If our bodies are made to move, why isn’t exercise easier?
Cardiovascular exercise is arguably the best type of exercise to engage in if you want to lose weight, increase stamina, or fend off future health problems. Gyms are primarily geared towards providing cardio exercise to members, personal trainers live by it, and nearly every fitness plan includes it. So what is it, and what makes it so good for us?
What is Cardiovascular exercise?
Any activity that increases your heart rate and blood circulation falls under the cardio category. Biking, running, rowing, dancing, or even brisk walking are all examples of cardio activity.
What does it do?
In normal, healthy people, cardio can improve heart function, increase physical stamina, and strengthen muscles. Just as exercising your arms will strengthen your biceps, exercising your heart will help it perform better and stay strong.
Why do we need it?
To put it briefly, because it’s what our bodies are made for. The reason that cardio is so good for us is because it’s innately natural to human beings. If you’ve grown up in the city or suburbs in a non-athletic family, it probably doesn’t feel at all natural. But believe me, it is. And I’ll tell you why.
Our Biological History
Our bodies are designed to move. For nearly all of human history, we’ve had to hunt and travel on foot. Each day was an intense cardio workout. It’s only in the past few thousand years (a brief moment in the human timeline) that we began leading agricultural lives that required less cardiovascular activity. This was followed by the industrial age, in which many people spent most of their lives standing in one place repeating the same motion over and over. And it’s only in the past century that we’ve seen an explosion of office jobs, in which we now sit – barely moving – for 8 hours a day.
And our bodies just aren’t made for that.
We spent hundreds of thousands of years adapting to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Evolution simply can’t keep up with our rapid technological advancements. A sedentary lifestyle, as you probably already know, leads to numerous health problems in both the short and long term. But a return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle isn’t an option (and if it were, I think few people would find it appealing). But that doesn’t mean a healthy life is out of our reach.
Modern Cardiovascular Exercise
Luckily, we modern humans don’t need to spend the majority of our waking hours in motion to lead an active life. In fact, you don’t even need to go through an exercise regimen every day. 20 to 60 minutes every other day is the recommended amount of cardiovascular activity for the average non-athlete.
But in our modern lives, that can be asking a lot. As enjoyable as a daily hike through the woods or few miles of cycling would be, most of us simply can’t fit that into our schedules. And a drive out to the gym is still another activity that needs to be scheduled in between work and dinner.
The solution? Just set up a steep hiking trail, mile-long bike path, or even a rowboat in your own home. Of course, I’m talking about workout equipment. The greatest advantage of owning a treadmill or other exercise machine is that there’s virtually no time lost in getting dressed or travelling. Whenever you have 20 free minutes, just jump on and go.
The simplicity and accessibility really can’t be overstated.
But beyond convince, this creates a far more natural relationship with exercise. Our human ancestors didn’t consider ‘exercise’ a planned activity, needing to dress in ceremonial biking clothes and then travel to the designated biking spot just to engage in movement. Exercise was an organic part of their daily lives, and with a bit of equipment, it can be part of ours as well.
So what are some of the best ways you can incorporate cardiovascular exercise into your busy, modern life?
For early humans, walking, running, and hiking were as common as driving is today. It was the primary way our ancestors burned calories and maintained muscle. But our modern world is far more spread out, with more ground to cover in a much shorter span of time. Because of this, walking is now a luxury instead of an everyday necessity.
Treadmills can provide you with a brief, moderately-paced stroll or an intense uphill hike, all depending on your preference. If you want to take a quick ten minute walk, you can do so without any consideration for the weather or location. If it’s late at night and you need to burn some extra energy before bed, you don’t need to worry about safety when going for a jog in the dark.
Bicycling is often a recommended cardio activity for people who lead largely sedentary lives. As with all cardiovascular exercise, it improves circulation and stamina, but also strengthens the thigh and calf muscles (hamstrings). And if you’re trying to cut back on car use, biking is clearly a faster, more efficient choice than walking.
For most, exercise bikes are a huge advantage over traditional biking. Even if you love cycling, it’s not something most people can do on a regular basis due to over-crowded schedules. An exercise bike allows the rider to hop on any time and pedal for as long or briefly as time allows. The convenience of having one in the house means you can pedal for a few minutes every day. Depending on where you live, it may also be a much safer alternative to traditional biking. Without decent bike lanes, bike riding alongside traffic can be dangerous for the inexperienced.
Rowing is an excellent cardio activity. Not only is it a great way to get the blood pumping, it strengthens multiple muscle groups, and is particularly good for developing upper body strength. A rowing machine takes traditional rowing one step farther by utilizing even greater leg motion, so all major muscle groups are exercised.
While not as universal as traveling by foot, ancient humans were no strangers to rowing. In voyaging canoes, the ancient Polynesians crossed expanses of ocean that until very recently were thought to be too large for primitive vessels to navigate. Our human ancestors truly utilized the upper limits of our stamina and endurance.
The simple truth is, if we want to care for our hunter-gatherer bodies, we need to engage in cardiovascular exercise. And while merging the physical needs of our evolutionary design with the limitations of our modern environment looks like a challenge at first, we can easily achieve it with a few small changes.