at some point."

So, we slowed down to the pace of the pros... And our dog started going nuts. He wanted to go normal pace... He wanted to GO!
"OK then", we figured, "We'll go our normal speed, and they'll pass us when they pass us."
They never passed us.

We sat at the top of the first 14 thousand-and-some-odd-hundred-foot-tall mountain and ate our lunch, then packed away lunch, waiting for these super-fit freaks (actually, very nice people) to catch up.
Finally they did catch up... IN PAIN.
Not only were they as confused as we were, but they appeared to be hurting themselves trying to catch us! The rest of the day went just like this. These folks could NOT keep up with us! 

For about a decade, my wife and I racked our brains and could not figure this out! I'm guessing the marathoners are still baffled by that "mystery hike" day.

Then I read the book "Body By Science" by Doug McGuff, MD and John Little...

This book changed my perception of exercise immensely. Among other things, it explains where the myth of "Cardiovascular Fitness" came from! Apparently, it was invented by a doctor who worked for the US Air Force. It went kinda like this... Allow me to grossly oversimplify:

We are all familiar with the "Cardiac Stress Test", right? You know, a person is running on a treadmill while hooked up to wires that measure heart rate, breathing into a snorkel to measure their breathing.
Our good doctor would have a soldier doing such a thing.

  • Day 1: Heart rate and breathing go WAY up.
  • Train the same soldier on the same treadmill for an hour a day
  • Day 30: Same soldier, same speed, same treadmill: Heart rate and breathing are now much slower.


"Cardiovascular Fitness" is born! We all now accept that the heart and lungs are now more efficient at transporting oxygen to the body.
Hence, we dutifully "break a sweat" every day, getting our heart rate up for at least 30-45 minutes... Right? With me so far? OK.

So, what most of us DON'T realize is that this good doctor took his research a bit farther. He'd take the person who (after "cardio conditioning") did very well on the treadmill, and put them on a stationary bike. Guess what?- The heart rate and breathing went through the roof! He could put this supposedly "fit" individual on a stair-stepper/ elliptical machine/ nordic track... Heck even if he let this test subject run outside and his heart rate would go up!

Wait a minute... If the heart and lungs are more efficient, why are they only good at the treadmill?

It took years (and more sophisticated technology) to figure it out. However, we now know that the majority of change that happened from running on a treadmill was NOT in the heart and lungs. It was in the muscles!

By running at a specific speed, on this specific machine, he trained specific fibers of specific muscles to efficiently perform the very specific task of running on a treadmill... Thus reducing the amount of work his heart and lungs had to do... While performing that specific task.

So... Going back to the "mystery hike": By hiking on the steep, rocky trails around town a few times per week, my wife and I had unintentionally, and unknowingly conditioned our muscles to efficiently walk up and down steep rocky trails... Thus creating the illusion of superior "cardiovascular fitness" while performing that specific task! AND... I have very little doubt: If she and I had joined that group of runners on a run that day (instead of a hike) we would have had the worst day EVER... And they would have appeared to have amazingly superior "cardiovascular fitness"! While indeed we just had different types of "myovascular fitness"!

This starts to go into the explanation of the physiological advantages of strength training, HIT, crossfit, and cross-training, but we'll talk about that another day.
If you'd like to spend an hour learning a LOT about HIT, watch this talk by Dr. McGuff.


OK... Now go outside and play!

Much love, Mo the human.

3 comments:

  1. Good stuff Mo! Now I get what you meant today. Your body adapts to the specific repetitive exercise to use less heart and lung capacity, thus general cardio fitness is a myth.

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  2. I would rather be active outside instead of acting like a robot in a gym. In the Summer we are constantly doing "chores" outside whether it is gardening, playing at the park, or hiking up the mountain. Your story makes me feel better about not going to the gym like everyone else does and it makes total sense.

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