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!