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!

19 responses to “Is Your Cardio Habit Fueling Your Carbohydrate Addiction?”

  1. Kathleen says:

    Hi Kat,
    I think this is an interesting discussion–and complicated. People seem to have different carb needs, depending on age, gender, activity level (there ARE endurance athletes out there who require more carbs), and ethnic background. For example, those young guys in the gym can always seem to live on carbs and still have abs. Are they as healthy as they could be? Depends on what else is in their diet.

    After years of experimenting, I know I stay leaner on fewer carbs and on timing my carbs. What’s troubling is that now it’s fashionable to say some carbs are good (like chocolate and Cabernet Sauvignon, admittedly two of my faves) and some are “bad” (eg, that high-glycemic Russett potato, whch has a sky-high ORAC value).

    So how can you demonize all carbs? (I remember too well when people demonized fat.) Just some carbs are “better” than others, just like some fats are “better” than others and some proteins are better at building muscle than others.

    I’m rambling. I guess I’d vote for watching what happens to your body, and seeing which “carbs” work best for you, and in what amounts and when. There, how’s that for waffling. (Sorry, a carb pun.)

    • Kat says:

      Great comment Kathleen. You’re right in suggesting it’s not good to demonize all carbs, and I hope my post didn’t come off as trying to do that because it’s certainly not what I intended! I guess I meant more that my experience has shown high amounts of cardio to often be coupled with high – and often high starch – carbs, to the detriment of adequate protein. I believe that even the starchiest carbs have their place in a healthy diet depending on circumstance (i.e. Post weight training in a lean or carb tolerant individual), but I also believe many exercisers become overly reliant on so-called healthy carbs. Individuality and experimentation is definitely key!

  2. Brenda says:

    Hi Kat,

    Whenever I hear that cardio is not what it is cracked up to be I think about my kids who grew up dancing and professional dancers and I wonder where dance falls into this equation. Professional dancers always look so fit and muscular and many of the kids/teens that took dance were too. (but not the ones that probably ate a lot of junk/carbs on the side) I guess I am wondering where dance fits into the now-newer-doing-less cardo concept. When my kids took dance classes such as jazz they often times had short bursts across the floor as they took turns in class. When they were in a performing group they had 2-3 minute dances they had to practice full out, and then rest a few minutes in between. Ballet bar work was for training muscles and strengthening but they also had there moment to practice dance moves across the floor and then rest while others took there turn. In tap class there feet were constantly moving accept they also stopped to rest, while waiting. Is what dancers do considered cardio? Or because they often do it in shorter bursts is it considered the equivalent of sprinting………which is suppose to be a good thing right?

    • Kat says:

      Hi Brenda. Personally when I talk about cardio in general as ‘detrimental’ I’m mainly referring to endurance or excessive cardio. Dance has a high strength requirement, and also there’s obviously constant variety in movement unlike typical repetitive cardio, so I wouldn’t really put it in the same boat!

      • Brenda says:

        I should have mentioned that they sometimes took up to four dance classes in one day. I was just wondering because I was hoping they didn’ t set themselves up for gaining weight in the future by being cardio accessive.

      • Kat says:

        I think it’s not that simple … So many other factors to consider, and I also don’t really want to lump kids activities in with excessive adult cardio behaviors done purely (if counter productively) for fat loss. 4 classes a day could become a bad thing depending on intent, on nutrition, on other activities and so on, but could and most likely is fine for children, and even for adults I’d consider dance more of a strength endurance sport than a cardio activity.

      • Brenda says:

        Thanks Kat……it is something I’ve been wondering about for a while now.

  3. Bonnie says:

    I was never a carb addict but have definitely been one of those people who goes to the gym three times a day. Like you, I’d feel tired but would plow through more and more exercise. Rather than eat more carbs, I maintain my diet as if I wasn’t exercising at all and did actually end up with an eating disorder. the interesting thing was that there was a massive back lash post hand. This kind of eating and exercise really through my hormones out and my weight went up once I stopped exercising incessantly. Funnily enough, as soon as I started incorporating fats into my diet and exercising in a different way, I became lean again with a body fat percentage much lower (13%) than what it would have been. Now, with your help I’m redressing the hormone imbalance I developed and am getting leaner and leaner every day. I have more energy, more time and enjoy exercise much more because it’s not such a punishing activity. Every now and then I go for a run or something very cardio based but it is purely for the enjoyment and the feeling of it and would not be something I did every day.
    thanks Kat for your help and advice.

    • Kat says:

      My pleasure Bonnie, I’m so glad to hear it’s working for you. I’m sure your new relaxed environment is also helping!

  4. CHANELLE says:

    This is a great post, Kat! It’s so true about the link between carbs and cardio. I just wonder why it took me so long to see it??

    • Kat says:

      I hear that; for years I didn’t even think about it … I guess we are so conditioned to believe it’s normal or required to have to do lots and lots of exercise to be in great shape. We never consider thar our ‘healthy’ diet might be part of the reason we’re struggling!

      • Jean says:

        You are right on the mark that the chronic cardio both 1) increases carb cravings and 2) helps your body keep on weight! (So counter intuitive, but yet true).
        I saw this happen when I did Atkins a year ago. Off came the weight in startling speed.

        Following their direction, I cut back on exercise to get through the first, most radical stage which is called Induction, when you only eat 20 gms. or less of carbs a day for a couple of weeks.

        After 3 months I decided walking like I used to pre-Atkins for about an hour a day would bring off even more weight in conjunction with the diet.

        Without adding any more carbs, my body put 3 pounds back on! Without changing the carb intake.

        I reasoned that my body sensed that there was suddenly more demand for carbs and that none would be forthcoming (on Atkins), so it stalled the fat burning in a last-ditch attempt to save fuel.

        Follow that out and you can see why what you reported is true. Cardio makes your body selectively burn carbs. Even during low and slow long-duration cardio when your body switches to fat-burning, that only takes place WHILE you are doing the cardio–the rest of the day the body switches to fat-storage in order to prepare for the next onslaught.

        So what you reported (and I also experienced) makes perfect sense.

        Better course of action: anaerobic weight lifting anf maybe (MAYBE) sprints. That will keep the carb alarm from going off.

      • Kat says:

        Jean that is a brilliant observation. Thank you so much for sharing! To be honest I don’t think I’ve ever expressed it so clearly myself!

  5. Mark says:

    Good post Kat, and no- it didnt come off like you were demonizing carbs at all!

  6. Kelly says:

    Dear Kat,

    Really enjoyed reading your post, as I definitely fall under this category!! .. As regards weight training; would you suggest short bouts of high intensity if trying to lose fat or more reps with a lighter weight? I’m always confused about this.. I train 4 to 5 times a week, I do do weight training on 4 of the 5 days and I leave one day in the week just for cardio.. I go to a 1 hour spinning class.. however, I also do at least 20 minutes of cardio after each weight lifting session? Would you recommend changing my program to spend more time on weight lifting? My only concern is that I wouldn’t want to bulk up with muscle too much from all the weight lifting…

    Thanks 🙂

    • Kat says:

      Hi Kelly, I’d cut way back on the cardio. If you love spinning do it once a week, but if you’re doing it to get lean then just stop. Regarding cardio after weights, best not to do that all the time … 20 minutes is okay but there would be a greater benefit in doing that later in the day. You can do something at home even? Regarding how to lift weights, both styles (and others) have their merits so I would include some of each, but properly structured of course. Personally I lift very heavy weights (low reps; high intensity) 4-5 times per week but I usually do one circuit style workout in addition 🙂