I was chatting with a client after class the other day and she mentioned that she wished we offered more cardio options at the studio.
And my answer was that what we’re doing IS cardio, but in a very different way from what most people are used to. And that traditional cardio may not be as healthy as we’ve been told.
Then we both had to rush off, but she inspired me to write this blog post, to help clarify a couple of things about the cardiovascular system.
Let’s start with the definition – cardiovascular means “of, pertaining to, or affecting the heart and blood vessels”.
So here’s the thing – normally, we focus on the ‘heart’ part of the equation. That’s cool – it’s obviously a major player. But it’s still only a player – you have 100,000 km of blood vessels as well. That’s a lot! Let’s take a quick look at how they work.
The ‘Vascular’ Part of the System
Your heart pumps oxygenated blood into your arteries. These are big vessels that transport large volumes of blood relatively long distances. Like freeways! From the arteries, blood moves into arterioles (smaller arteries) and then into capillaries, which are tiny (only one blood cell wide!). Basically side roads.
Here’s the thing – it’s only in the capillaries that your blood can transfer oxygen into your cells. So that means that for maximum cellular oxygenation (cells loooooove oxygen), you need to get your blood into your capillaries.
Using Muscles Supports The Work Of The Heart
When you use a muscle, there’s a natural process called ‘vasodilation’ that occurs. The nearby arterioles relax, which drops the pressure in the area and sucks blood into the capillaries of the working muscle. Pretty awesome, because now your hard-working muscle is filled with the blood it needs to do its job.
The flip side of this?
When a muscle doesn’t work, it doesn’t get fed. Blood only moves into the capillaries if you use the muscles that surround ’em.
We now have a model where two things are happening:
- The heart pumps blood around the arteries.
- Working muscles suck blood out of the arteries and into the arterioles & capillaries.
This model works well as long as all your muscles are working – at least a bit – all of the time.
But we decided to get civilization and become sedentary and now we only use about 25% of our muscular capacity.
Soooooo, now we have a situation where your heart is working to pump blood around the freeways. Your muscles pull blood to into the capillary sideroads when they’re working but they mostly don’t work the amount they should. In fact, and many of your muscles do very little work indeed, notably including the glutes, the intrinsic foot muscles, core muscles and shoulders. This includes fit people – it’s very possible to move your entire body around in space and still have large chunks of it not participating.
So What Happens During Your Cardio Workout?
Issue #1 – You Over-Use Your Heart & Arteries
When you step on that treadmill or bust it out in spin class, some of your muscles are working hard, but big chunks of you aren’t doing much at all. Your heart has to work double time to do the work that the muscles should be helping with. What’s more, you’re increasing your blood pressure, creating unnaturally high loads on arterial walls.
There’s definitely a place for exposing your heart to higher loads than you get from sitting around – but being sedentary all week and then doing 3 really intense 45 minute work-outs isn’t necessarily a great way to do it.
Issue #2 You’re Not Getting Oxygen To All Your Cells
Now you’ve got a stronger heart, but where is the blood even going? The whole point of your cardiovascular system is to deliver oxygen to all of your cells. Your cardio workout is only using a small percentage of your muscles (I know it doesn’t feel that way!). If there are large chunks of cells experiencing lower-than-optimal circulation, then they’re not able to do their jobs the way they should. They’re basically starving a little bit all of the time. Poor little guys! This is a super stressful situation for your body to be in on a sustained basis.
The worst part is, post-workout, your stronger heart is still not going to be able to get blood into your tight, underused muscles.
So Skip The Cardio and Do This Instead
That’s why I prefer the Nutritious Movement solution for cardio.
- Use corrective exercises to help you get aligned. In the short term, this will pull blood into your underused areas. In the long term, this will allow you to access more of your muscles more of the time.
- The correctives will also help you learn how to walk, squat & hang in ways that – you guessed it – access more of your muscles more of the time.
- And finally, get out there and walk, squat, hang and carry (ideally on natural surfaces), because that’s where the real juice is. Some of this will make your heart beat faster & get stronger – and all of it will pull blood out into your muscles where it can deliver its O2 payload.
If you’d like to try this unique approach to better cardio health, you can come to any of my classes 🙂 I’m super excited to announce more DROP IN group classes for late spring and summer so you can enjoy more flexibility (haha!). Get all the details right here.
P.S. There are actually a couple more things to reconsider with our current cardiovascular approach that I didn’t have space for here. I could have discussed the dynamics of blood flow, the impact of stress hormones, and the strain of taking unmoving bodies and loading them hard. And I probably will talk about them all some day. If you want to learn more in the meantime, Katy did this great podcast on cardio and natural movement. She also has an excellent section on this topic in Move Your DNA.