The most neglected muscle at the gym might be the most crucial: the heart. It might be because it’s so difficult to flex this muscle in the mirror, or because heart-strengthening exercise is perceived as boring, monotonous, and time-sucking. It’s like the vegetables of gym work: you know you should do it, but it’s often the thing people who enjoy training strength struggle most to get on our plates.
There are plenty of reasons to do cardio: not only does it strengthen the heart muscle itself, but it also improves the body’s ability to circulate blood and oxygen, reduces blood pressure and cholesterol, and decreases risk factors for a wide variety of diseases, including Alzheimer’s and certain cancers.
The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity throughout the week, or 75 minutes of intense activity, or some combination of the two. We know elite performance athletes are getting their exercise vegetables, doing low-and-slow workouts in Zone 2 to build a foundation of stamina that they’ll rely on for longer and more intense efforts later. It might feel boring to set out for a low-and-slow run, but keeping the benefits at the top of your mind might be the motivation you need to keep with the routine. There are plenty of other ways to get your cardio in without lacing up your running sneakers, too, like rowing, jumping rope, or playing a sport like basketball, tennis, or soccer.
Sports cardiologist Dr. Ben Levine, who spoke to GQ about Zone 2 training, recommends switching up your go-to cardio exercises and durations in order to keep your workouts interesting, avoid repetitive stress injuries, and target different muscle groups. If it keeps you moving, and you enjoy it, that’s what matters more than the activity itself, he wrote in a blog for the UT Southwestern Medical Center.
Getting this AHA-recommended dose of exercise in every week can seem daunting. But as trainer and GQ columnist Joe Holder has emphasized, you can break this cardio down in to “snacks.” You don’t have to get to the gym to get some movement in: you can be intentional about picking up the pace while you walk to the train or simply take the stairs instead of the elevator when you’re headed into work.
It’s never too late to add more of these exercise vegetables to your routine. A 2021 study by Dr. Levine’s team found that “dedicated exercise training in middle age can reverse some of the consequences of diseases such as hypertension, and can potentially stave off more serious diseases such as heart failure in the future.”
Just as vegetables can be dressed up to be enticing and appetizing, heart-focused exercise can also be sexy. Keep in mind that longer bouts of cardio might not create a satisfying visual pump like a burst of pushups or bench press. But perhaps prolonging your time on Earth is the biggest flex of all.