It’s one of the greatest love-hate relationships of all time: us and cardio exercise.
Typically, two groups exist when it comes to cardio: the group that adores cardio workouts and runs marathons for pleasure, and the group that either avoids cardio like the plague or only does the minimal amount required to maintain their physiques.
If you’re in the first camp, you may be a step ahead in recognizing the benefits of cardio. If you’re in the second camp, trust us when we say that the benefits of regular cardio exercise may astound you and give you a new appreciation and motivation to integrate it more deeply into your regime.
Cardio: Why Getting You Heart Pumping Is Important
Cardio does much more than burn extra calories. From regulating your blood sugar to even helping you sleep, this type of exercise goes above and beyond when it comes to benefits.
1. Helps Regulate Blood Sugar
This is a biggie, and is especially important to know if you’re trying to lose weight: cardio exercise helps regulate blood sugar and insulin levels, which can help reduce fat storage.
When we eat (and even more so if the meal contains carbs or sugar) our blood sugar rises. To compensate and help bring it back down to balance, the hormone insulin is released, ushering the sugars into our cells to be used for energy.
When we have consumed these sugars in excess, insulin stores the remaining “energy” as fat. Now, this is a normal process, but can become dangerous and disrupted if we consistently consume too much sugar or carbs in general while remaining inactive. One scenario is that our cells can become burnt out or “resistant” to insulin, which can result in consistently high blood sugars and inflammation, which then can result in disease and fat gain. Cardio exercise has been found to help decrease insulin resistance and also burns up more sugars and energy so that, in essence, your body has less “work” to do.
2. Strengthens Your Heart
“Cardio,” as probably guessed, is short for “cardiovascular.” Cardio exercise gets your heart pumping, and since it is a muscle, strengthens it. A strong heart can beat more powerfully and less, which results in less wear and tear, and also more powerful circulation throughout your body.
3. Improves Endurance
In the same vein (pun definitely intended!) cardio can improve your overall endurance by strengthening your heart muscle, which in turn can pump more oxygen-rich blood throughout your system, faster. In turn, your lungs also become stronger as they work to take in more oxygen to fuel your activity.
Overall, the more cardio you do, the more you’ll be able to handle, in a similar way to weight lifting: the heavier you lift on a regular occasion, the stronger you become.
4. Helps with Fat Loss
For most of us, this is obvious. However, it can’t be understated how useful cardio exercise is for weight loss. Studies show that people who engage in cardio sessions that burn either 400 to 600 calories, 5 times a week, can experience significant weight loss (up to roughly 5 percent of their original weight) even with no change in diet. [*]
Additional studies show combining cardio with resistance training is truly the magic bullet for retaining muscle while, to put it bluntly, decimating fat. Add a healthy diet to that equation, and you’ll be golden.
5. Can Boost Mood
While it may seem hard to get started with cardio exercise, you’ll probably notice about halfway through the session and on to the finish that you actually feel better and have more energy.
Studies back this feeling, confirming that even just 15 minutes of cardio exercise per day can reduce your risk of major depression. [*] Much of this can be chalked up to the release of mood-boosting endorphins and a reduction in inflammation from improving insulin levels and losing body fat.
Cardio? Happiness? Who knew? (ahem, the marathon runners, of course)
6. Can Boost Your Immune System
This one may seem like it’s out of left park, but it turns out cardio exercise can indeed give your immune system a boost.
Research shows that moderate exercise increases certain antibodies called immunoglobulins, which results in stronger immunity. One study observing a sedentary group of women found that they had no improvement in immune system function, compared to those in active groups who experienced increased immunoglobulins. [*]
7. Improves Sleep
Interestingly, research has found that cardio exercise can improve sleep, and is even recommended to help treat insomnia. One study even found that, to quote, “exercise promoted increased sleep efficiency and duration regardless of the mode and intensity of activity, especially in populations suffering from disease.” [*]
In other words, exercise can improve everyone’s sleep, but is especially beneficial for those suffering with disease.
Scientists theorize that one of the reasons cardio has such a beneficial effect on sleep is due to the fact that it stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight system), which then strengthens the parasympathetic nervous system (rest system) afterward. This is also why it’s a good idea not to exercise less than 2 hours before bedtime!
As we can see, cardio is more than simply a way to burn calories; it’s a way to provide your body with extreme benefits that carry over into almost every arena of health.
To get started, know that you don’t have to spend hours on the treadmill everyday. You can go for a brisk walk for 30 minutes, try a short HIIT workout, or even play tennis or some other sport. However you do it, it’s bound to benefit.