Never Be Confused About Cardio Again!

By Kasia Wind
Photo of Cassandra Hope By Arsenik Studios Inc.

Q: Is running on the treadmill is the same as running outside?
A: Nope! Comparing treadmill runs to pounding the pavement is like comparing a s’more done over a campfire to one made in the microwave: if you want the best results, you need to do the work.

Although both modes of exercise get your heart rate up and burn calories, “running on a treadmill is not even close to providing the same challenge, intensity, or impact as running outdoors,” says Nicole Nichols, an ACE-certified personal trainer, and resident fitness expert and editor at SparkPeople.com. Compared to a cushioned, flat treadmill belt that propels you forward as you sweat, outdoor running puts you up against wind resistance, varied terrain, and unpredictable weather. “It takes more effort,” says Nichols, “because you have to use more muscle to propel yourself and constantly adapt to surface changes.”

Amazingly, studies have found that, although it is actually harder, people tend to move faster, feel better, and perceive less exertion out in green space than they do while on a treadmill (we suspect it has something to do with not having to stare at a creepy basement wall the entire time). Don’t rule out the mechanical track if you’re suffering from joint issues, however: Nichols says treadmills can minimize the impact of running. Just remember to play with the settings, since research shows that cranking the incline to at least one per cent can help simulate the kind of energy you’d expend while outdoors.

Q: Is cardio on an empty stomach is the best way to burn fat?
A: Not necessarily. In recent years, many athletes have begun “fasted training” — working out before breakfast — based on an increasingly popular notion that exercising on an empty stomach drives the body to dip into fat stores, rather than carbohydrates, for fuel, resulting in greater fat loss. The problem with this approach? Up until 2013, most of the evidence backing fasted cardio has been anecdotal, meaning that it was based on people’s individual experiences rather than hardcore science. In August of 2013, a groundbreaking study published in the British Journal of Nutrition was the first of its kind to find that exercising on an empty tank burns nearly 20 per cent more fat than exercising following breakfast, but the study didn’t take into account the longterm effects of exercising without eating — for example, whether the subjects actually ended up losing more fat over several weeks. Some lab work on the topic warns that “hungry exercise” may lead to losses in muscle mass, become dangerous if you begin to feel dizzy or weak mid-training due to low sugar levels, or that you may not be able to train as hard or last as long during your sessions. In addition, a 2013 study out of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, found that overweight women who performed interval training over six weeks had similar changes in body composition whether they filled up before their sessions or not.

The bottom line: It’s a toss-up. Stick with what works best for you. Jodi Robinson, RD, PTS, Certified Diabetes Educator, based in Grimsby, Ontario, recommends trying an easy-to-digest snack (100 to 200 calories) 15 to 30 minutes before the morning workout, to sustain energy and blood sugar, followed by a balanced breakfast after.

Q: If you’re looking to lean out should you always turn to long, drawn-out cardio?
A: No way! “Leaning out requires burning as many calories as possible, during and after an exercise session,” says Jon-Erik Kawamoto, CSCS, CEP, owner of JKConditioning in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Kawamoto says one of the best ways to achieve a mega-calorie burn is through shorter, harder sessions of high-intensity exercise that punish the body during the workout but reward it later with improved fitness, health, and fat loss. And, believe it or not, just four minutes a day may be the magic number. “One example is the Tabata method,” Kawamoto advises. “You go max speed for 20 seconds followed by a 10-second recovery for eight total sets that take you four minutes. It will get your heart pounding and leave you gassed!”

However, to avoid overtraining, Jessica Smith, a personal trainer based in Miami, Florida, and host of JESSICASMITHTV on YouTube, suggests capping high intensity cardio sessions at two to three times per week, so there’s no reason you can’t still bliss out on the elliptical on your lighter days. “A combo of both short and longer endurance sessions is best,” she says. Luckily, they go hand-in-hand. In May 2013, Norwegian scientists found that performing three sets of four-minute runs a week at an all-out intensity (about 90 per cent of maximal heart rate) for a period of 10 weeks increased VO2 max (used to assess endurance) by about 10 per cent. So in a weird but totally scientific way, doing less may actually help you do more. No reason to feel guilty on your short days!

Q: Is morning cardio is more effective than lunchtime or evening cardio?
A: It all depends on your goals. There’s no definitive research to prove that early birds drop more pounds, so if you’re on Mission: Fat Loss, just sneaking in your workout is key, no matter the time of day.

But if you happen to be a procrastinator, or if you’re looking for a way to make a new training habit stick, setting the alarm clock for an a.m. date at the gym could be your golden ticket. “Our data reveals that people who work out in the morning have more endorphin release, are more prepared for work, have longer-lasting energy to get through the day, and are more compliant with their workout commitments by not having the excuses associated with exercising later in the day,” says Lawrence Biscontini, MA, co-author of Morning Cardio Workouts (Human Kinetics, 2007). If, however, if you can’t peel yourself out of bed before seven, hang on to the time that makes you happiest.

Q: Can cardio can leave you hungry for more — literally?
A: Yeah, it can happen. Despite numerous new studies that conclude cardio doesn’t work up an appetite — with many actually reporting that exercise reduces food cravings, including those for chocolate — registered dieticians who work with athletes still say they see it all the time. “Cardio depletes your glycogen stores, the storage form of carbohydrates found in your liver and muscles,” says Robinson. “Glycogen is your body’s reservoir of quick-acting energy, so if it goes down, your appetite for carbohydrate-rich foods tends to increase,” she says. But there’s also a psychological side to things: many of Robinson’s clients junk out after exercise because they feel like they’ve earned it. The problem with that mentality? “It’s a lot easier to eat calories than burn them off!”

If stepping into the cardio room feels like The Hunger Games rather than the Olympics, Robinson suggests following up with a source of quick-digesting carbs, a small amount of protein, and plenty of water within 30 minutes of finishing. “This window allows for optimal replenishment of your glycogen stores and primes your system for muscle repair and recovery,” she says. Below, her top picks for post-workout snacks:

  • Banana + a glass of skim or 1% milk
  • Whey protein shake + banana
  • Low-fat cottage cheese + diced melon

Q: Can you can still do cardio if you have knee problems?
A: For the most part! There are two crucial rules for working out with problem knobs: always follow your doctor’s advice, and don’t do anything ridiculous, like attempting to perform high-knees up all 1,776 CN Tower steps. According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), certain exercises can help to strengthen the muscles surrounding the knee joint and stretch the IT band, and additional research shows that physical activity may be beneficial to joint health by reducing damage to the cartilage.

Ask any expert and they’ll tell you that there’s no universal exercise that’s best for everyone. “It depends on the nature of the knee issue,” says Nichols. “For conditions like arthritis, exercise can help prevent pain. But for overuse injuries, certain cardio (like high-impact or repetitive moves) is not recommended. Going low impact may be a safe bet, if cleared by your doctor. Water exercise, like swimming or aqua “spinning,” may be great for rehab, says Nichols. Kawamoto also recommends cardio equipment such as spin bikes, rowers, fan bikes, and ellipticals, which can be less stressful on your knees than running on a treadmill. The bottom line? Listen to your body — and your physician.

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