Cardio vs. Conditioning

By Coach KB

“I need to go do some cardio,” she said on her way out the door to go to the gym.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard a statement like this during my 12 years in the fitness industry, I’d have opened POINT on the beaches of Tahiti… except then it would be TOINT and nobody would come to a gym with that name. But I guess it wouldn’t matter because I would still be ridiculously wealthy from all my cardio-dollars…

Let’s be honest, though… I would have paid myself a few of those dollars. We’ve all fallen into the trap of exercising for the wrong reasons or going about it in a minimally effective way. Most of us don’t even know we’re doing it; we’re just repeating what we’ve heard other people say and seen other people do, figuring that everyone else is doing the right thing. I’m here to tell you from experience, not only does exercising for the wrong reasons not work, you will eventually see it as a boring chore that will be one of the first to get erased from the to-do list.

There are a couple things wrong with the above statement:

1) “Cardio,” when related to exercise, literally means anything that raises your heart-rate. I dislike this term because it fails to include all your other systems at play when you “do cardio.”

2) What most people mean when they say they “need to do some cardio” is really that they need to burn some calories, likely because of poor nutritional choices they have recently made. Thinking this way leads us to feelings of guilt related to eating and sets us up for a whole host of other problems, up to the extreme example of what has been coined “exercise bulimia” (a disorder where you try to out-exercise what you eat at the expense of your health). Ain’t nobody got time for that!

First, when you “do cardio” (i.e. run, bike, row…) there is so much more going on than an increased heart-rate: your muscles are firing; your balance and coordination are working; your senses are reacting to stimuli; your mind is focusing – all of these play together to create a scenario where you are conditioning* your body to do something beyond “cardio.”

Secondly, we as a society have to get away from thinking about exercise as a way to burn calories. If you are eating right, you won’t have to “burn” calories; you will be able to USE your calories to help you condition your body to be able to do cool things instead of getting caught up in the psychological battle of feeling like we exercise to look a certain way.

This, my friends, is the point. We need to think of the exercise we do in the gym as conditioning… as training for events in life. We are conditioning our hearts to be able to withstand the exertion needed to sprint to the ball in a soccer game. We are conditioning our muscles to push us up Dog Mountain. We are conditioning our balance and coordination to get us safely across the rocks when we cross the stream to the other side. We are conditioning our senses to know the difference between pain and discomfort. We are conditioning our mind to persevere when things get difficult.

Since all of these scenarios are different and innumerable other scenarios exist, it is important that we train in a variety of ways – short bursts; long hauls; quick and fast; slow and steady; light and heavy; up and down; side to side; twisting and turning; one foot and two feet; upside down and right side up… And I assure you, if you are conditioning your body in these ways, you are also most certainly “doing cardio.”

*I would also say you could substitute the word training for conditioning in many instances, but it wouldn’t have made for as catchy a title. I love a little alliteration. 

This blog topic was inspired by a blog article written by a couple coaches at a gym where I used to work in Seattle – SODO CrossFit Endurance. There are some seriously good people there.