Addiction is a powerful word. It generally conjures up the thought of a habit that has or is consuming a person’s life. When we think of an addiction, more times than most we assume that it is a bad habit and that there has to be some level of intervention to break it off. After all, is it necessarily a bad thing to be addicted to something that is good for you? The answer is an astounding yes!
Exercise in all of its forms is an absolute positive in our lives. However, even too much of a good thing can be bad for you. Compulsive or excessive exercise, otherwise known as “exercise addiction”, is a legitimately researched and treated behavior that can be diagnosed in anyone from the casual exerciser to the professional athlete. But before you even begin to think that you need to drastically cut back your current exercise regime, understand that most people in our society do not exercise enough! Exercise addiction is generally associated with those that exercise too excess; believing in the notion that more is certainly better than a little. All too often, exercise addicts are oblivious to some of the warning signs, such as increased irritability, disrupted sleeping patterns, a depressed immune system, chronic fatigue, and muscle stiffness. Exercise in any form can be performed to the extreme; especially in a society that wants results and fast. The most common type of exercise that is most abused and common in exercise addicts is cardiovascular exercise.
Cardiovascular exercise, or “cardio”, is defined as any activity that involves consistent movement of large muscle groups at low to moderate levels of intensity for extended periods of time, such as walking, jogging, running, bicycling, stair climbing, swimming, and aerobic/group exercise classes. Cardiovascular exercise is a necessary and important component to any well developed exercise program. These exercises while ultimately designed to improve cardiovascular health (lungs, heart), have enormous benefit to aiding in weight loss, particularly because these activities burn calories and are generally less intimidating to the population than other forms of exercise. In addition, cardiovascular exercise does not require any special equipment or complex movement. To paraphrase a famous quote, you have to “Just Do It. It is easy to see then why someone might buy into the “more is better” mentality in regards to doing cardio. After all, if I want to lose weight, isn’t the idea to burn as many calories as possible? It is exactly that thought process that drives cardio-holics (those who spend endless, tireless hours doing nothing but cardiovascular exercise) to become exercise addicts.
Burning calories is not limited to time spent sweating in the gym. Our bodies burn calories all day long through daily activities, but the majority of those calories are being burned 24/7/365. Better known as the BMR (basal metabolic rate), our BMR is dictated by the body’s metabolically active tissues, or lean body mass, which is inclusive of organ systems, bodily processes, and most notably muscle mass. Lean body mass is essentially where calories are burned. Think of BMR as a measure of your body’s idle speed, the amount of energy your body requires before you step on the gas. The easiest (and only way for that matter) that an individual can naturally stoke their calorie fire, or BMR, is by increasing the muscle mass in lean body mass. Thus, the more of it we have, the more calories we can potentially burn even at rest. It is impossible to increase the size of your organs and therefore their energy requirements. The bad news for cardio-holics is that cardio exercise does not improve the BMR. Yes, cardio does burn calories but in the long run, the only thing that guarantees that your body continues to burn calories is being able to keep the fire stoked. This is where the importance of resistance training can not be ignored
Resistance training (free weights, machines, or bands) works to increase our BMR by stimulating muscle growth, not to be confused with bulky muscles. Even some of the cardio activities that are weight bearing (those in which you are standing on your feet such as the treadmill, elliptical, stair climber, etc) provide little to no load stimulus to the muscles. Without a sufficient weight bearing stimulus such as you would get from resistance training, muscle growth is blunted. Furthermore, the combination of insufficient muscle growth coupled with unnecessary amounts of cardio exercise can lead to negligible or poor results. A vicious cycle then begins where no muscle is added so BMR (calorie demand) drops. As calorie needs drop, nutritional needs decrease (not as much lean body mass to nourish). As nutritional needs drop, the body begins to catabolize, or breakdown, proteins stored in the body. The most readily available proteins stored in the body are found in muscle. As a result, muscle is lost because contrary to belief, muscle, not fat, breaks down more readily and quicker for fuel. You then have to work harder to achieve the desired goal because you simply burn fewer calories than you did before. This phenomenon is not hard to spot in the gym either. An example is the exercisers who spend tireless minutes pounding away on the cardio machines and never physically change. An even better example is the group fitness instructor, despite all of the hours logged in teaching aerobic classes, looks physically exactly the same. Perhaps even you have experienced this phenomenon yourself. Understand that cardiovascular exercise is very good for you. If not correctly understood however, it can be very counterproductive.
The correct amount of cardio work: how much (frequency), how long (time), and how hard (intensity) can become very confusing. Simply put, the amount you need to do depends on your goal. Unless you are training for an ultra endurance event (marathon, cycling century, triathlon, etc.), hours and hours of cardio will do nothing more than in essence break you down. Most people would see far more benefit with moderate cardio work (3-5 days per week), thirty to forty minutes at a time, with varying levels of intensity (low intensity day vs. high intensity day). Recent government recommendations have dictated that sixty minutes a day is the required amount. However, the key point left out of that lofty recommendation is that it should be consistent and constantly changing. The more often that you can vary the training stimulus, the better your results will be. If you repeatedly do the same thing day in and day out, the stimulus is lost and you become a machine that just blows smoke. Any one dimensional training program is doomed to failure. What can not be lost in this shuffle though is that resistance training must be a part of the exercise program.
Exercise is time and energy well spent. Make the most of your time by varying your routine; educate yourself to train smarter; begin resistance training; don’t be afraid to change and “break” the habit; always be sure to get rest; nourish your body properly; most of all have fun.
Featured in May/June 2005 of Philly Fit Magazine