Is too much Cardio making you gain weight or hurting your fitness goals? Here’s how to tell if you are doing too much cardio and how to help yourself train smarter.
There’s nothing better than the unstoppable feeling after really good spin class —it’s a great sweat and an incredible endorphin boost.
But sometimes it seems like cardio has overtaken every other fitness activity. More and more of my clients are turning into serious aerobic exercise junkies, and I’ve begun to see a pattern of women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who are spinning, dancing, group fitnessing, and running three, four, even five times per week. They all tell me that they feel like they should be in incredible shape—but they’re not.
Despite being so active, these women come to me struggling with weight gain, joint pain, low energy, and years of frustration. They all say about the same thing: “Caroline, I’m doing all the right things !! I exercise 6 days a week, eat super clean, and sleep. I don’t get why I am NOT seeing results!”. They feel tired and anxious, have trouble sleeping, and find it difficult to shed “the last 10 pounds.” Many also have hormone imbalances such as PMS, irregular periods, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), and even infertility.
What’s behind this trend of cardio junkies sweating to exhaustion? Here’s what happens when you do too much cardio, signs you may be doing too much, and how to help yourself restore body balance.
The Negative Side Effects Of Doing Too Much Cardio and How To Tell If You Are Doing Too Much
Even though exercise is good for us, our bodies perceive it like any kind of stressor. Chemically, the body reacts the same way to exercise as it does to “bad” stress. Therefore, too much exercise (or not enough recovery) can have negative effects on your physical and mental health (including your metabolism). In addition, too much cardio specifically can result in muscle wasting (atrophy) and fat storage on the body, which is not the outcome you want. In extreme cases, even the heart suffers from too much endurance training.
What counts as “too much” cardio is different for everyone, and depends on a lot of factors, including the intensity of your exercise, your fitness level, your age and health status, how much activity you do each day, what and how much you eat, how much sleep you get, your fitness goals and more. What might be too much for one person is perfectly fine for another. What might be too much for a new exerciser could also be fine for them a year later. When it comes to exercise, picture a bell curve: The people who reap the most health benefits are somewhere in the middle. The people on either extreme end—too much exercise or too little—suffer consequences.
When you listen to your body, it will usually give you signals that it’s time to change things. If you experience any of these symptoms, it could be signs that you are doing too much cardio.
- Weight gain. Research shows that cardio is not usually that helpful for weight loss. The body becomes “used to” the calorie deficit from long aerobic sessions and stores energy as fat to compensate. In addition, studies show most people eat more after exercise, and overestimate how many calories they burned while working out.
- Increased body fat or hard to lose body fat (the body hangs on to it because it knows it has to keep going FOREVER)
- Hormone changes (increased cortisol in the body due to prolonged stress from cardio training)
- Joint pain and muscle aches
- Repressed immune system (you get sick more than normal or are sick all of the time)
- Repetitive stress injuries
- Mood changes
- Appetite changes
- Anxiety (from increased stress on the body)
- Sleeplessness or insomnia
- Low energy
- Brain fog or inability to focus
- You can’t “lose your belly” or still not seeing that toned definition you’re craving.
Do you have one or many of the symptoms above? Do you still want to sweat so hard and so long to get those results from your workouts?
What To Do Instead of Hours of Cardio
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms of cardio overload, it’s likely time to consider switching up your exercise routine. You don’t have to stop exercising altogether, or even exercise less frequently, but a different style of exercise will be quite helpful. It may take a while to re-train your body out of chronic cardio overtraining, especially if you have been a “cardio junkie” for years. However it IS possible to restore how your body responds to exercise and reset your weight, body fat, hormones, and system. It will require patience, hard work, focus, determination, and effort. You need to be prepared to do something DIFFERENT, to challenge yourself, to feel awkward, uncomfortable, and scared. Change is hard, new, and different. You will be tempted to fall back to old overtraining habits. But if you are truly committed to helping your body heal and to seeing positive effects from your workouts, you will be able to climb out of the chronic cardio state and find balance. Here’s what to do instead of hours of cardio:
- Keep your cardio workouts to less than one hour. I don’t ever recommend doing over an hour of cardio, unless you’re training for a specific event. If you are training for a specific event that requires you to do cardio for longer than one hour, make sure to plan your year so that after the event is completed, you return to shorter cardio sessions and cross training workouts. This will help you avoid slipping into chronic cardio overtraining and getting repetitive stress injuries, hormone imbalances, and weight gain.
- Make your workouts about QUALITY, skill, and performance. Mix up your cardio sessions to experience a variety of intensities, challenges, and intervals. The Strong Body Beautiful program gives you 6 weeks of creative cardio workouts that offer high, medium, and low intensity so your body is always challenged. Focus on moving well, with good form and focus.
- Take at least 1-2 rest days per week. Resting IS productive and an essential part of getting the most from your training. Remember: the heart is a MUSCLE, and a pretty important one. It needs a day off, just like your legs, shoulders, chest, back, etc. all do.
- Replace two classes or long cardio workouts with weight training sessions. Lifting weights and building muscle increases your basal metabolic rate, which accounts for 60–75 percent of calories burned daily (another 10 percent goes to digesting food while, for, most people, only 10–20 percent goes to physical activity of any kind). Resistance training has been shown to boost basal metabolism and fat burning for 24-plus hours—something cardio doesn’t do. The Strong Body Beautiful program gives you 6 weeks of two downloadable strength workouts per week that will help you boost your metabolism, climb out of cardio overload, prevent injuries, and see results.
- Plan a balanced fitness schedule that includes cardio, strength, flexibility, variety, periodization, and rest. Periodization and variety ensure you are changing your workouts frequently enough to avoid plateaus, injuries, and exercise ruts. Start with a program like Strong Body Beautiful which gives you a 6 week schedule and helps you plan cardio training sessions with strength, flexibility, and rest. Repeat the 6 week schedule three times (or more!) and watch your body start to change.
- Restore your mind and muscles. Give yourself time per week for stress reduction, meditation, deep breathing, or calming stretches. Find something that works for you and practice it consistently (even if its just for a few minutes!). Taking time for your mind will reduce stress and, therefore, cortisol (one of the major reasons for weight gain and hormone imbalance from too much cardio training). The Strong Body Beautiful program gives you guided meditations, stretching videos, apps, websites, resources, and tools to help you find what works for you in calming your mind and restoring balance in your body.
- Nourish your body with foods that fuel you. Give your body what it needs to feel its best no matter how long your workouts are. A clean, balanced diet of nutrient dense foods is the best medicine out there. Many exercisers do long cardio sessions to “burn off” or “earn” calories eaten. But, I’m sorry…. NO. Exercise isn’t punishment and shouldn’t be done to earn what you eat. If your cardio sessions are fueled with your desire to eat more – you may need to work on having a healthier relationship to food. You can learn how to eat mindfully and build a balanced diet in the Strong Body Beautiful program. You can change your relationship to food and find a way of eating that helps you feel incredible.
Is Too Much Cardio Making You Gain Weight? Real Talk Youtube Video On The Subject
It can be easy to stay stuck in our habits even when they don’t serve us. We fear the unknown and change is hard. It involves effort, being uncomfortable, feeling vulnerable, and trying something new. But if you’ve been “doing all the right things” and not seeing positive change, I want to invite you to try something different with your fitness routine. It can’t hurt to give a shot and you might be surprised by the dramatic results. I believe you have what it takes to help yourself feel your very best. When you are ready, I’d be honored to be your coach. Let’s build body balance and find your strength. Get started here.
Love and squats,
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