Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Cardio Nation

So, I've focused a lot on working the muscles, including the brain muscle with meditation and yoga (or rather, relaxing it). Apart from my breathless run in with a very large set of stairs, I haven't talked too much about cardio.

Both weights and cardio are important. Weights help build muscle, which increases strength, makes your body more able to deal with stress (from exercise), and can raise your metabolism. Cardio helps with weight loss, improves lung and heart health, increases bone density (if there's impact involved), temporarily relieves depression and anxiety, gives you confidence and reduces stress.

But what is cardio, really? I mean, you've got marathoner friend A, who swears by running, social friend B, who busts a move in group exercise, intense friend C, who does nothing but cycle, and loner friend D who ergs her heart out on the rowing machine.

I admittedly don't have much experience with running. I joined the track team my senior year of high school, but the meets were the same day as my piano lessons (a fact I wasn't disappointed to learn), and I was the slowest person with the least endurance on the team. I did continue jogging through the summer following my senior year, but stopped when I got to college. Tried to take it up twice - once in college I went on a 2 mile run, and it was hell. Then I went to Alaska in 2003 and didn't have any workout equipment. At that point, I didn't know what else to do for cardio, so I went jogging. I hurt for three days.

I occasionally flirt with the idea of running. I'm more of a social exerciser, so it's hard to motivate myself to go running on my own. I've thought about joining a running group, but I feel like I'd really be slowing them up (or end up on my own). C and I have talked about running when the weather starts getting nice again, since neither of us are runners, so we'd be starting at the same level.

My other concern is that I've had plantar fasciitis, and it's always hovering right under the surface, waiting to pop out and scream "HAHAAA! It's time to take three months off of exercise while I make you feel like you've got nails reaming your heels! Wheeeee!" I'm not sure how to run to minimize my risk of it flaring up again. Any suggestions?

There are two kinds of cycling - road cycling and group exercise cycling. Road cyclists tend to be less into the social dimension of the activity...they're there to push themselves as hard as they can, and they've even got the padded shorts and pocketed shirts to prove how serious they are. I find road cycling difficult, because you have to deal with cars on the road or people and animals on the bike path. It's nice having scenery and getting outdoors, but I like the fact that on a stationery bike I can close my eyes and just push myself to the music.

Then there's cycling class, which really goes from A to Z in style. You have instructors who take you up 30 minute hills, raising your resistence continually the whole time, while they shout "PUSH!!!" (true story), you have instructors who vary the workout but keep it super-intense, others who are supportive and give you options for modification, others who give you imagery of your whole ride (now on your left, you'll see a wonderful view of the ocean as you sprint up to the front of the pack). Every class is different, especially because of the music.

The other thing is that a lot of cycling newbies are intimidated by the spin room, so they're reluctant to try it. It's usually dark in there, and my gym even has UV lights we can turn on overhead (though we don't usually use them). The music is loud and the instructor is often loud too. People come out drenched in sweat. But what I always tell people is that you can take it at your own level, nobody can actually see if you turn your resistence up. So if you're already going gangbusters (or if you want to take it easy), just pretend to turn the dial if you feel pressure to do so. Spinning is one of the only exercises I do that makes me really sweat. Step gets my heart rate up, but not nearly the same way spinning does.

Group Exercise
Saying "I like group exercise" is kinda like saying "I like books." Your next question would be "well, what kind of books?"

Step - my favorite. This is what got me into teaching. It's partly the choreography, because it's always changing, and there's a real feeling of accomplishment when you complete a class and do well (or a drive to do better next time), and it's just also really awesome to see everyone doing all the dancy moves on the step all in unison. It is challenging the first few times, because step really is a foreign language. If you don't know what an L-step, basic, scissor, or straddle are, then the first few classes are going to be a study in how to end up going the opposite direction as everyone else. But if you can stick out those first few classes, it only gets easier. And step is great for the "the hour's already over?!" factor.

Cardio kickboxing - a bit different from martial arts, this is aerobically modified martial arts. In other words, kicking and punching the air (or, occasionally, pairing up and punching pads). Great workout for the core, legs, and shoulders, as well as the sweat factor. The music in these classes are generally pretty rockin', as you need a faster tempo and a heavy downbeat to really get into the punching swing of things. I like teaching kwando spar (with the pads and gloves), because it's a sociological study to see how people deal with punching each other. People who know each other (or have been to a class a while) aren't at all timid about hitting strongly (especially if they've just had a fight...marriage therapy charge can be paid out to me directly, thanks). People who don't know each other, however, get these grins on their faces because they're nervous about punching, since it's not normally a socially sanctioned exercise. They smile to cover over their hesitation, but then they smile because it's just so satisfying to take those gloves and smack the pads in front of them.

Zumba/Hip hop - zumba is Latin dance aerobics. I honestly haven't done much of either, though I have taken them occasionally. My problem with both is that I'm used to step, which is a shoulders back and upright format. Then I go to zumba and hip hop and my upper body just isn't that pliable in the way they're asking me to be. I can move my hips (though, seriously, how sexy can I really feel in sneakers?), but my upper body looks really awkward in the mirror. It's definitely fun though.

When I got to college, I tried out for the crew team. I really liked the workout (it was kind of a bootcamp thing), but the women's crew team met at 5a every morning. Um, no. Seeing as I'd go to sleep at 2a, and I'm not much of a morning exerciser, I don't think so. In my sophomore year, though, I did sign up for a rowing class. This consisted of sitting on an erg machine facing a window and erging for however long the coach told me to. I kind of enjoyed it. I'd listen to NPR and erg away. I haven't done much erging since then, but I do remember it being a great workout for the whole body.

There are other great cardio options too - jump rope is one of the best exercises that really gives you bang for your buck in comparing time with energy output. 30 second of jumping rope can totally take your breath away. There're jumping jacks, burpees, leaping side to side, lateral shuffles, among many others. What's your favorite cardio? Which makes you sweat the most? Do you mix it up, or are you a one-cardio loyalist?


Charlotte said...

Great list! I love my cardio any way I can get it! I've tried everything on your list (and then some) and love them all. If I have to pick a favorite though, it's some kind of dance-y group fitness class. I like working out with other people. And I love dancing. Double win!

Helen said...

Skipping is my thing, I absolutely love it! Nothing else gives me the same high energy workout. I always thought I would never find a cardio workout I enjoyed and then I tried skipping, which just shows you just need to keep looking until you find the exercise that's right for you :)

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