The (Many) Negatives of Aerobic Training
You may know that I am not a big fan of aerobic training. In fact, I don’t think there’s any good benefit that you can get from aerobic training that you can’t get from strength training or anaerobic sprinting, and there are some key negative health effects. Indeed, did you know that aerobic exercise increases oxidative stress, chronically elevates cortisol, and has been shown to lower testosterone levels in men. Even more concerning, intense aerobic exercise in animals decreases reproductive organ size and function, while lowering androgens and causing extreme oxidative stress!
How can it be that aerobic exercise is so bad, when doctors and health professionals are encouraging everyone to do it? There are some legitimate benefits of aerobic exercise, especially for specific populations, such as individuals with high blood pressure, the obese, the sedentary, or those with significant visceral belly fat. The point is that there are substantial negatives that go with aerobic training that many people fail to realize, and those harmful effects can be avoided by doing strength training or anaerobic system training. In this article, I’ll show you the bad news about aerobics, but don’t worry, at the end you’ll find three bits of good news to set you straight.
Next week, look for a part 2, which will show you some fascinating strategies to alleviate the negative effects of aerobic exercise, with tips on how to train for better health.
Bad News #1 - Aerobic Training Raises Cortisol and Accelerates Aging
Aerobic training raises cortisol levels and accelerates aging. If your cortisol levels are chronically elevated, your body will store fat instead of burning it. High cortisol also leads to visceral belly fat gain, which by itself increases fat accumulation and inflammation in the body. By other means, aerobic exercise increases inflammation in the body, which I’ll demonstrate in #2, and when you combine this with the bad oxidative substances that are elevated by visceral fat, you’ll be getting old before your time!
High cortisol also makes you age faster because it increases oxidative substances in the body that produce inflammation all over, including in the brain, heart, gastrointestinal tract, and reproductive organs. Oxidants or free radicals are the opposite of the antioxidants that are in “superfoods”, such as raspberries and cherries that fight inflammation. It’s well known that exercise raises cortisol because exercise stresses the body, which in the case of strength training is a good thing because it stresses the body to grow or adapt and get stronger. The key is that with strength training , just as cortisol may increase, so will anabolic hormones that build muscle in order to completely overwhelm any negative impact of cortisol. Errors in programming can lead to problems with this ratio, but in general, this is not the case with strength training. In contrast, aerobic training stresses the body without boosting the anabolic hormones, resulting in an overall catabolizing, inflammation-causing situation.
A new study in Psychoneuroendocrinology showed evidence of long-term high cortisol levels in experienced aerobic endurance athletes. Researchers tested hair cortisol in 304 endurance athletes (long-distance runners, triathletes, cyclists), and compared their measurements with a control group of no- athletes. They used hair to test cortisol because it provides evidence of cumulative cortisol secretion over prolonged time.
Results showed that the aerobic athletes had significantly higher cortisol levels compared to controls, and there was a positive correlation between higher cortisol levels and greater training volume. The athletes had long-term elevation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which can have detrimental influence on mental and physical health. Researchers write, “These data suggest that repeated physical stress of intensive training and competitive races among endurance athletes is associated with elevated cortisol exposure over prolonged periods of time.”
Bad News #2 - More Inflammation and Oxidative Stress from Chronic Aerobic Exercise
Chronic inflammation is a major health issue that ages tissues and has even been called the “secret killer!” It is connected to fat gain, heart disease, insulin resistance and diabetes, asthma, arthritis, cancer, poor reproductive health, and stomach problems. It’s different from acute inflammation following training or injury, which has a protective effect on the body by localizing blood to the damaged tissue and immobilizing you. But, in order to heal and recover quickly, you want to diminish acute inflammation as quickly as possible—in the long-term it is bad news.
Chronic inflammation occurs when the cells are being repeatedly attacked by oxidative free radicals, elevated insulin, or high cortisol, to name a few. That’s why aerobic training causes chronic inflammation—your body produces free radicals in response to the oxygen-rich environment created by increased respiration that goes with aerobic training, and your cortisol is raised from repeated physiological stress.
It’s well established that aerobic exercises causes oxidative stress—a review article in the Journal of Sports Science provides a useful summary of how strenuous aerobic exercise induces oxidative stress that can overwhelm antioxidant defenses. There’s widespread and accepted evidence of chronic inflammation from aerobic exercise as seen from increase in free radicals, damage to lipids and DNA , and decreased blood measurements of antioxidants such as glutathione.
An older study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that marathon runners had higher inflammatory markers than a control group. In this study, researchers compared various oxidative markers in sprint and marathoners. At rest, the inflammatory markers MDA and erythrocytes were elevated in both sprint and marathon runners, but levels were two-fold higher in the marathoners than the sprinters—their cells were being overwhelmed by the need to detoxify the reactive oxygen species, producing chronic oxidative stress.
What’s revealing is there’s a wealth of fascinating new research that shows how to protect aerobic exercisers from the negative health effects of their sport! A new study in Current Microbiology tested the effects of probiotics on oxidative stress from aerobic exercise. The purpose of the study was to establish that aerobic exercise causes chronic oxidative stress and that probiotics can be taken to support antioxidant levels and fight the negatives of aerobic exercise.
Participants were semiprofessional cyclists, and researchers tested the effect of training on oxidative stress and assessed whether supplementing with a probiotic could decrease the negative health effects of aerobic cycling training. They used a control group that only trained and didn’t take a supplement and an exercise/supplement group that took probiotics daily. The study ran for four weeks.
Researchers found that intense aerobic training induced oxidative stress in the form of reactive oxygen species and there was evidence of lipid peroxidation, which increases inflammation. Taking the probiotic supplement decreased oxidative stress levels and increased antioxidant activity in the exercise/supplement population, indicating that probiotics can also protect against the negative health effects of aerobic exercise.
Bad News #3 - Decreased Reproductive Size and Function, and Lower Androgens in Animals
Brace yourself for the really bad news about intense aerobic exercise. A study in the Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology tested the effect of aerobic swimming on rats and found that intense endurance exercise leads to oxidative stress that causes dysfunction in the male reproductive system. Interestingly, researchers found that giving the rats a vitamin E supplement decreased the effects of the oxidative stress.
This study used a control group that did no exercise and took no supplement, an exercise group, and an exercise/supplement group. The exercise and exercise/supplement groups performed three hours of swimming a day, five days a week for four weeks. The exercise/supplement group was given a dose of 50 mg per kg of body weight a day of vitamin E. Take note that this is a fairly high volume of exercise, but it is likely that any elite aerobic athlete, or even a long-distance recreational trainee—would perform such large amounts of aerobic training.
After four weeks of exercise, researchers found the exercise group had a significant decrease in the size of the reproductive organs (testes and accessory sex organs) and lower levels of testosterone, luteinizing hormone, and related androgen markers. Additionally, the exercise group had significant evidence of oxidative stress in the testes in the form of elevated MDA and lower glutathione. None of these effects were found in the control group, and the exercise/supplement group did not show significant changes in these areas, with no statistically significant increase in oxidative stress. Antioxidants are suggested as a reasonable supplement to decrease the damaging health effects of aerobic exercise.
A second study supports these findings—both that intense aerobic swimming leads to oxidative stress and reproductive dysfunction in rats and that antioxidants can protect against the damage. The antioxidants tested in this study were zinc and selenium, and the detrimental effects on the rat’s health from the aerobic exercise was very similar to the previous study. Researchers also found that there was a significant increase in cortisol in the exercise group, which was not seen in the control group or the exercise/supplement group.
Bad News #4 - Acute Oxidative Stress and Cortisol Elevation from Aerobic Exercise
A study in the International Journal of General Medicine found that an acute aerobic exercise session significantly raises inflammatory biomarkers, cortisol, and epinephrine. Researchers tested the effect of a single aerobic exercise session (a 45-minute aerobic cycling trial) on acute inflammation and stress hormone response in young men who were either untrained or resistance trained (they weren’t aerobic exercisers). Researchers found that inflammatory markers (IL-6, IL-10, total leucocyte, C-reactive protein) were significantly elevated after the exercise session, as was cortisol and epinephrine. Elevated levels were “sufficient to induce systemic inflammation” but “appear to be safe from an immunological point of view.”
It is likely researchers consider the evidence of acute inflammation and cortisol elevation to be safe for two reasons. First, they are looking at the immediate physiological response to aerobic exercise and are not considering the effects of repeated, prolonged aerobic stress. Second, the population studied had no aerobic training experience, and there is significant evidence that in the untrained or the unhealthy, aerobic exercise may improve some measurements of health in the long-term. As I said at the beginning of this article, there are legitimate benefits of aerobic training—but if you do it over and over again, the benefits decrease and the negatives take over (cortisol, inflammation, and fat gain).
Be aware that there are ways to moderate the negatives of aerobic training. I’ve already mentioned supplementing with antioxidants and probiotics as proven ways to counteract the bad things aerobic exercise does to you, but simply adding a strength training program may also work. A research group from Turkey tested the effects of different strength training protocols on chronic inflammation. They found that both a hypertrophy and strength protocol resulted in lower inflammatory biomarkers in subjects after completing the different protocols for six weeks. MDA was lower, while glutathione was higher—glutathione will be lower as oxidative stress increases. Resting glutathione levels increased after six weeks for both protocol groups, pointing to additional protective benefits of resistance training.
Researchers suggest that endurance athletes who are considering taking antioxidants to decrease oxidative stress may be better served by performing resistance training instead. Although this strategy hasn’t been tested, the benefits of resistance training for endurance athletes have been proven: a better testosterone to cortisol ratio, greater strength, improved neuromuscular function, and possibly decreased inflammatory biomarkers.
Bad News #5 Long-Term Aerobic Exercise Compromises Immune System
Long-term aerobic exercise compromises the immune system. There is ample evidence that aerobic training leads to immune suppression, putting aerobic endurance athletes at greater risk for infection, particularly upper respiratory illness. The worst kind of aerobic exercise that leads to the most pronounced immune dysfunction is when the exercise is continuous, long (about 90 minutes a session), and of moderate to high intensity (60-80 percent of maximal oxygen uptake). Overreaching or intensified aerobic training leads to greater risk of illness and puts athletes at risk of longer lasting effects because overreaching also modifies hormone function among other things.
The Good News: Top Three Thing You Can Do Instead of Aerobic Exercise
1) Strength Train
You’ll build muscle, burn fat (it triggers growth hormone, which increases fat burning), lower cortisol and inflammation, and look better.
2) High-Intensity Anaerobic Intervals or Strongman Training
You’ll burn fat—visceral belly and subcutaneous fat—and gain conditioning. Check out this article to read more about the benefits of sprints over aerobics.
3) Take a Probiotic and Select Antioxidants
You’ll help your body detoxify from diet and environmental pollutants(they cause inflammation), and lower cortisol from daily stressors. Check out my Primal Reds for antioxidants and my ProFlora Excellence DF Caps. if you’re considering a probiotic.
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Cakir-Atabek, H., Demir, S., Pinarbassili, R., Bunduz, N. Effects of Different Resistance Training Intensity on Indices of Oxidative Stress. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. September 2010. 24(9), 2491-2498.
Walsh, N., Gleeson, M., et al. Position Statement. Part One: Immune Function and Exercise. Exercise Immunology Review. 2011. 17, 6-63
Shojaei, E., Farajoy, A., et al. Effect of Moderate Aerobic Cycling on Some Systemic Inflammatory Markers in Healthy Active Collegiate Men. International Journal of General Medicine. January 2011. 24(2), 79-84.
Jana, K., Samanta, P., Manna, I., Ghosh, P., Singh, N., Khetan, R., Ray, B. Protective Effect of Sodium Selenite and Zinc Sulfate on Intensive Swimming-Induced Testicular Gamatogenic and Steroidogenic Disorders in Mature Male Rats. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. October 2008. 33(5), 903-914.
Marzatico, F., Pansarasa, O., et al. Blood Free Radical Antioxidant Enzymes and Lipid Peroxides Following Long-Distance and Lactacidemic Performances in Highly Trained and Aerobic and Sprint athletes. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. 1997. 37, 235-239.
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Martarelli, D., Verdenelli, M., et al. Effect of a Probiotic Intake on Oxidant and Antioxidant Parameters in Plasma of Athletes During Intense Exercise Training. Current Microbiology. June 2011. 62(6), 1689-1696.
Skoluda, N., Dettenborn, L., et al. Elevated Hair Cortisol Concentrations in Endurance Athletes. Psychoneuroendocrinology. September 2011. Published Ahead of Print.
Gleeson, Michael. Immune Function in Sport and Exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology. February 2007. 103(2), 693-699.