We as a culture may idolize athletes, but a lot of athletes are unhealthy in ways you wouldn’t believe by looking at them. On the outside, exercise enthusiasts may look like pristine, spandex-clad Greek gods and goddesses while crushing Ironman events, CrossFit Games, Spartan Races, and ultramarathons. The truth is, though, many of these athletes have depleted hormones, overstressed hearts, and damaged guts from the raw physical exertion their sports require. Volume-centric exercise and endurance exercise can be harmful to your overall health and longevity. Just look at some of the giants in endurance events:
Eddy Merckx, “the greatest cyclist of all time”, had a nonobstructive hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic condition where the heart muscle thickens, causing shortness of breath, chest pain, palpitations, light-headedness, fatigue, and fainting. This is the leading cause of sudden death in young athletes.
Hamish Carter, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist in triathlon, suffered atrial fibrillation (rapid heart rate) due to heart scarring. This kind of damage results from the increased mechanical work, elevated core temperatures, varying pH levels, elevated amounts of catecholamines and exposure to reactive oxygen species that the heart is exposed to during ultra-endurance sports.
Greg Welch, a multiple Triathlon World Champion, developed ventricular tachycardia (quick heart rhythms in the lower chambers of the heart, resulting from improper electrical signals; if not treated, it can lead to ventricular fibrillation, which, similar to atrial fibrillation, is a life-threatening, inadequate heartbeat). He underwent nine open-heart surgeries between 2001 and 2003.
In a 2013 article published in the journal of the British Medical Association, Dr. James O’Keefe, Jr. stated, “Evidence is accumulating to indicate that exercise routines that are best for conferring cardiovascular (CV) health and longevity are not identical to the fitness regimens that are best for developing maximal endurance and peak CV fitness. The potential for CV damage secondary to extreme endurance exercise appears to increase in middle age and beyond. Thus, it would seem particularly important to avoid chronic excessive exercise doses after age 45 or 50 years.”
So if you don’t want to train like an elite athlete, but you do want to exercise enough to defy aging, improve your health, and look amazing, you need to first answer one question:
What’s the minimum effective dose of exercise to maximize your longevity?
Currently, the universal government guidelines for exercise per week, which are backed up by large health organizations, call for 150 minutes of moderate exercise to develop and maintain health and fitness. However, those who enjoy the greatest exercise benefits actually triple that recommendation, and exercise moderately (mostly by walking), for 450 minutes per week, which works out to a little more than an hour a day.
This is the exercise sweet spot for gaining longevity benefits. These fitness enthusiasts are 39% less likely to dieprematurely than people who never exercise.
So at the bare minimum, you should be doing at least twenty-one minutes of structured exercise per day to reap the longevity benefits of exercise.
What’s interesting, though, is that after reaching 450 minutes per week, the longevity benefits of regular exercise plateau. In addition, a portion of that exercise should be vigorous activity. If you’re wondering what qualifies as moderate exercise and vigorous exercise:
Moderate aerobic exercise should feel somewhat hard, with your heart rate and breath quickening. You should break into a sweat after about ten minutes. If you’re able to talk, but unable to sing the words to a song during an activity, then it’s moderate.
Vigorous aerobic exercise should feel challenging. You’ll be breathing hard and fast, your heart rate will increase significantly and you’ll break into a sweat after only a few minutes. If you’re working at this level, you won’t be able to say more than a few words without pausing for breath.
If you stick to the minimum 150 minutes of exercise per week, around twenty to thirty minutes of that should be vigorous activity.
If you want to look like some of fittest old people on the planet when you’re 70, 80, or 90 years old, you should try to balance your training by including both strength and cardiovascular training, which will often overlap.
Strength training is crucial for maintaining muscle mass and hormones as you age and has even been shown to decrease the rate at which telomeres (which cap the DNA chromosomes and protect them from damage) shorten, meaning strength training gives you anti-aging benefits. You can learn about the best ways to build muscle and strength in the article.
When it comes to having a body with adequately low body fat to look fit and lean, but adequately high body fat to support hormones and fertility, and enough cardiovascular fitness to be venous and vibrant, but not so much cardiovascular fitness that you’re overtrained from excessive volume, you need the minimum effective dose of cardiovascular fitness, muscle endurance, strength, mitochondrial density, metabolic efficiency, and stamina.
4 Proven Ways To Improve Your Cardiovascular Health
The following research-backed methods focus primarily on increasing your cardiovascular fitness without harming your health or wasting your time with long and inefficient cardio sessions, and will also build functional muscle and strength in the process.
1) Maximum Mitochondrial Density
Mitochondria are the power generators of your cells. Your mitochondria use oxygen and nutrients to produce ATP, which is your body’s primary fuel for all cellular function, and therefore, all bodily function. There are some theories that suggest that when mitochondria fail or mitochondrial density falls, your risk of cancer and chronic disease increase. For example, a study on the role of mitochondrial dysfunction in the progression of Alzheimer’s diseasestates that the dysfunction of mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation, which is responsible for ATP production, is one of the processes often correlated with Alzheimer’s.
Put in more basic terms, a natural consequence of mitochondrial ATP production is free radical production. Your body can handle a normal amount of free radicals without them doing much damage, but when you have too few mitochondria or if your mitochondria aren’t functioning properly, you’ll be producing more free radicals than your body can cope with, leading to greater oxidative stress and accelerated aging.
All of that is to say that you want properly functioning mitochondria and more of them.
Research has shown that the best approach for maximizing mitochondrial health and density is to exert yourself for very brief, intense periods of time, followed by a recovery period that isn’t quite long enough for full recovery. In this study, a workout consisting of four 30-second all-out cycling sprints significantly activated mitochondrial biogenesis in the skeletal muscle of human subjects. In another study, three sets of five 4-second treadmill sprints with 20 seconds of rest in between each sprint, performed three times per week did the same thing. One other study showed four to six 30 second bouts of all-out sprint cycling with four minutes of rest done three times a week also improved important components of mitochondrial health.
A simple protocol that combines all aspects of the above research is what is known in exercise science as a Tabata set. It’s pretty straightforward: choose any movement (riding a bike, running, rowing, push-ups, squats, burpees) and do that movement for twenty seconds as hard as you possibly can, followed by ten seconds of rest. Do that for a total of four minutes. Do a Tabata set two to three times per week.
2) Maintain And Improve Your VO2 Max
Your VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during maximal exercise and is an indication of your cardiorespiratory fitness. VO2 max will naturally increase by training for mitochondrial density because the more mitochondria you have, the greater amount of oxygen your cells use, so your body adapts by increasing your maximum oxygen utilization capacity, or VO2 max.
Your actual VO2 max is the result of two variables:
1) how much blood your heart can send to your muscles.
2) how much of the oxygen sent to your muscles is actually extracted from the blood and used by the muscles before the blood heads back to your heart.
To improve your VO2Max, this study found that four repetitions of four-minute runs at 90%–95% of heart rate maximum, followed by three minutes of active recovery, performed three days per week for eight weeks resulted in a 10% greater improvement in stroke volume, compared to long, slow distance training three days per week for eight weeks.
To maintain VO2max, based on the results of this research study, the minimum effective dose for cardiovascular fitness maintenance is five four-minute high-intensity rounds at 87-97% of your maximum heart rate, with approximately four minutes (full recovery) after each round to allow you to recover sufficiently, once every two weeks.
Most research indicates that regularly performing intervals where you’re reaching about 90% of your maximum heart rate or higher will improve your VO2 max.
3) Lactic Acid Tolerance
If you’ve ever “felt the burn”, you know what lactic acid does, and how it can get in the way of powering through a tough set or a hard run. Lactate, or lactic acid, is a natural waste byproduct that occurs when your muscles don’t get enough oxygen, resulting in the anaerobic release of energy rather than aerobic energy production, which is why the presence of lactic acid is sometimes described as “oxygen debt”.
One obvious way to deal with lactic acid build-up is to improve your VO2 max since it’s the result of an insufficiency of oxygen. The other way is to boost your tolerance to it. One study on lactic acid indicates that strenuous athletic training can increase what’s known as the “alkaline reserve”. The alkaline reserve refers to compounds like sodium bicarbonate and sodium citrate in the blood. These compounds help to neutralize different kinds of metabolic acids, including lactate. So, by engaging in certain kinds of physical activity, you can boost your alkaline reserve, which enhances the removal of lactate from your muscles and mitigates the onset of muscular fatigue.
One effective method to boost lactate tolerance is to exercise just long enough to begin building up lactic acid, which is about two minutes. Then, allow yourself to recover for about half that time. For example, if you wanted to train yourself to tolerate high levels of lactic acid, you would do five sets of two minutes on a bicycle, or a treadmill, or rowing machine, or with burpees, then take one minute of recovery. This increases lactic acid and teaches your body how to buffer all that acid and get it out of the muscles.
4) Stamina/Aerobic Training/Burning Fatty Acids
This is a weakness in a lot of training programs. A lot of powerful athletes, with great mitochondrial density, high lactic acid tolerance, and an impressive VO2 max, simply can’t go for any lengthy period of time. And while constant, hardcore long-distance training can have adverse side-effects, long, slow aerobic fat-burning workouts certainly have a time and place. For example, you can do them first thing in the morning for an extra fat-burning boost. They also help you build up the mental and physical tolerance to stay on your feet during a 5-hour marathon. While you don’t want to rely on just this type of training, it should certainly be in your repertoire.
To cap off your cardiovascular training, try and choose something long that you can go out and do in a relatively aerobic state. Sometime between once a week and once a month, do something like a two to five-hour hike, bike ride or walk, anything where you’re moving at a low intensity for a long period of time. When combined with mitochondrial density training, VO2 max training, and lactic acid training, stamina training will help you build a strong, powerful, efficient cardiovascular system.
Summary – The Ideal Cardio Plan For Optimal Longevity & Health
When you do the math, it’s really not necessary to spend any more than 30-60 minutes per day on getting fit, looking good naked and living a long time.
Here’s what you’ll want to do:
- To maximize mitochondrial density, do a four-minute Tabata set two to three times per week
- To improve VO2 max, do four repetitions of four-minute intense intervals at 90% maximum heart with three minutes recovery three days per week. To maintain VO2Max, five four-minute high intensity rounds at 87-97% of your maximum heart rate, with approximately four minutes (full recovery) after each round to allow you to recover sufficiently, once every two weeks.
- To boost your lactic acid tolerance, do three to five rounds of two-minute movements to build up lactic acid, then take a one-minute recovery period
- To improve your stamina, do something like a hike or bike ride for 90+ minutes at low-to-moderate intensity one to two times a month.
You can easily combine these training techniques with a combination of super-slow and high-intensity strength workouts to start building a superhuman body made to last.