Nine years ago, when I was 23 years old, my body was a wreck. At the time, I was suffering from crippling tendonitis in both my arms, I had old-man posture, and I was missing a patch of hair in my beard (alopecia). And I was taking prescription pain medicine with side effects just so that I could keep working hard in the web design field.
Would you rather watch instead of read?
But then one day my roommate Shane invited me to join him in an experiment to do whatever we could to gain weight and become strong. We called our experiment Lean to Mean, and over four months, I had gained over 35 pounds and was now in the healthy range of BMI. My chronic tendonitis was in the process of being cured, I was standing taller, and oddly enough my beard patch filled in.
I was lifting weights, eating great, and I was doing HIIT running outside in the sun to stay help stay lean enough to see abs even while rapidly gaining weight. It was like flipping on a light switch, and I had never felt so instantly energetic in my life.
I stupidly cut cardio to have more time to lift heavy weights
Over the years of building our business, I kept lifting weights and continued to get bigger and stronger. As the training volume went up, and my workouts became more difficult and draining, something had to go—I cut cardio.
I went years without doing any cardio. Unfortunately, cardio had become the proverbial benchwarmer in my life. I always planned to sub in cardio, and get him some game time, but weight-training was crushing it on the field.
The problem with cutting cardio, of course, is I spent much of the rest of my day sitting inside at my desk for work. Worse still, I worked from home and didn’t need to go anywhere. Even worse yet, I ordered my groceries online, used Amazon Prime, and shopped online for everything else (boy, I sound like quite the recluse). I didn’t need to walk to work. I didn’t even need to walk to my car or to take the streetcar. I didn’t need to walk to run errands.
Thinning hair led me to look for answers
Then as the years passed, just recently I noticed my hair was beginning to thin on the crown of my head. After looking at countless studies and reviews to find out what natural options there were to help halt or even reverse this process, I found out that a piece of the hair loss puzzle (which is not yet fully understood) is cardiovascular health. It’s possible that bad cardiovascular health means that blood flow begins to slow to the top of the head (and other places.)
Obviously, hair loss is complicated and isn’t fully understood yet and is affected by other things like genetics, nutrition, and lifestyle. But take a look at how Rogaine (minoxidil) works. It’s a drug that works by bringing blood flow to the head (study). It’s theorized that the way it helps restore hair fullness is by being a vasodilator that widens blood vessels to allow more oxygen to get there to supply nutrients to the hair (and yes, it has downsides and doesn’t fix the main problem of a bad cardio health). Hair strengthening shampoos with caffeine in it work in the same way by helping to improve the delivery of energy and nutrients to the hair follicles. (study)
We’ll cover more about hair loss later, but I bring this up now because I began researching cardio because my hair was thinning. It’s a silly reason if I can be totally honest, but I’m glad it made me start looking into cardio because I’m finding out how important it is not just for overall health but for how good life can feel.
I believe the link to cardiovascular health is why men hate the idea of losing their hair so much. Deep down I suspect that they know it’s one sign of losing their youthfulness, vitality, mental quickness, physical capability, and as you’ll see below—virility. So, even if you’re not losing your hair, there are still a handful of great reasons to do cardio. Onwards:
1. It keeps you looking and feeling young in a different way than resistance training does
In a study published in January 2019, researchers found that cardio (steady state as brisk walking and intense interval training) helped to keep cells “young.” But oddly, those in the resistance training group didn’t experience these benefits. Everyone became more fit in terms of cardiovascular health, but the weightlifters didn’t get the same cellular improvements (telomeres lengthening). According to an interview with the NYT, the researchers said that even though lifting weights is strenuous, the pulse rate of the heart was overall much lower, meaning less blood flow and less response from blood vessels. They said, even if you’re middle-aged, you can still help to keep your cells younger through cardio. (NYT article)
I am not saying that resistance training like lifting weights doesn’t help fight off aging. It just helps in a different way—mainly through fighting off sarcopenia, which is where you slowly lose muscle mass as you age. (Some researchers think you can delay sarcopenia with consistent weightlifting up until to your mid-sixties. And even after that, lifting still helps to radically slow down the problem.)
So if you want to be optimally healthy, fit, and strong, you’ll want to do both cardio and lifting weights, as they work collectively.
2. Doing cardio makes you think more quickly, have better memory, and changes the way you think
In this study, just a 10-minute stationary bike ride boosted cognitive performance by 14%.
And in this study, it gave evidence that cardio could help with learning better and long term memory.
Dr John J. Ratey, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who’s published over 60 peer-reviewed articles and 11 books, wrote a book called Spark, where he explains the research of the massive range of benefits that cardio has on better learning and memory, expanded creativity, and improving the way you think (among other benefits). The short answer is that if you want to learn and think better, do some cardio, perhaps even in the morning before you start your day. (Here’s a 7-minute recap of the book on Youtube.)
3. Doing cardio helps to crush anxiety, depression, pain, and diseases
Far from just slowing the process of aging, cardio can also help fix a ton of other problems when it comes to overall health.
In this study, doing as little as one hour a week of cardio (light walking or swimming) was enough to ward off depression (study) and many studies have shown similar results (study, study). In these studies, cardio helped to squash anxiety (study, study, article).
And when we face the facts, cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of men and women in the US (article). The crazy thing, is researchers say this is largely preventable through exercising and staying lean—both things cardio can help with. Cardio also helps to fight off diabetes and certain cancers while helping you stay lean (review). And it seems like cardio could even help fight off dementia. (review)
4. Cardio might help to keep more hair on your head, especially if you get outside to do it
Hair loss is complicated, and it seems to be related to our genes. But, that said, losing your hair and graying hair is associated with early heart disease (study) and future prostate cancer (study, study). The crazy thing is that if you’re balding and graying, that’s an even bigger predictor of heart disease than being obese. Now, that doesn’t mean that bad cardio health is causing your hair loss, we don’t know that, but it’s possible it plays a role because our cardio helps to get oxygen around our body.
In this study, it found that places were men are balding have 60% less oxygen compared to areas on the head with hair (study). A derma roller increases blood flow to the head, a head massage increases blood flow, and as we saw earlier in this article, people are putting minoxidil and caffeine on their head for increasing blood flow. (study)
It looks like stress may even play a role in hair loss but it’s too early to tell for sure (study on mice). But lowering your stress is never a bad idea, and we know that doing cardio will help.
Small tangent on cardiovascular health, sunlight, and hair loss
Calcification of our body might play a role in hair loss. The calcification on the head would choke out blood flow, and this could be why hair loss is related to heart disease. Calcification of plaque in the arteries is heart disease. (Harvard Health)
How can we lower our blood levels of calcium? High calcium levels and low vitamin D levels in the blood are linked. From this journal:
“The major function of vitamin D is to maintain calcium homeostasis. It accomplishes this by increasing the efficiency of the intestine to absorb dietary calcium.”
But now we’re discovering that it might not be the actual vitamin D itself (something we could supplement with) that helps, but the entire process of sunlight exposure.
- UVB hits our skin
- 7-dehydrocholesterol has its chemical bond broken by sunlight
- That converts 7-dehydrocholesterol into vitamin D.
- That process kickstarts many other processes, including helping us have proper calcium levels. (study, article)
(If you want to read more about the vitamin D and sunlight, check out this article on Outside.)
So have your brisk walk outside in the sun. And if you’re in a high-latitude country, do it at noon when the UVB levels are highest. Your hair and heart will thank you.
5. Cardio helps to fight off erectile dysfunction
There’s more evidence that erectile dysfunction is now affecting men under 40, and affecting up to 30% of them (study). Why are so many men running into this issue? ED has many reasons (some of it being depression and anxiety, which cardio can help with), but for many men it comes down to physical health.
According to this 2018 review (study), erectile dysfunction is related to being physically inactive, having hypertension, being overweight, and bad cardiovascular health. Basically, take ED as a warning sign that you’ve got bad cardio health.
The researchers wrote that based on the evidence, erectile dysfunction due to physical health could be fixed by doing 40 minutes of moderate to intense cardio four times a week.
How to get started with cardio
Hold up—do you lift?
To be clear, if you aren’t exercising at all right now, you should probably start with lifting weights rather than cardio. The first reason is because weight training is better for helping you burn fat and become muscular.
The second reason is that lifting weights will also work out your cardiovascular system and in a *unique* way. In this 2019 study, people who did both resistance training and cardio compared to those who did only one type of training had better total cardiovascular improvements. (study)
So, to fully optimize your cardiovascular health, you’ll want to do both cardio and lifting as they both help with cardiovascular health (study). So if you choose to lift weights first, you’ll be getting some cardio benefits.
The third reason is that lifting weights has additional benefits by challenging your muscles, bones through better density, tendons to adapt.
The fourth reason is that lifting comes with visible benefits that are quicker to see, due to better fat burner and muscle-building. When you can see results, it’s a lot easier to stay in the groove of exercising when you know it’s working.
Lastly, many of us in our daily lives, are more likely to be walking briskly than picking up something heavy. So lifting weights typically is the weakest link to fix first.
If you’re looking for a way to get into lifting weights, starting with your body as the weight is a great way to get started. Check out our free bodyweight workout here.
But if you’re lifting already, don’t miss out on cardio
If you’re a man who’s lifting weights already, but you’re relatively inactive the rest of the week, try adding in some cardio. If you find your job is keeping you stuck at the desk and you drive to work, you might want to consider doing some cardio. You might come to enjoy it, especially if you can get outside in the sunshine and fresh air.
How much cardio should I do?
A joint statement from the CDC and the American College of Sports Medicine recommends doing at least 30 minutes a day, every day of the week (review). See if you can get out for a brisk walk outside during lunch or right after dinner.
Good news: a little bit of cardio goes a long way
The encouraging thing, is researchers say the effects of cardio are graded so that even bumping up your cardio fitness a little bit will go a long way in terms of health improvements (similar to the Pareto principle where 20% might get you 80% of the results.)(study). So if the “optimum” amount of cardio is soul-crushing and makes doing cardio seem impossible, take comfort in knowing that even doing a little bit will pay off.
How do I know if I’m progressing?
If you’re a numbers guy, in this study, they said that vo2 max is one of the best tools we have as a snapshot of your cardio health and the risk of diseases (study).
Otherwise, if you’re doing a brisk walk, try and get further in the same time. So if you want to do 30 minutes of cardio outside, go for a walk and set a timer on your phone for 15 minutes. See how far you get, then turn around. With the same amount of effort, if you’re getting further, chances are you may be getting better power output from the oxygen your cardiovascular system is cycling around.
- Cardio helps to keep your cells young.
- Cardio helps you learn better, have a better memory, make better decisions, and improve your thinking.
- Cardio helps to fight off anxiety, depression, and a bunch of other health problems.
- Cardio might help bring more blood flow to your head and help with hair loss.
- Consider doing cardio outside to get more UVB rays from sunlight to help fight calcification. That will help with heart health and your hair.
- Cardio helps to fix erectile dysfunction, a problem for more and more young guys.
- Lift weights first to get into the habit of exercising, then add in cardio once you get the hang of it.
- Aim for 30 minutes and up of cardio a day.
- You can do low, moderate, or high intensity. They all come with health benefits. It might be wise to include all types in your life.
You may notice that it won’t take too many cardio sessions before you get the benefits. You should be feeling energetic, your thinking is clear, and you may even see some strength gains when it comes to lifting (blog article). Plus, your wife may even comment on your fuller, thicker hair, and the perked up version of you!