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Q & A

Got a question about some aspect of mind-body-spirit fitness? Ask! It can be as earthly as "Can a heart monitor really enhance my workout?" (the short answer to that is yes) or as heady as, "Don't I need to sell all my worldly goods and go live on a mountain top to find enlightenment?" (the short answer here is no). Needless to say, we can't answer every question we receive, but we will take one every month and answer it here. If you've got a burning need to know about something, email us, and you may find your query featured next time around.

I'm a 41-year-old male in good health, other than being about 10 or so pounds overweight. I do about one and a half hours of cardio 5 or 6 days a week - a half hour each on the Stairmaster, stationary bike, and in the pool - and weight training 3 to 4 days a week. I go at a moderate pace for all these activities, but get a good heart rate going and sweat up a storm. Some one told me that I was doing too much cardio, and that I should restrict it to just one hour a day - that going beyond an hour starts to burn muscle. The thing is, I love doing my cardio workouts! Am I really doing too much, and should I cut down?

(Article continued below.)

First off, you should really be commended for your positive attitude towards exercise - it's difficult enough for most people to get off the couch for a 20-minute exercise session a couple of days a week. You can't seem to get enough. But it is possible to love something too much, and depending on what your goals are, an hour and a half of cardio 6 days a week is rather excessive. Losing muscle, however, is probably not the main reason you may want to cut back a bit.

It is true that long bouts of cardio can burn muscle, but this is not necessarily as big of a concern as it's cracked up to be. Keep in mind that muscle is burned and replaced throughout the day - you just want to make sure you replace at least as much muscle as you burn. If you want a brawny, extremely muscular physique, then the amount of cardio you are currently doing will hamper you. So if your goal is to add bulk, you should probably cut down to a half an hour a day at most, and intensify your weight training sessions. If you want to drop those last 10 or so pounds that you mentioned, then you also may want to cut back on the cardio, up the intensity of your weight training and reduce your intake of refined, starchy carbs (eat more veggies, protein and a small amount of whole grains instead). On the other hand, if you really enjoy your cardio as much as you say you do and you're happy enough with your body, then lengthy cardio sessions are acceptable a few days a week. With the proper diet - eating enough carbs to support the length of your cardio workouts (again, emphasize veggies and whole grains), and enough protein to keep your endurance muscles healthy - going for an hour and a half should not become a problem as long as you don't do it every day.

The real reason you may consider cutting back on your cardio sessions is that you really are putting a lot of wear and tear on your body, which could leave you open to injury and overtraining. Six days a week of exercise at the length and level you describe can cause your body excessive strain over a period of time - even someone in his 20s may have a hard time keeping up a pace like that (and you know you are not 20 anymore). The way to avoid this is to make sure your body gets sufficient rest. When it comes to lengthy cardio sessions, you need to give your body a day off every two or three days so that it can heal itself and your cells can regenerate. If you allow yourself to overtrain, you will be sidelined for weeks and you would probably hate that. Do keep an eye out for any signs that you need to cut back on your exercise. Irritability, perpetual soreness, lack of enthusiasm for your workouts and constant fatigue are all signs that you have overtrained and you will need to take a break to let your body and mind recoup. Here is a good article about overtraining and what to do about it.

Another thing to consider is that your routine as it exists now sounds a little haphazard - a little bit of this, a little bit of that, raise the heart rate, sweat a bit and that's about it. The fact that you are doing so many different styles of cardio is good because it will keep boredom at bay for a while. But unless you set some goals for yourself and give your cardio workouts a purpose, the routine will start to wear on you. Would you like to make better time on the treadmill or during your swim? Would you like to enter a race, perhaps a 5 or 10K? Do you want to build up even more stamina than you already have? Pick some goals and work towards them to keep your exercise interesting. And change up your routine, too. If there are some days where you just want to do one kind of cardio, then go with it. If the weather is nice, take your cardio out of doors. Hike, ride a bike. Pick a scenic area to go for a run. Unless you absolutely loathe being out of doors in the daylight, cardio really should be taken out of the gym now and again.

Even though you love doing it, you really don't have to do so much cardio. In fact, unless you are training for a marathon, it would probably be better if you let up a bit. Anywhere from half an hour to an hour most days of the week is fine. Never feel that you are shirking off if you do less than what is usual for you. You're already doing more than the majority of people. Cardio is an exercise in endurance, and you want to make sure your exercise program endures for a lifetime. Go too hard too fast and you may burn out instead.

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