Is cardio really necessary?

By Heidi Kristoffer and Kylie Gilbert
Updated July 22, 2019
Apple

Hi, my name is Heidi and I am a fitness tracker junkie. #truestory

When the Apple Watch first came out as not just a smartwatch but a tracker too, I knew I needed to get one immediately. I was more than a little bit disappointed to find the incredibly limited list of activities the Apple Watch categorizes, which left the bulk of my workouts to the "other" category. But, being the tracker-lover that I am, I faithfully set the setting to "other" every time I started my Apple Watch yoga practice.

Unlike my previous tracker, which only counted steps, the Apple Watch flashes every so often with notifications about my different heart rates. The Apple Watch yoga results were fascinating, and not at all how I thought it would go. While I'm practicing some of the most challenging "advanced" yoga postures and moves like inversions, my heart rate drops super low (even below my resting heart rate), and during Kundalini breath exercises, like breath of fire, as well as during backbends, my heart rate skyrockets. (Related: The Best Fitness Tracker for Your Personality)

It left me wondering: If I can raise my heart rate that high with a breathing exercise or a backbend, do I really need cardio? And what exactly does my Apple Watch yoga tracker say about the kind and quality of workout I'm getting? For answers, I went to an expert: Sara Seidelmann M.D., Ph.D., an internal medicine doctor at Yale New Haven Hospital in Greenwich, Connecticut.

What's In a Heart Rate?

It's about more than just your workout. "Your underlying genetics, nervous system, and circulating chemicals and hormones—together—are responsible for [your heart rate]. If you're under stress, fatigued, or at different climates or altitudes, your heart rate can change," Seidelmann explains.

Turns out, yoga does more than tone your muscles; it also tones "the nerve supply to the vital organs of your body, such as your heart, brain, and digestive tract," according to Seidelmann. That's one reason why it can lower a person's heart rate, as I noticed during my workouts. This is partially due to how it affects the body's autonomic nervous system. Yoga seems to increase parasympathetic tone (the "rest and digest" part, which decreases heart rate and blood pressure and increases digestion) and decrease sympathetic tone (the "fight or flight" mechanism which, when activated releases stress hormones and chemicals), "resulting in the benefit of lower resting heart rate and blood pressure as well as increased digestion and metabolism," Seidelmann says. "During the practice of yoga, the parasympathetic nervous system is generally inhibited and your heart rate and cardiac output increase as your muscles have a heightened demand for nutrients and oxygen to power movement," she says, but "in the long run, as you become more physically conditioned and fit, parasympathetic tone increases and your resting heart rate will fall." (Check out more of yoga's surprising health benefits.)

Does a lower heart rate mean better health? "When your resting heart rate falls in response to the regular practice of yoga, your heart becomes more efficient, necessitating fewer beats per minute to perform the same job," Seidelmann says. "The ventricles, or the main chambers of your heart, have more time to fill in between beats, delivering more oxygen and nutrients to your heart muscle as well as to the other tissues of your body such as your skin, brain, and digestive tract."

Based on Seidelmann's wisdom above, being a poser (via Apple Watch yoga, attending classes, or improvising your own flow at home) may not only reduce your risk of heart disease, but it may help you to live longer. "Research has shown that heart rate is inversely correlated with longevity in all species, including humans," Seidelmann says. "So keep practicing yoga." Doctor's orders!

So, Do You Really Need Cardio?

If breathing exercises or wheel pose can raise my heart rate and give me those health benefits, do I reeeeallly need cardio? Unfortunately for anyone who is looking for a reason not to run, "increased heart rate due to sympathetic activation does not carry the same benefits of aerobic exercise," Seidelmann says. "In a healthy person, raising your heart rate during aerobic exercise tells your body that your heart is working hard to fuel its tissues with nutrients and oxygen. And as you condition your body through regular workouts, the heart becomes stronger and more efficient and your muscles also get more efficient at extracting oxygen and nutrients from the blood." (Related: How to Make Yoga a More Challenging Workout)

In general, workouts at lower intensity (around 65 percent of your maximal heart rate), like yoga, will burn less calories per minute but will be fueled primarily from fat stores, whereas workouts at a high intensity (90 percent of your maximal heart rate), like cardio, will burn more calories per minute but will be fueled primarily by carbohydrate stores.

Traditional yoga may not be the aerobic exercise my body needs, but based on my heart rate, I am toning my vital organs and burning calories primarily from my body's fat stores. And the kind of deep, thoracic breathing we practice in yoga "aerates the important lower portions of your lungs, increasing pulmonary function and respiratory strength and delivering more oxygen to your body," Seidelmann says. This will help your body better meet increased oxygen demands during more stressful situations. (Speaking of which, did you know just thinking about someone you love can help slash stress?!)

How Heart Rate Can Enhance Your Yoga Practice

Let's talk about the times during my yoga practice when my heart rate got super high, like during breath of fire, a heating breath often used in Kundalini yoga which involves taking short, sharp, even inhales and exhales through your nose, pumping the air at your navel center. According to studies, sympathetic tone may increase during this type of breathing, which could result in a higher heart rate. In backbends like wheel, when I noticed my heart rate super high, Seidelmann surmises that the blood was pooling in the arms, head, and legs, which could cause a sudden shift in thoracic blood volumes, resulting in a reflexive increase in heart rate. (In handstand and forearm stand, Seidelmann notes that the opposite can occur, when the blood moves from the lower limbs to the upper body, resulting in the decrease in heart rate.)

Armed with all this new information, I made more of a point to consistently work in CrossFlowX—a hybrid yoga/HIIT I created—several times a week to make sure that I was getting all of the benefits of yoga and all of the benefits of aerobic exercises. (You can also try a similar routine at home with Peloton Yoga.) I used to think that if a flow was fast-paced enough or technically challenging enough, it would "count" as cardio. Now I know better. And hopefully, I'm now balancing the two a little more evenly. It's been said that yoga teachers teach the class they need. Apparently, I was teaching mine long before I knew I needed it.

The Best Apple Watch Yoga, Strength, Cardio, and Wellness Apps

If you weren't already lusting after an Apple Watch for its cool factor and style, convenience (text message alerts, Apple Pay, and turn-by-turn directions at the flick of a wrist), or activity tracking (Apple Watch yoga heart rate-monitoring or otherwise…), you can also download a slew of Apple Watch-specific versions of some of your favorite third-party apps. (Related: We Love This Sleek and Subtle Activity Tracker Ring)

While you can still use Apple Watch's dedicated Workout app, you can also use other go-to apps like Runkeeper or Seven, and view all of your fitness goals in one place. Plus, you'll get exercise credit for those workouts in your daily activity rings that track how much you move. You can even share your activity progress and achievement badges with other Watch friends or on social media.

Here are 13 totally-worth-the-download Apple Watch yoga, mindfulness, fitness, nutrition, and health apps Shape.com editors can’t get enough of:

Seven: Based on the popular seven-minute workout featured in New York Times Magazine, this app gives you super-effective bodyweight workouts that require nothing more than a chair or wall. Now you can get visual cues and coaching (you can even choose what voice you want to deliver the instructions) right on your wrist.

Gymaholic: Free your hands while you hit the gym for your strength training sesh (here are seven machines that are actually worth your time, BTW), and keep track of your reps and sets. You'll even receive alerts when you're below a minimum and above a maximum BPM.

MyFitnessPal: Consistently rated one of the top diet apps, you can get all of your calorie intake and exercise tracking info through Apple Watch.

Pocket Yoga: Whether you're a newbie or an experienced yogi, Pocket Yoga lets you practice at your own pace at home with guided voice and visual instruction. You can practice Apple Watch yoga directly on your wrist and get extra info, including the current pose, time remaining, heart rate, and calories burned.

Lark: Want a personal weight loss coach and 24/7 dietitian, but don't want to shell out major dough? This is about as close as it gets. Lark tracks your food, sleep, and exercise and then texts you with the easiest ways to be healthier in a super friendly and chatty way. (It's basically the equivalent of that super supportive friend who nudges you to be healthier—without annoying you.)

Streaks: Track up to six tasks you want to complete every day, like "eat a healthy meal," "walk 10,000 steps," or even "read for 10 minutes," and build a streak of consecutive days. Now you can see it all on your Apple Watch, plus receive helpful nudges throughout the day. (Related: Are Weight-Loss Wagers Your Best Bet?)

Runtastic: Effortlessly start a run from your wrist and get all the info you expect from the highly popular running app (including heart rate, distance, pace, elevation, and more) without taking your iPhone out of your pocket or armband.

3-Minute Mindfulness: Don't have time for 30 minutes of meditation? (Who does?!) These three-minute guided meditation sessions are a no-brainer. All you have to do is follow along with the Watch—it'll tell you when to breathe in and out or when to hold your breath—so even a total beginner can jump right in.

LifeSum: Designed to help you build healthy, sustainable habits, this app tracks your water, meals, and exercise. Even more: Get reminders and exercise suggestions throughout the day.

Runkeeper: Already a fanatic of the running app? Runkeeper is now integrated with the Apple Watch heart rate feature—and lets you track your runs without your phone nearby. Plus, you can use Bluetooth headphones to get audio updates mid-run about your mileage, calorie count, pace, and speed.

Lose It!: This popular weight loss app tracks food and exercise, helps you plan meals, and integrates with other fitness apps like RunKeeper and MapMyFitness for a seamless experience.

Headspace: A meditation app dubbed "a gym membership for your mind" brings you easy-to-follow guided meditations (that range from two minutes to 60 minutes) and will be your new go-to whenever you find yourself in a stressful situation. (Related: The Best Meditation Apps for Beginners)

Waterminder: Need help staying hydrated? Based on your body weight, WaterMinder will remind you to drink water to reach your daily goals.

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