7 cardio myths you need to forget you ever heard

This January, we’re on the search for quick, accessible hacks to kickstart 2023 in the strongest way possible. Today’s kickstarter: 7 cardio myths to forget this year.

We’ve all got that one friend who spends hours on the cross-trainer or know someone who still buys into the whole ‘strength training makes women bulky’ narrative. The cardio scene is an absolute beacon of diet culture BS, and while more of us are starting to see through the haze, a few myths still persist.

Of course, exercise is very individual and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to fitness. But that’s not to say that some ideas aren’t just plain wrong. With that in mind, here are just a few of the biggest cardio myths you need to kick to the curb in 2023.

Cardio has to lastover an hour to yield results

HIIT may be huge but there’s still a belief that for a workout to really work, it has to last a long old time. Runners try to last longer, cardio classes often go on for 50 minutes or more (which is kind of the opposite of what HIIT was designed to do) and we try to walk further.

“A lot of people think that you have to run for at least an hour for it to be deemed an ‘effective’ workout,” says Penny Weston, trainer and founder of Welcome to Made. “However, doing just 20 minutes of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can actually be more effective than lower-intensity running for an hour. This is because a shorter higher-intensity workout causes your body to carry on working hard for hours after you’ve stopped working out.”

“One of the main issues with being prescriptive over exercise is it creates yet another obstacle to working out – and there are already enough of these,” says personal trainer Beth Davies. “The fitness industry has to demonstrate that all exercise counts – even if it’s 10 minutes a day, even if it’s broken down across the day.”

It has to feel hard

“There’s a definite myth that ‘cardio should feel hardio’,” laughs personal trainer, nutritionist and health coach Lisa Monger. “The thought of endless burpees makes people shudder, and some people just don’t enjoy running. It’s more important that you exercise to lift your mood, improve your metabolism and support lifestyle and nutrition changes than it is to be miserable on the stair stepper at 5am.

“Finding a level that you can do and feel accomplishment at doing it and actually enjoy the feeling of moving, gives you a dopamine hit that rewards your efforts and makes you want to do it more,” she advises. “As you become fitter and stronger, you gradually move the needle and can increase what you do as your comfort zone grows and your faith in your ability to do it increases.”

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You’re not a proper runner if you keep stopping to walk

“A common myth I hear is that if people are starting to run, they don’t feel like they are a ‘proper’ runner until they can run the full distance or time without walking or resting,” explains personal trainer Aimee Pearce. “I try to combat this by saying that the focus should be on you getting out there and enjoying the fresh air and moving your body rather than on the results of your run. I will also encourage them to do some runs without tracking them on fitness trackers or watches as this can massively lean into unnecessary result over-analysis.”

In fact, Pearce maintains that you should be able to maintain a conversation while running – so you don’t have to go far or fast to make a difference to your fitness. 

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Doing cardio is always good for your heart

Wrong. When it comes to cardio, you can have too much of a good thing. According to research, cardio raises levels of cortisol – also known as the ‘stress hormone’ in the blood. High levels of cortisol mean the body is essentially on high alert, so if you’re already feeling tired or stressed, you might want to ditch cardio in favour of a more relaxing workout such as pilates or even a strength session    

Cardio is the best way to improve body image

Unfortunately, fitness and cardio are inextricably linked to body image and self-esteem. While research shows that exercise can boost self-esteem, anyone who has ever ventured onto social media will be well-aware that posed and filtered influencer reels can make even the most resilient of us feel a little less than.

It’s important to remember that yes, working out is great for us mentally and physically, but it’s not a quick fix to confidence or feeling better about yourself – you can’t unwork poor body image through over-exercise. Rather, a healthy exercise regime can complement and build on any other steps you’re taking to improve your self-esteem. Please don’t let it be another reason to feel bad; Davies cautions that “many of the prescriptive myths around cardio are likely to be out of reach for the majority of us, especially if you’re just starting out on your fitness journey. Following them could lead to injury or even quitting altogether. Remember – all exercise counts.”

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Fasted cardio is best for performance and metabolic health

“The thinking is that if you start your cardio session on an empty stomach, your body will kick straight into fat-burning mode,” explains Weston. “There has been a great deal of debate about this over the years, and research is mixed. While some research suggests that fasted cardio will cause you to burn more fat during that specific exercise period, research also suggests that it won’t affect your body composition in the long run. Other research found that fasted exercise leads to higher metabolic performance after the workout, but also that for prolonged aerobic activity eating before the workout enhanced performance.”

If starting a workout hungry leaves you feeling weak and depleted, it’s self-defeating as you won’t be able to work hard or enjoy your session.

“I would suggest that consuming carbohydrates before you work out is actually better overall,” advises Weston. “Your body needs energy to perform and giving your body fuel before a workout increases performance and results in better body composition.”

You have to do cardio to be fit

No, no, no. Cardio, while undeniably beneficial to overall health and fitness, isn’t the be-all-and-end-all that devotees would like you to think. Gone are the days when we need to sweat it out in the gym for hours in order to see results. Monger agrees: “People get put off by the fact that exercise equals suffering and punishment. Because if the perception is it’s ‘go hard or go home’, people avoid exercise.”

But it doesn’t have to be all about pounding the treadmill or cycling for miles. When we talk about cardio fitness, what we’re referring to is the body’s ability to convert the energy in our muscles into oxygen and transport it around the body. So essentially, any activity that boosts this process can be deemed ‘cardio’ – think walking, gardening or even good old-fashioned cleaning.

If you enjoy an hour-long cardio session, go ahead, but don’t beat yourself up if you’d rather take a gentler approach. 

Images: Getty

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