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Is Your Cardio Habit Fueling Your Carbohydrate Addiction?

Read time: 4-5 minutes

About 10 years ago, I was the queen of ‘healthy carbohydrates’. Typically I’d start my day with a wholesome bowl of bircher muesli, usually with some plain or vanilla low-fat yogurt, and a good heaping of fruit on top. Yummy. And a coffee of course! Mind you, it’s not as though I just rolled out of bed and started eating. Quite the contrary. Most mornings I’d either hit the streets for a brisk 45-60 minute early morning walk, or I’d do some ‘real’ cardio. For me, real cardio was usually 40-60 minutes on the cross-trainer. Intervals of course. To tell the truth, I’d feel pretty guilty if I only managed 40 minutes first thing, and so most days would find me back on the cross-trainer – or maybe doing some tready sprints – by mid-afternoon at the latest. I offset the exhaustion I often felt with the happy knowledge that after my cardio I’d get to eat something yummy. Healthy yummy, but still. Something to look forward to. A big bowl of fruit salad, perhaps, and maybe some more yogurt. Of course I would have already eaten lunch earlier. My favourite mix was tinned tuna, with a small tin of mixed legumes, 1/3 an avocado, oil and balsamic, and a small tin of sweet corn. Sometimes I’d have a piece of rye toast with it. Tuna and chili pasta was another favourite post workout meal. If I was at home I’d often eat a couple pieces of bread and honey with banana – still something I love, I must admit.

Cardio = carbs = cardio = carbs: where does it end?

Anyway, after my afternoon cardio it was often time to train a few clients and so I wouldn’t quite manage a proper dinner. A ‘fat-burning’ protein shake would tide me over through the evening sessions, which usually finished at around 7pm. Given the fact that I was in my early 20’s and had no responsibilities to anyone but myself – along with the fact that all my friends were pretty much gym friends and equally obsessive – it made sense to stay back for an hour and pump out some more cardio. After all, the more the better, right? And I’d be heading home soon for a ‘real’ dinner anyway. Baked beans with cheese on toast were a favourite, and I definitely remember downing massive plates of pasta a couple of times a week, smug in the knowledge that I’d ‘earned’ it and was using it. Back then the typical day for me was rounded off with up to a block of Cadbury’s chocolate (I know, MAJOR sugar addict, as I confessed over here), but I didn’t let it get to me. I’d be back on the pavement the next morning, after all. And I was pretty skinny anyhow.

Cardio addicts not so anonymous

The problem with this sort of approach, as I’ve since found, is that it’s unsustainable from an energy point of view, but – to add insult to injury – it really just doesn’t work. The typical so-called healthy approach of a carbohydrate-based diet coupled with as much cardio as you can manage just doesn’t get results. Worse, it often results in people gaining weight. And yet still the cardio addicts abound. If you’re a closet (or proud) cardio addict you’ll know that it’s pretty normal to crave carbs regularly, and if you don’t eat them you feel lethargic and listless. Of course you may not be averaging 2-3 hours of cardio per day like I was. For me, it helped that I worked at the gym and could afford to be this obsessive about my exercise. Still, it’s not uncommon for me to notice some gym members come in morning and night – sometimes even noon as well – to get their cardio points ticked off. In your case, it could be as simple as being ‘committed’ to a set amount of cardio sessions per week. I find that us cardio junkies (I say us even though these days I do precisely 30 minutes cardio a week, which is kickboxing) tend to become fixated on certain figures. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? You ‘have’ to finish 20 minutes, or 40 minutes, or whatever your number is. God forbid you stop a minute short – that might mean you don’t get lean and fit!

so just how lean and fit are you from all that cardio?

As one of the top ‘cardio queens’ back at Wantirna Health & Squash a decade or so back, I was extremely lean. In fact, I weighed nearly 10kg less than I do now. Impressive, huh? Well, not really. The truth is I was EXHAUSTED all the time, I was bordering on having an eating disorder, and – of course – it took 2-3 hours per day to maintain my ‘healthy’ cardio habit. In fact, pre-competition I’d often get up to 6 hours. Not really a sustainable approach to exercise, but I was so scared to decrease my cardio in case some fat rebounded back. And the reality was that although my scale weight was low, my body fat was in the mid-twenties – over 10% higher than what it is now. I had virtually no muscle. Skinny fat. I have a suspicion that had I kept these habits going I would have ended up quite a bit larger than what I am now. The reason I believe this to be true is because, without fail, if I want to find the most overweight group of people in any gym, I look to the cardio equipment or the spin classes. And most of the time what I see are tired and desperate faces. Most of those faces are noticeably chubbier than what they were 5 years ago when my current health club opened.

cardio and carbs: a nasty cycle

I have a theory on this. In my personal experience, as well as my experience with clients and gym members, cardio junkies are almost always also carbohydrate addicts. Which is interesting when you consider that both habits slowly but surely train your body to become more efficient at storing fat. Don’t be tricked by the effects of a fantastic cardio ‘sweat’. It may well feel intense and exhausting, but that does not necessarily mean it’s a good thing. Nor does it mean there is any ongoing metabolic benefit, unlike the increased metabolic response to a proper weight training session. Even more interesting than this is the fact that most weight trainees are well and truly in the protein camp, or at least halfway in and therefore not as carbohydrate addicted as they might otherwise be.

The problem with a carbohydrate based diet – even a healthy one – is that the more carbs you eat the more carbs you eat and the more carbs you eat. I remember reading about the link between cardio and carb intake on more than one occasion. It seems that the more cardio you do, the more your body thinks that survival must be threatened or that food is scarce. Why else would you be so constantly on the move? The result is a natural urge to increase fat stores by dosing heavily on carbohydrate based foods. Which as you know, just makes you want to eat more of the damned stuff. And so you go back to the treadmill, and you run, and you run, and you run and you run. And then you eat. And sooner or later you get sick of not getting or maintaining results and so you do more cardio. And you eat more. And eventually maybe you just give up, or you decide that you must have unlucky genetics. Or – if you’re lucky, like I was – maybe someone teaches you about weight training and how to break the carbohydrate cycle. And you realise that exercise doesn’t have to be a never-ending chore with no true sense of control.

If you’re a carb or cardio addict now, or have been in the past, I’d love to hear from you. Please share your experiences in the comments below!

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