Chronic Cardio (and Breaking Free from Obsessive Exercise)

Written By


Expert Reviewed By

Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTD, MS

Dr. Lauryn, OTD, MS is a doctor of occupational therapy, clinical nutritionists and functional medicine expert with 25 years of clinical and personal experience in healing from complex chronic health issues and helping others do the same.

“I just don’t want to get big.”


So what do we girls do?

We run.

Like hamsters on wheels.

Running=Burning calories=Avoiding weight gain, burning off calories, and NOT ‘getting big.’


Even if you are not a ‘runner’ per say…perhaps you “do your time” on the elliptical or the StairMaster…Or hit up back to back to back classes at the gym…Or met-con yourself to death…Or don’t feel like you can call anything a workout unless you’ve boot-camped it up and monitored your calorie burn for that hour+….

Disclaimer: Now running, or aerobic-based workouts, in and of themselves, are not bad things.

After all, some people LOVE it and find it is a therapeutic form of exercise. It’s a:

Brain break, time to turn the tunes up and just go!

Stress reliever.

Time to move and use your God-given lungs, legs, and boundless energy!



Work it girl! More power to you!

But then there’s the fine line.

Those who use “running” or that chronic-cardio mentality for other purposes:

  • A “to-do” to check off the list
  • A ‘ticket’ to earning the right to eat your next meal today
  • The thing that keeps you ‘centered’ and ‘ok’ in your own skin today
  • Justification for that ice cream or pizza or popcorn you indulged in last night
  • The ‘sure’ way to being at peace with your body
  • The primary mean to lose stubborn body fat
  • WAR with yourself

In other words:

  • Self-punishment.
  • The belief that it’s what women “should do.”
  • Or, the “secret” you believe for your body composition goals, health and fitness.

That was MY story five years ago.



Every morning, when the alarm clock would go off at 4:00 a.m., I’d roll out of bed, directly onto the floor, to commence my 10-minute morning ab routine, before swigging a protein drink, and heading out the door for my morning 90-minute date with the StairMaster, followed by my 20-minute treadmill routine and 75-minute bootcamp circuits.

By about 8 a.m., I was cooked and done until high-noon rolled around for another 60-minutes on my favorite StairMaster, expending my brain energy on my stack of fitness magazines I kept stowed in the trunk of my car for “mindless reading” to get me through.

When 5 p.m. struck, it was time for another 2-3 hour session in the gym—more treadmill, StairMaster and circuits—with no rest for the weary.

PHEW! All in a day’s work—literally it was my job.

As I write this and reflect, it’s hard to believe that really was me.

Lack of this routine NEVER happened, because, if it did (i.e. snow days, meetings, school conflicts, holidays), I’d find some other way to incorporate my 6-7 hours of activity in—whether it meant a 10 p.m. gym session, or turning my daily life into an ongoing workout marathon (running up and down stairs, squats in the shower, calf raises while brushing my teeth, pushups for days).

Also known as “chronic cardio”—this form of exercise will only leave you…

  1. Depleted,
  2. Spinning your wheels, or,
  3. Bashing your head against the wall, wondering WHY you aren’t getting fitter, faster, happier (with yourself), leaner, healthier or anything in between?!

The reason?


What chronic cardio does to you…

  • Chronic Cardio Increases Inflammation & Cortisol (your stress hormone). The repeated stressor of logging your 3-10 miles per day, or hitting the StairMaster for hours on end increases cortisol levels, which in turn work against you to keep your body in a state of stress, long after the work is done. In turn, your body’s primary focus is on coping with this internal hormonal stress—more so than working “with you” in order to lose weight, gain healthy weight, regulate an appropriate appetite (hunger/fullness cues), feel recovered or rested, and any other state of balance.
  • It’s a Drug. It’s no wonder chronic cardio is often called a ‘runner’s high’ and is often linked to disordered eating and eating disorders—it’s a brain and body trap. Exercise releases endorphins (the feel good chemicals in your brain)—which are a great thing. However, with chronic cardio, we can get such a ‘high’ from the continual pounding that we become disconnected with how our physical body actually feels and in turn, we get stuck in this odd brain-body euphoria that keeps us from attaining the health, wellness or fitness we truly desire since our chronic form of exercise has become like a Scientists tested this theory on a group of mice. They had two test groups—one group of mice they gave normal amounts of food to, the other were food-deprived. Both groups were put in cages with wheels. The mice without a healthy, steady diet ended up running themselves to death—disconnected with their bodies, their hunger and thriving off that euphoric feeling chronic exercise gave them. Chronic cardio is a trap that can run us into the ground (even if that’s not our intention). It messes with the mind like a drug.
  • Your Body Gets in a Rut. The definition of insanity is “doing the same thing and expecting a different result.” Running several miles day in and day out, or doing the same cardio routine day in and day out, eventually puts your body in a state of adaptation and if you want to continue to experience the same metabolic benefit you may have initially from an exercise routine you have to either increase intensity, distance or train faster. In other words: More is not always (You’ve heard this before).
  • Breaks You Down. Compare a marathon runner’s body to a short distance sprinter. Stringy muscle, almost to the point often of an unhealthy look, as opposed to the filled out muscle and fit bodies you see in sprinters. OR, you even have your folks who run day in and day out, yet do not look like they have ever worked out a day in their lives—no muscle to them. Why is this? Chronic cardio does nothing for your body except break it down (muscle mass that is). Obviously this is more of a generalization, but the repetitive exercise stress leads to altered hormones, orthopedic breakdown and altered metabolic function only leads to one thing: Imbalance.

The philosophy that ‘more’ or incessant CARDIO is the surefire way to look good naked, eat whatever you want (or eat anything at all) and live long and prosper is an OLD SCHOOL METHODOLGY.

Americans have been told, since the inception of Jane Fonda videos and Richard Simmons’ fit sessions, that cardio was the key to a healthy body—so much so that women have neglected weight lifting and anaerobic work (shorter HIIT style workouts) for all these years.

This exercise myth is similar to the old school ‘wisdom’ from the USDA that claimed a low-fat, no-fat diet was the healthy WAY to eat, wherein we NOW know that eating healthy fats actually is amazing for us! (i.e. brain health, improved digestion, burning fat, metabolic function).

Girl, you’re a smart cookie, so… what are you going to do instead?



There’s no time like the present to throw some weights into your routine, trade some of the hamster wheel, mind-numbing cardio sessions with some energy boosting HIIT-style routines (see below for some inspiration), and, otherwise, simply seek to be more active on the daily.

Take a lesson from our ancestors—the way we were wired to move:

  • Move frequently at a slow pace (i.e. not sitting at your desk all day long, playing with the kids in the yard, cleaning your own house, walk dates with friends, etc.)
  • Lift heavy things
  • And “sprint” (shorter bursts of intensity in your exercise routine)

In fact, a study from researchers at McMaster University found that “6-minutes of pure, hard exercise once a week could be just as effective as an hour of daily moderate activity.”

And this literary research analysis by Zuhl & Kravitz (2012) reports on the host of benefits HIIT and shorter-duration anaerobic exercise (like weight lifting) provides, compared to straight up cardio.

So if you’re up for a new challenge: Break up with your running shoes (at least the ones that make you run because you HAVE TO, or instill FEAR in you that, if you don’t run your usual 5-mile loop today, then bad things will happen). 

What could this change actually look like–doing something new (and arguably better) than running on that hamster wheel?

A few steps to begin to move into action…


  1. First, decide on your goals (training, health and quality of life–how is your chronic cardio impacting your quality of life, if at all?). Write these goals down.
  2. Determine your schedule or timeline for accomplishing these goals (Pick a date, a time frame. Make them real).
  3. Set aside the ‘cardio’ workouts: “What?! I have been going two hours a day! If I take it all out, I will get fat…or lazy…or go crazy!”, you say. Then so be it. You must let your body reset. (YES, it’s going to be hard at first…you are changing a habit. Remind yourself, this is a step towards greatness).
  4. Start afresh: Replace the former cardio-laden workouts with a solid weight training routine at least 3-5 days per week, followed by some HIIT conditioning on 2-3 of those days. Not sure HOW to navigate the weight room?! No problem! Consider hiring a coach or working with a trainer–for at least a few sessions to get you started. YouTube obviously is a great resource for learning moves and of course, there are a bazillion health and fitness sites out there, BUT an individualized approach will most benefit you!(P.S. That is what THRIVE’s THRIVE Life Program is all about–customized training plans and nutrition for your body, offered to clients all over the world. Basically after an initial skype/phone or 1:1 consult and assessment process, you will receive weekly fitness plans, explanations and descriptions for performing these exercises, a personalized complimentary nutrition plan, and monthly lifestyling sessions to touch base, talk goals, dreams, future and all the successes you are achieving! So fun!)
  5. Integrate Your Lifestyle. Along with a new way of training comes a new philosophy to your lifestyle as a whole. For instance: You actually need more food to fuel the machine (not less) for lean muscle development, fitness power and metabolic function! You will sleep MUCH better with some true work and focus put into your training (i.e. not just watching “Friends” re-runs on your leisure elliptical ‘run’). And may even find  your confidence goes up…you are able to do ‘hard things’–not only in the gym, but in life outside the gym. AMAZING SAUCE!
  6. Watch you ROAR! Had to throw it in there…You can’t do ANY fishing until you really get off the “bank” as my dad used to say. In other words…give it a shot, and just see and feel the amazing difference (I PROMISE you won’t look like a bodybuilder or ‘lose your fitness’–like pinky, pinky promise!).

Weekly Workouts

Here are some fun HIIT-style workouts to replace your cardio routine with or incorporate into your training this week. I do not write in strength workouts, primarily because every BODY is different, and believe you need an individualized approach for true personalized fitness development.



For Time:

60 Calorie row

50 Toes to bar (Modification: Sit-up)

40 Wallballs (20, 14)

30 Power Cleans (135, 95)

20 Muscle-ups (Modification: 20 Ring Rows, 20 Pushups)



Every Minute On the Minute for 20 minutes

Even: 20 Heavyish Kettlebell Swings

Odd: 8-10 Burpees



AMRAP in 15 min:

7 Hand Release Push Ups

7 Deadlifts

7 Wall-Balls

21 Double Unders (63 Single Unders)



1 mile Run

30 Burpee Pull ups (scale as needed-or 60 burpees, no pull-up)

60 Dumbbell push presses

90 Dumbbell Front Rack Lunges

1 Mile Run



Go on a long hike, walk, swim, bike or jog (Brownie points: Go with a friend!)

18 Min AMRAP:

15 x Box Jump (24/20)

12 x Shoulder to Overhead (115/75)

9 x Toes 2 Bar



3 x 5-minute rounds
10 Thrusters (dumbbells)

10 Burpees

10 Calorie row
-Rest 1-minute between rounds


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