Mini Pause #14: Common Cardio Mistakes & How to Fix Them

What You’re Getting Wrong About Cardio and How to Make Simple Changes for Big Results

TL,DR (too long, didn’t read)

Cardio is a good thing. But you don’t need it to lose weight. And doing too much of it and to the exclusion of other forms of beneficial fitness just doesn’t serve you. Choose the type, intensity, and duration of your cardio wisely and based on your goals. Timing matters, too. If you’re strength training (and I know you are), you’ll want to save cardio until after your lifting. Cardiopulmonary health is especially important in perimenopause and menopause, so you’ll want to do cardio smarter, not harder, and definitely not longer.

WHY

I am a fan of cardio work, but not for the reasons you might think. One of the biggest misnomers for integrating cardio into routines is that it’s required for fat loss. Spoiler–it isn’t!

Cardio is important for cardiovascular health (this is especially true as we age and lose estrogen). Just as importantly, cardio facilitates work capacity for your resistance training workouts and for your recovery because of a better ability to deliver nutrients to repairing muscles.

When your cardiorespiratory fitness is good, you will be able to work hard during leg day and recover in between sets.

The other thing to note is that individuals who engage in some type of regular cardio are also generally setting up good habits so that when they lose weight (through diet and weight lifting) they are more likely to keep it off. You are more active, so your caloric balance has a better chance of staying balanced.

As important as cardio is in a balanced exercise regimen, I want to explore some common mistakes with cardio, with the assumption that you are looking to build muscle and lose fat.

WHAT

Mistake 1: Cardio As Effective As Diet

In a word, no. Cardio is not at all required for fat loss. Not even one bit! The biggest determinant of whether you will lose weight is your balance of calories in versus your calories out. If you are in even a mild caloric deficit, you will lose weight. This can be achieved without cardio entirely.

If you’ve ever looked at calories burned on your typical cardio equipment (even when they are likely overestimating it), it’s pretty discouraging. I clock in somewhere between 400-600 calories when I’m on the bike for an hour. An hour!!

By contrast, I can easily pack away 700 or 800 calories of food in a few minutes.

When we’re thinking about caloric deficits, it’s way easier to eat your calories than it is to burn them! It’s unfair, cruel, and unfortunately true. So a better strategy is to think about the calories you’re eating (and often the hidden calories from dressings, the bit here and there, and the mindless snacking) that is leading to a caloric surplus.

Now, don’t get me wrong, if muscle building is your goal, a caloric surplus is a great idea, as long as you’re putting the energy to work by lifting weights.

Relying on cardio for fat loss is a losing scenario, because it’s far easier to eat your calories than it is to burn them.

The other thing to remember is that if you’re overdoing it on the cardio, your body is a wily minx and will compensate by driving up hunger cues and metabolically adapting by decreasing your overall caloric expenditure. That means you will likely start moving less, your digestion will slow down, and even the calories you burn during subsequent cardio sessions will decrease.

The more you rely on cardio as a fat-loss tool, the more the returns diminish as you burn fewer calories overall and reduce non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT).

Cardio should supplement your fat loss goals, not be the main event.

Mistake 2: The Timing Of Your Cardio

If fat loss and muscle gain are the goals, you also want to think about when you engage in cardio relative to when you lift weights.

There’s a well-established interference [*][*][*] between developing the aerobic endurance pathway and the muscle hypertrophy pathway.

This means, your muscle goals may be impaired if you do your cardio before your training. Some studies suggest that strength is compromised for 6 to 8 [*] hours after an intense cardio session.

This is especially true for high-intensity interval training (HIIT) [*]. HIIT may be less of a time commitment and it can be more fun than a Zone 2 workout, but putting your HIIT workout ahead of your weight session is likely going to catabolize your performance because you’re already going to be pretty gassed.

And HIIT and weight training have a lot of physical features in common anyway: the explosive power and recruitment of type 2 fibers. By combining these two, the activity that comes second likely will suffer.

Also keep in mind that the recovery demand for a HIIT session is much higher than a Zone 2 workout. You’ll need more time to recover from a HIIT workout before you should do it again.

HOW

Think about your cardio as a way to keep your overall fitness level high:

  • The cardioprotective benefits it extends in perimenopause and menopause.
  • The way it augments your performance on heavy lift days.
  • How it helps establish healthy lifelong habits.

Cardio isn’t required at all for fat loss. It should never be used as your primary fat loss tool. Fat loss happens in the kitchen, not on the treadmill.

If your goal is fat loss and muscle gain, the timing of your cardio can be after a training session, or even on separate days altogether.

I typically lift weights in the morning, and if I have trained my upper body, I’ll jump on my stationary bike in the evening for a Zone 2 ride. If I have trained legs in the morning, I’m doing no cardio that day. Instead, I’m sitting on the couch, going for a sauna, or going to bed early.

Zone 2 training can be a great way to train your base level of cardiopulmonary health. Aim for a 30-45 minute session, several times a week. Remember, there are a lot of ways to get into your Zone 2! Rucking, cycling, walking, and swimming are wonderful, low-impact options.

HIIT training can be done once or twice a week, and probably shouldn’t be longer than 15 to 30 minutes.

For more ideas, I wrote about different ways to train the top end of your cardiopulmonary fitness in Mini Pause #11 and Mini Pause #12.

NOW

  • Reframe your thinking around cardio to be an adjunct for living well (and helping with leg day!)
  • Ensure your weightlifting is done first. If you want to do Zone 2 that day, it can go immediately after weights, or later that day.
  • Limit your HIIT workouts to 30 minutes or less one to two times per week following weight workouts. (And probably not on leg day unless you are a maniac.)

Question of the Week

Q: How to navigate perimenopause with a low budget? The must-dos!

This is such a great question from vykteran on IG! There are many  low- and no-cost items that make a major difference in our experience with perimenopause.

Here are the top 30 things I feel measurably move the needle when it comes to feeling great in perimenopause. Take your pick!

  • Watch the sunrise / early morning sunlight: Get outdoors (rain or shine) for 10 minutes every morning.
  • Watch the sunset.
  • Snack on exercise: for every 1 hour of sitting, get up and move for 10 minutes. (Read more about exercise snacks in Mini Pause #3.)
  • Mouth tape at night (can be a piece of surgical tape on the mouth).
  • Clean your house with vinegar, water, and a few drops of essential oils (I use orange or lemon).
  • Keep your phone and all electronics out of your bedroom.
  • Keep your room cool, dark, and serene.
  • Use only floor lights or candles after sunset, no overhead lights.
  • Lift heavy at least 3x/week. This can be weights at the gym or odd-shaped rocks and objects you find in nature.
  • Sprint 1-2x/week. Grab your trainers and hit the road! Run as fast as you can for one minute, then walk until your heart rate recovers. Do this cycle 5x.
  • Aim to get at least 7,000 steps a day. Your phone likely has a pedometer built into it.
  • Drink 3L of water daily. Add in sea salt or electrolytes.
  • Moisturize your skin after a shower or bath with olive oil.
  • Absolutely no alcohol.
  • Set boundaries and stick to a consistent bedtime and waketime every day (including weekends).
  • Aim to get a minimum of 30g of protein at each meal.
  • Chew your food 20 times on each side of your mouth.
  • Stop eating 2-3 hours before bedtime.
  • Open your windows!
  • Practice gratitude for people, things, and events in your daily life.
  • Tell people why you love them: send a voice note or a written note about what you are grateful for and what you notice about them that you admire.
  • Watch comedy and let yourself laugh!
  • Sing or hum along to music (opens the throat chakra; the humming is calming for the nervous system).
  • Oil pull for oral health.
  • “Close and clean” your work and personal spaces daily. Have a proper work shutdown: tidy up your desk, and shut down your computer. Put dishes in the dishwasher, and wipe down countertops so you can walk into your kitchen the next day without seeing clutter.
  • Celebrate your efforts, not only the outcome.
  • At the end of the day, reflect on how awesome you were with at least one specific example.
  • Make a desire list and dream about what lights you up. A desire list can be anything: from material items you want, experiences, relationships, properties, lifestyle, etc. Just allow yourself to dream again.
  • Practice forgiveness. For your parents, for ex-partners, coworkers, friends, or anyone who has wronged you. It is not that you are letting them off the hook for what they did, but that you are setting yourself free.
  • Sit on the grass, on the sand, or anywhere in nature. Gaze off into the distance. Let your mind wander.

Ok, that’s just a preliminary list! What did I miss?

YOUR TURN!

Let me know what you’d add to this list of low-budget perimenopause must-dos. Send in your favorites to support@drstephanieestima.com.

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Benefits for My Bettys

In these newsletters, I often share the products, devices, and equipment that I use in my own life regularly. I only mention items I feel are worth highlighting and that I believe may provide health and wellness benefits to my Bettys. I encourage you – pressure-free! – to explore and then determine if any of the items fit YOUR health needs, fitness goals, lifestyle, or budget.

Today’s issue includes the following items. Use code DRSTEPHANIE with the links below to receive a special discount.

You’ll find more resources in my online HEALTH TOOLKIT. I’ve compiled these for my Bettys who are still cycling, experiencing symptoms of perimenopause, or managing the transition to the other side of menopause. Take a look!

Mini Pause #8: Make the Change to Zone 2 Cardio Training

Zone 2 Training for Energy Heart Health & Metabolic Flexibility

TL,DR (too long, didn’t read)

Much ado has been made about the ideal zones for training. But, as usual, there’s often a gap in evidence to demonstrably show that these sweeping recommendations are also appropriate for women in perimenopause and menopause.

Estrogen, our metabolic superheroine, keeps us insulin-sensitive when we are younger, but as this dwindles in perimenopause and menopause, we should be thinking about Zone 2 as a protective activity for heart health and a way to keep us metabolically flexible.

WHY

The big question I want to answer here is “Why should perimenopausal and menopausal women care about Zone 2 in the first place?”

Simply, as a woman over 40, you want to double down on cardiorespiratory fitness, and Zone 2 trains up mitochondrial function, health, and density. This is going to maximize your capacity to produce energy.

You know the days where you are absolutely bagged and your teenager comes home with drama, the laundry room has clothes piling up on top of the washer, there are seven glasses of water on the counter despite only having two children, the dishwasher needs to be emptied and you still need to find time for your skincare routine, a social life, save money for retirement, and deep condition your hair?

Zone 2 won’t solve these problems, but it will certainly increase your capacity for energy production to help you navigate your to-do list.

Zone 2 also helps to sensitize our muscles to both insulin-dependent and insulin-independent glucose uptake. Said another way, it makes you more carbohydrate sensitive which is something we tend to lose as we age.

It helps to combat inflammation and reactive oxygen species (ROS) and generally slows the aging process.

WHAT

Most exercises are defined into zones based on muscle fiber recruitment and whether the energetic demand is aerobic or anaerobic.

As the energetic demand for activity increases, we will move from burning fat to burning some fat and some carbs to exclusively burning carbohydrates. As the demand increases, your body will turn to glucose for its fuel.

When we think about fiber type distribution, there are differences between men and women. Women typically have a greater distribution and area percentage of Type 1 fibers (“slow twitch”). Men typically have bigger cross-sectional diameters of all fiber types and have more Type 2 fiber types (“fast twitch”).

This is not to say men have MORE Type 2 fibers than women, but that the diameter of our Type 2 fibers is smaller so that the whole body percentage tips towards Type 1. This can certainly be one (of many) reasons why men can exhibit greater muscle strength and power compared to women, and women typically demonstrate greater muscular endurance.

Some have looked at this data and suggested that this means women need less Zone 2 training than our male counterparts. While I think this is true for women in their fertile cycling years, I do think perimenopausal and menopausal women are a cohort unto themselves. Women in their cycling years may need less Zone 2, but as you creep into perimenopause and menopause, your needs change.

As we navigate perimenopause and menopause, we absolutely need to be training up our capacity for Zone 2 AND because our Type 2 fibers are smaller in diameter, we need to also prioritize resistance training and sprinting (in Zones 5 or 6), both of which are anabolic to Type 2 fibers. Sprinting and resistance training will most certainly be topics for future Mini Pause newsletters!

The primary argument that women are better at fat oxidation than men is largely due to estrogen levels. Estrogen has major implications on our metabolism because it helps to sensitize the whole body to insulin. This fundamentally changes in menopause where we see estrogen levels fall off a cliff to one percent of their previous levels. This means that metabolic derangements like insulin insensitivity, Type 2 Diabetes, visceral fat accumulation, dyslipidemia, and weight gain around the abdomen are rampant in menopausal women, despite no changes in their lifestyle habits.

If you want a deeper dive into body composition changes during menopause, read issue 6 of the Mini Pause.

In essence, we lose our metabolic superpowers and now, in menopause, have to work to stay metabolically flexible.

Zone 2 training can serve as a foundational tool to help improve insulin sensitivity. As you get stronger, your power and work output will also continue to increase. You’ll be able to do more work and sustain a higher heart rate in zone 2 as you get better at it.

HOW

Ideally, you can do a Functional Threshold Power test on a bike and multiply this by 80% to get your Zone 2 number. You can read more about FTP here if you’re a nerd or have a champion attention span for details.

I have used my Carol Bike’s 20-minute FTP test to determine my Zone 2 levels and now retest this once a quarter. I like the bike because it is AI-based and calculates my resistance and watts for me–I don’t have to think about it!

If you don’t have an FTP test available to you, you can also crudely measure heart rate by using Phil Maffetone’s MAF equation: 180 minus your age. Then, multiply that number by 80% and that is your baseline HR to aim for.

In full transparency, I do find this equation slightly underestimates my heart rate. Remember, as you get fitter through Zone 2 training, you can work at a higher heart rate and workload. Nonetheless, it’s a good metric to start with.

You can do Zone 2 on any cardio machine as long as you have your target heart rate and stay there. Rucking (walking with a weighted vest or backpack), salsa dancing, or twerking all can get you in that Zone 2 sweet spot. And who doesn’t want to be twerking on the regular?

For my Type A Bettys who don’t think they’ve worked out unless they go max all out, take note: that isn’t Zone 2! I often joke that my toxic trait is being unable to stay in Zone 2 because it barely feels like a workout.

I’m sweating…sort of.
I’m breathing heavier….sort of.

If you can still have a conversation or nasal breath through the workout–but you’re working hard enough that you would prefer not to do either–you’re doing it correctly.

The next question is how often should you be doing Zone 2 work? This is going to depend on how conditioned you are. A beginner to Zone 2 might start at 30 minutes, three times a week, and each week, aim to ramp up the time by a few minutes per session.

Ideally, I would love to get everyone up to a baseline of about 45 minutes, three times weekly. The 45-minute mark is where the mitochondrial magic happens.

There are a few ways I get my Zone 2 training:

  • Most of it is on my Carol Bike, and I aim to get in two longer sessions of about 75 minutes during the week. (If you check out the bike, use code DRSTEPHANIE for a discount.)
  • I recently started yoga and have been doing a few Vinyasa classes per week. I wore my heart rate monitor a few times and, as I suspected, my heart rate was in that sweet spot for Zone 2.

NOW

  • Look at your calendar and see where you might be able to fit in three, 30-minute Zone 2 workouts this week:

-Could you tack it onto a time you are already at the gym?

-Do you like to watch TV at the end of the day? Could you do that with a treadmill and a weighted vest or a stationary bike?

  • Start this week with one 30-minute session. Put it on your calendar right now.
  • Next week, add in two minutes until you are comfortable and able to do 45 minutes at your Zone 2 heart rate.
  • As you monitor your heart rate, you should see, over an eight- to 12-week period, where the intensity of your workout becomes “easier.” You may even notice your heart rate doesn’t get up as high. This is a great sign! It means going ahead and making the workload a little harder. Up your speed, watts (if on a bike), or incline on a treadmill to challenge yourself.
  • Now high-five yourself and your heart for adaptation!

Question of the Week

Q: How do you cope with feeling like you’re losing your youthfulness?

To Kristen in the Bettyverse, thank you for asking what many of us have felt at one time or another.

MORTALITY

I think aging and the feeling of losing your youthfulness force you to contend with your mortality. I think about death probably more than the average person, and I try to contrast it with the life I currently have.

Most of us never thought about the totality of our lives when we were in our 20s and 30s. And yet, in our 40s this thought that we might not be here forever begins to stir and frequent our thoughts more often.

A part of life is death.

And despite the speed at which science is progressing, I think most of us are going to have somewhere around 80 or 90 great years in us. Maybe slightly more, maybe less, but this is a reasonable estimate.

EXPLORE YOUR THOUGHTS

So if you’re 40-something and starting to feel like your better years are behind you, what does that mean?

First, consider why you so heavily place weight on youth:

  • Is it your youthful beauty you are mourning?
  • Your lack of responsibilities like mortgage payments?
  • Your ability to travel without kids?
  • Or does the brain select only the positive aspects of your youth and forget the rest in the name of nostalgia?

Maybe your skin was plumper 20 years ago, but with age, a different kind of beauty emerges.

The beauty of being comfortable in your skin, the unhitching of who you THOUGHT you should be with just being who you ACTUALLY are.

The wisdom and experience of your life can now work harmoniously with the intuition you likely ignored when you were younger. Decision-making gets easier. You fight for yourself rather than sacrifice yourself at the altar of others’ desires. You spend time with people you truly enjoy being around.

As for the aesthetics… sure, our melanocytes are not producing pigment in our hair anymore, and the elasticity of our eyelids is not what it once was. But that is the privilege and gift of aging.

I’ll repeat it for emphasis: That is the privilege and gift of aging.

It is a privilege to watch your children grow up.
It is a privilege to become a grandmother.
And it is even a great privilege to die with people around you who love and revere you.

A life well lived is one where your time is spent without the shackles of what you think you should do and how you think you should act. Forget what society tells you should be. Age brings the ultimate gift of “you do you, boo.”

SHINE YOUR LIGHT

For me, the prospect of aging is more about the time and impact I want to make.

  • I have a gift and I want to share it with as many of you as I can.
  • I’m not going to spend any more time hiding because I fear judgment or criticism from others. I have no time for that!
  • In my 40s, I know what I am capable of, who I am, who I am not, and how to remember who I am when I have temporarily forgotten.

And if we’re just talking about loss of youthfulness: grays can be covered, and skin creams and cosmetic procedures can be applied to make you look younger.

If you don’t become MORE of who you already are, the loss of youthfulness doesn’t matter as much because you’re still warring with yourself internally.

Maybe a soliloquy on mortality wasn’t what you were expecting with this question, but I hope this helped redirect what it means to age, and how lucky you are to do it.

YOUR TURN!

I’ll be answering your questions every week right here in the Mini Pause! Let me know what’s on your mind. I’ll be checking for both questions and feedback at support@drstephanieestima.com.

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It’s almost impossible to get all your minerals from food alone. And many of us are experiencing that deficiency in the form of chronic health issues like fatigue, muscle cramping, anxiety, hair loss and imbalances with adrenals, hormones and blood sugar. In my case, it was hair loss and chapped lips.

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P.S. FREE! Hormone Super Conference

Menopause and the years leading up to it could actually be some of the best, most stable, enjoyable, and healthful years of life. I believe this so much I’m going to be a speaker at the online 2024 Hormone Super Conference, March 18-24.

At this event, you’ll learn how to manage hormones (and so much more!) during these periods of your life. 40+ of the world’s foremost experts on hormone health will present breaking science, unmatched wisdom, and proven remedies for stabilizing hormones before, during, and after menopause as a means of experiencing optimal health and joy on every level.

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