Our bodies are designed to move daily. Exercise is a non-negotiable part of well-being, on a short list of must-do’s for optimal health that includes drinking lots of water, getting enough sleep and eating plentiful fruits and vegetables. The benefits are endless - exercise makes us happier, it keeps our weight in check, which is necessary for the health of our hearts, muscles, and bones. It increases our energy levels, it decreases our chance of chronic illness, it improves our brain health and memories, it helps us relax and sleep better, and it’s even good for our sex lives.
As children, we get our exercise from play outside, recess and gym at school, and organized sports. As adults, we have to create our own time and space for exercise, and figure out what feels good in our bodies. Especially in our geographic area of the world (New York City and Fairfield County), there is more pressure put on how we look than on how we feel. There is also an emphasis on efficiency when it comes to exercise – how can I burn as many calories as possible, get as much bang for my buck as I can, in a short time period.
Pregnancy necessitated taking a step back from my intense exercise routine of three to five spin classes a week, plus a couple bar or yoga classes, on top of walking my dog almost every day. Being forced to take this pause gave me the perspective to see that the intensity of my workouts may not have been working for me and my body. In fact, I can see in retrospect that I may have been stressing my body out. I started to wonder – is this just me or is there something behind this, and could integrating low impact exercise be beneficial for our bodies?
“Chronic cardio” is the term that has been coined to describe the pervasive emphasis on 45+ minute workouts based on high intensity aerobic exercise. The Paleo community points out that our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t “ramp” their heart rates for over an hour like we do now – they relied on tracking abilities and walking rather than “chasing down” prey. When we exercise in this way we’re operating from our brains – we think our way towards our goal (another ten minutes, or five minutes) and think our way past any pain and discomfort we may be feeling (no pain no gain). This willing ourselves past signals from our bodies to slow down can be taxing on the lungs and on the heart, which have no choice but to keep up with our bodies as our mind propels us forward.
Here are some of the costs of high-impact exercise, aka chronic cardio:
- Heart issues including thickening of the heart muscle, artery plaque, and cardiac arrhythmias (especially atrial fibrillation)
- Requires huge amounts of carbohydrates – aka sugar
- Promotes hyperinsulinemia (overproduction of insulin)
- Increases oxidative damage (think free radicals)
- Physical wear and tear on hips, knees, bones, including risk of osteoarthritis and tendonitis
- Generates high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which increases rates of infection, injury, depletion, and even encourages our bodies to store fat
- Has been shown to affect blood levels of neurotransmitters that can lead to feelings of depression and chronic fatigue
- Can negatively affect the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, possibly causing hypothyroidism
Low-impact exercise is less stressful on our musculoskeletal system, cardiovascular system, and there is less risk of injury. As a general rule, exercise helps to regulate cortisol, the stress hormone, but over-exercising and over-emphasis on intense cardio workouts can increase our cortisol levels to unhealthy levels. Modern life is already very stressful, and chronically high cortisol can increase your risk for a long list of health problems from digestion to weight gain to depression.
Alternatives include HIIT – high-intensity interval training – and low-impact workouts like walking, dancing, cycling, yoga, Pilates and strength training. Although these exercise methods may not burn as many calories in as short a period of time as high-impact cardio like a boot-camp, long-distance running or spin class, they have all the same cardiovascular benefits of those activities without the massive increase in cortisol and physical impact on the joints and muscles. Low-impact exercise is beneficial for joints, your sleep, and energy levels. Here's a bit more on how each type of low-impact workout can benefit you:
- Strength training - including free-weights, weight machines, or your own body weight - makes your muscles and bones stronger and more resilient, benefits your balance, coordination and posture, can treat chronic illnesses like arthritis, and improves both your mood and sleep.
- Interval training (HIIT) increases muscle fiber strength, improves aerobic capacity which can benefit cardiovascular health and blood pressure, increases muscle mitochondria (the main energy production center in muscle), balances blood sugar, increases natural growth hormone production, and oxygenates the body and blood.
- Low-impact cardio (walking, swimming, cycling) strengthens the capillary network (blood vessels that supply the muscle cells with fuel and oxygen), increases muscle mitochondria, increases production of fat-burning and fat-transporting enzymes and can be enjoyed with a friend.
I haven’t figured out the ideal workout regimen for myself, but I am becoming more and more certain that it doesn’t look like my pre-pregnancy regimen. My chronic colds, fatigue and inflammation issues were likely exacerbated by my cardio-heavy workouts. I am experimenting with more walking, some Pilates, and maybe (once I have time again) I'll indulge in that cardio dance party spin class that I used to adore once a week.