I Swapped Cardio for This, and It Changed My Whole Body

Updated 09/08/19
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I used to roll my eyes whenever I heard a model claim that a leisurely (non-heated) yoga class was the secret to her Victoria’s Secret–contracted body. It seemed too easy. Spend an hour stretching and walk out looking like Karlie Kloss, Miranda Kerr, Adriana Lima, or Alessandria Ambrosio? Ugh. Eye roll.

Personally, I’ve always believed you need to leave drenched in sweat for a workout to be worthwhile. If you crawl out of the gym gasping for air, you’ll see results, right? Wrong. It took two months and dozens of yoga and Pilates classes, but I can confidently say that working out harder is not the only—or even the most effective—way to become the fittest, leanest, physically strongest version of yourself. Let me tell you why.

Everything changed in October. After a cathartic few days visiting a health retreat in Australia called Gwinganna, I decided to conduct an experiment. My trusty treadmill-and-weights routine just wasn’t yielding the results I'd wanted anymore (my measurements, weight, and muscle fat totally plateaued), and I was starting to get constant knee pain, so I was committed to swapping my cardio-crazed ways for a more relaxed routine focused entirely on hot yoga and reformer Pilates. I had a cavalier attitude towards it; why not try and see what happens?

What happened next

Well, guys, the results blew my mind. It’s been just over eight weeks, and not only have I dropped about two pounds, but I’ve also lost inches from all over my body—specifically one inch from around my belly-button measurement and almost two inches across my hips. My body feels lean, strong, and flexible—I can now grab my ankles with my hands during a backbend, and I have nailed crow pose (which is hard) more than once. I haven’t complained about knee pain. I’m feeling so good, and it’s almost been too easy.

What I changed

So what exactly did I change, you ask? My schedule originally comprised of approximately four four-mile runs per week and one to three heavy weight-training sessions or strength-based fitness classes. Now I hit Y7’s 60-minute hot yoga class about four times per week for an invigorating, restorative practice and visit reformer Pilates twice a week at (either Karen Lord Pilates or New York Pilates).

Why it Happened

I spoke with some experts to dig into why the move away from intense cardio has been so transformative for me, and their thoughts varied. Sharon Kolkka—the general manager at Gwinganna who has more than 15 years of experience in personal training—gave me a fascinating explanation. She said that people who lead busy, stressful lives (um, yes!) should actually consider avoiding equally stressful cardio training.

“If work or home life pressure is high, resulting in an elevation of the stress hormone cortisol, too much training may push cortisol levels even higher,” she told me, adding that an overload of this hormone can actually reduce the body’s ability to use fat as an energy source. So if you’re stressed all day and then stress your body some more at spin class, your efforts could be for nothing.

At the same time, these “less stressful” workouts still use up plenty of energy, and they are surprisingly effective at torching fat. Sarah Levey, founder of Y7 Yoga, told me that just being in the room with the infrared heat that her hot studio and others use “burns 300 calories an hour.” She added that you could burn up to 500 calories in the class—and that’s without upping your cortisone levels in the same way a high-intensity circuit class might.

Then there’s another, separate school of thought that Heather Andersen, founder of New York Pilates, shared with me. She says that because Pilates targets small muscles, you can strengthen the body’s stabilizing muscles, improve coordination, tone, and improve agility and power “without gaining significant weight,” which is what gives supermodels that long and lean figure (along with genetics, obviously).

While high-intensity exercise like sprinting on a treadmill can increase your metabolism, she mentioned that it could also prompt you to eat even more calories than you burned at the gym, whereas a more relaxed Pilates or yoga class won’t leave you starving. Who here has ever binged on carbs after a huge workout? Yep, same.

So will I continue sticking to the experiment? Maybe. All signs point to the fact that I should stay with this new routine for all eternity, but I really do miss that running-induced endorphin-rush you just don’t get from Pilates. But even though my body won’t be getting any down time, I will at least permanently retire my doubts about yoga.

A Gaiam Yoga Mat ($30) is a must-have for any hot yoga sweat session.

This post was originally updated at an earlier date and has since been updated.

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