Home Q&A Wednesday Q&A Wednesday: Overcoming Cardio Fear

Q&A Wednesday: Overcoming Cardio Fear

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Q: In one of your posts you mentioned a fear of having your heart rate go to high. I’ve always felt uncomfortable and kind of afraid when my heart beats “too fast,” but how fast I consider too fast is completely in my head and based on a lifelong avoidance of exercise. Can you speak a little bit about how to overcome that and measure it properly?

Update: If you want to understand the mechanics behind your heart rate and how you can physically control your breathing to keep that scary feeling at bay, check out this post on “cardio panic” and understanding your breathing during exercise!

Ugh, the stupid Presidential fitness test. Just… ugh. I say that not because I find it useless – I don’t – I say that as an individual eternally scarred from the yearly fail stamp placed on my forehead because of it. Ugh.

At this point in my life, my next mountain to climb consists of becoming a runner. Someone who can run several miles at a time – barefoot, even – without wanting to keel over and die for a little while. And I won’t lie – it stems from that little situation with my 17-minute mile during the stupid Presidential fitness test. (By the way, it looks like President Lyndon B. Johnson was responsible for that. We like him – rather, I like him – so I think I’ll give him a pass.)

There’s an interesting parallel here, that I cannot overlook or deny, though. In order to lose weight, I had to learn my body – what it likes, what it doesn’t; what it benefits from, what it’s harmed by; what it can use, what’s useless. In order to become a runner, I have to learn my heart: what it likes, what it doesn’t; what it benefits from, what it’s harmed by; what it can use, what is useless. I needed to learn what helps it and hurts it as well as what it feels like when it’s working hard, and what it feels like when it’s just truly hurting. These are things that no one can teach us – they are all unique and will be different for each individual, and can only be learned through careful listening to our bodies, minds and hearts.

But how do you do that if you’ve never been a cardio-happy kid? How do you “listen to your heart” if you’ve never paid it much mind before?

First, make sure it’s not a superficial issue. It can’t be because your “boobs are too big,” you’re “embarrassed by how funny you look” or you’re just trying to avoid sweating your hair out. ‘Cause if that’s it… I got nothin’ for ya.

Second, if you’re really taking this cardio thing seriously, don’t be afraid to slow down or stop. I know this seems counter-productive, but it’s real. In this regard, you exercise your heart similarly to any other muscle in the body. You train it by working it as hard as you can stand – go as hard as you can every time you go at it – and the muscle eventually develops the ability to withstand the amount of work you’re putting into it, thus allowing you to work harder and feel less “stress” from it. In other words, it learns how to handle what you’re throwing at it.. you just have to keep throwing work at it.

If you’re someone who has difficulty walking up a flight of stairs, that’s not reason to give up walking the stairs. That’s a reason to keep taking the stairs, stopping whenever it feels like too much to bear on your heart. Throw yourself into it. Eventually, you’ll be able to take the stairs without stopping… perhaps even run up and down the stairs. Repeatedly.

You can even apply that to walking your first mile. It’s OK to stop – as long as you eventually pick yourself up and keep going once you’ve calmed down. Treadmill running is the same way… although I preferred to leave the incline button alone until I better understood what my heart feels like when I’m working hard, hardly working and working too darn hard. For someone who needs to learn how to gauge their “stress levels” on a treadmill, adding an incline – to me – seems like an unnecessary step. Once I felt more comfortable with me, then I played with the inclines.

It’s all about listening to my heart. I had to skip the expectations of where I should be going, what I should be able to do at that point in time, and how fast I should be able to go. I couldn’t use anyone else’s expectations to tell me how to get it done, because they certainly couldn’t listen to my heart the way that I could, right? My heart is unique, deserves my time in listening to it and my attention when training it. It deserves me learning to stop when it feels overworked, and it deserves me always getting back up to try again.

Anyone out there with a story on how they overcame their cardio fear? Let’s hear ’em!

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Evelyn June 9, 2010 - 11:00 AM

I have something to share. I was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy (enlarged heart) two years ago. It was so severe that I actually went into congestive heart failure. I was specifically told by my doctor to exercise and lose weight, to simultaneously lessen the burden on my heart and strengthen it. I was not compliant.

I realize that I had a significant fear of exercising. It took a while for me to even realize that I was afraid of having a heart attack- there was a long time that I wouldn’t even do a “Walk Away The Pounds” (like, the least intense workout EVER…)DVD without having my fully charged phone right next to me and the door unlocked in case the paramedics needed to be there… it sounds funny, but I really had a problem! In addition to that, I was starting a Master’s degree program which made me even MORE inactive. I gained a lot of weight and felt HORRIBLE.

Now that I have been on my current path of changing/ transitioning to my new healthy lifestyle, I have been walking/running at least 3 5k’s per week on the treadmill, as well as doing other types of cardio (like Zumba- LOVE IT!!). It started slowly, I ABSOLUTELY go at my own pace, but I get it done. I have been watching my heart rate, and I notice that I’m running at faster speeds and my heart rate is still not going up as high as it did when I started. When I get tired I slow down. I really, really listen to my whole body- if I need to pause and stretch I do that, if my feet hurt or my legs feel stiff, or if I need to take a breather, I slow way down.

The point is, our bodies were MADE for exertion. Unless you were SPECIFICALLY instructed by your doctor to restrict your activity, GET OUT there and GET MOVING. I feel SO GOOD, even though I’ve only lost 22 pounds out of 130 so far, when I complete a walk/run it is the BEST feeling- I can’t even tell you. I feel good physically AND emotionally, and I want everybody to know that if I can do it with a bone fide heart condition, YOU can do it!!!

Staying on the path,


Erika June 9, 2010 - 1:06 PM

Beautiful!!!!!!!! I love it!!

Christella Leger July 18, 2011 - 8:04 PM

Hi Evelyn,

My mother has the same heart problem, but unlike you she refuses to change her diet and perform weekly physical activities unless I babysit her. So I would like to know if you Dr. notice some positive change with your heart?

Thank you,

1beautifullymade October 3, 2011 - 10:39 PM

@ Evelyn..YOU really inspired me! I started walking last week. I live in Georgia and it is hillyyyyy. On my walk there is this hill that makes me feel like my heart is in my throat fighting to jump out! My first day doing it..I thought I must have walked for at least 30minutes..was very disappointed to see it only took me 19min to do my entire walk! Day two and three my ankle was killing me..Day four I stopped going! So after 4 days of not going..I started back today…The hill is killing me..my mind is telling me “You are going to have a heart attack and die..right here !” That is my greatest fear..Dying of a heart attack…Having my kids and everyone else say ..yup she was fat and unhealthy and died because she couldn’t control her mouth and hand! Two things really made it click for me 1) when Ericka wrote
“It’s all about listening to my heart. I had to skip the expectations of where I should be going, what I should be able to do at that point in time, and how fast I should be able to go. I couldn’t use anyone else’s expectations to tell me how to get it done, because they certainly couldn’t listen to my heart the way that I could, right?”

and when you wrote

“When I get tired I slow down. I really, really listen to my whole body- if I need to pause and stretch I do that, if my feet hurt or my legs feel stiff, or if I need to take a breather, I slow way down.”

You are both right..this is my body! I need to stop listening to others and start doing MY best! There is no shame in me slowing down..than picking back up speed……its about me getting to know my body. At least I am out there!

Eunice June 9, 2010 - 11:08 AM

Back when I first started working out, I was definitely a cardio bunny. Nothing but cardio. All the time. My favorites were the elliptical and bike, but I hated running with a passion. I didn’t start running until early this year, and when I started I couldn’t do it for more than 2 minutes straight. My heart would go crazy and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. This was for someone who considered herself relatively fit.

The good thing about running is that you can see an improvement pretty quickly. Unlike weight training, where you have to wait months before you see the change in your body, endurance can improve drastically in a short amount of time.

What helped me overcome my fear was setting a goal. My goal was a 5k. I started running and February and by May I was running 3 miles at a time. Injuries got in the way of my training, but by June I was finally able to run my first 5k and it was awesome. It’s a really great feeling!

Erika June 9, 2010 - 1:22 PM

I love it! I used to be an elliptical queen, too… but I knew I was missing something since I’d never feel that impact against my feet with running, you know? I mean, I could hit an hour straight on the elliptical and think nothing of it. Something about the impact, the sweat… everything.. with running is just everything to me, LOL. I’m really growing to love it.

I’m where you were – now, my goal is to hit that 5k every night. I’m being patient with myself and trying to ignore speed… but it’s the most amazing feeling ever to actually HIT it! I’m loving everything about your comment! Thank you!

cjbrownsc June 9, 2010 - 11:31 AM

I don’t think I have a fear of my heart rate going too high – my problem is that I don’t feel like I’m stressing my heart ENOUGH!
I’m exercising within my target heart rate range, but I rarely get that wonderful breathless, heavy breathing workout that I love and that I only experienced when I was working with a trainer (my funds are not allowing that right now).
I think I may need to add some interval running to my treadmill workout to see if that gets me there.

You mentioned barefoot running – did you see the piece on HBO Real Sports that they did on that? They also talked about the Vibram five fingers shoes that I’m considering purchasing now. Me and my daughter both have very flat feet, but I have spent major money on running shoes that only made our feet hurt worse.

Erika June 9, 2010 - 1:30 PM

Sounds like maybe it’s time to turn up the heat? Are you using a treadmill? What about stepping up the speed? That’s the rough thing about listening to your heart – if you know what your body feels like when it’s trying to adapt to a new routine… when you lose that feeling, how do you work to get it back? If you’re not on a treadmill, have you considered maybe adding a little weight to your body when you run? Or an incline? Options, options. 🙂

I’ve not seen anything on HBO other than TrueBlood, LOL! I DO keep hearing about the Vibrams, but I don’t know if I’m ready to make that leap just yet. I take at least one random run with my dog each day, and for some reason I just feel like a super hero every time I do it. I know it sounds like weird random hippie stuff, but definitely consider it.

Amber June 9, 2010 - 1:18 PM

I love this topic! I too hated cardio. I had no problem weight training and would tell myself that all of the cardio work was boring. Well, it did not take me long to realize that in order to see some serious results, cardio is a must! So, I try and rotate. I also have discovered various cardio intense classes such as Zumba…which I love too Evelyn. I can dance dance dance and get lots of cardio in. (I love to dance). I also take cardio kick-boxing classes.

My biggest challenge now is to build my endurance. I am starting to run and right now I am having difficulty running longer than 1.5 to 2 minutes. I try intervals of walking and running and I will keep trying to get past that 2 minute mark without stopping. You guys are inspiring me to keep pushing!

To Evelyn and Eunice congrats on your goals!

Erika June 9, 2010 - 9:43 PM

Ahhhh I looove kickboxing! I feel like I could drop ANYONE when I’m kickboxing. Obviously, this clashes with my “namaste” side who loves yoga, lol… but I think a balance is appropriate. LOL!

I almost wonder if maybe you’re running too fast? Have you tried dropping the speed? I know that lots of people love the Couch-to-5k program, but I had to modify it greatly and repeat a few weeks until I figured out how I could best operate under it. Have you played with the format a bit?

Ashley D June 9, 2010 - 6:05 PM

Erika, I dont know if anyone has asked this. But what about the impact on your knees and joints. Im not a small girl and Im afraid that running will hurt me later on down the line with my knees….what do you think?

Erika June 9, 2010 - 6:50 PM

I think your best bet would be to consult with your doctor on that one. Because my only advice would be first to keep going until you feel some kind of stress, then stop and gauge if you can pick it back up.

Regardless of your size, you can always start off walking. Either the weight will start to come off fast enough where you’ll feel compelled to start running, or you will be so bored by walking that you’ll say “Screw it” and start running anyway. I was 279 when I first started running, so I’m sayin’ – you’re afraid of something that hasn’t come yet… so since it ain’t here yet, check with a doctor and see if there’s something legitimate keeping you from pushing yourself. Good luck. 🙂

Ashley D June 9, 2010 - 8:03 PM

Okay I feel better! My mom has had to have a knee replacement so I think she has just scared the hell out of me (moms are so good at that)! Thanks for the advice….I never feel anything but I just hear her voice lecturing with each step I run! LOL

Erika June 9, 2010 - 9:01 PM

Oh, I understand! My joints actually used to squeak – SQUEAK! – when I first started, but I said “Forget that – I’m running until it hurts” and sure enough, the squeaking and cracking went away. Strange, huh?

You might hear Mom’s voice, but you’ll have to determine whether or not you’re going to let outside forces create roadblocks for you… and I know it’s strange to hear that ’cause that’s Mom, man… but your personal health is very different. 🙂

Rita June 9, 2010 - 8:51 PM

I’ve always been afraid to run cause I’m “heavy chested” and thought I looked silly on the track or even attempting to run. Now lately I’ve been on the Couch to 5K plan and its helping me improve my endurance so much and not to mention the pounds came off like butter baby!
And all it took was me making up my mind to just do it. Seriously, I just did it one day….I was the girl who got tired of walking and said “screw it, I might as well run”. Now I’m up to running 5 minutes before I need a breather (I do it in reps…5 mins run, 2 mins mins walk then repeat for a total of 25 minutes). I’ve even joined up with a walk & run group in my area to help me keep going. The first time I went it was exciting, nerve wracking and rejuvenating at the same time. However after a while I was enjoying myself cause everyone had been at a starting point at one time or another.

So ladies get like nike and just do it, you will surprise yourself.

Erika June 9, 2010 - 9:12 PM

Yes! Shoutout to high intensity interval training! That alternating is what got me up to running my first full mile! I see ya, Rita – you can do it!

Joining the walk/run group is a great suggestion… that way, even when you don’t feel compelled to move because of the running itself, you’ll feel compelled to move because of the friendships you’ve built. Thank you for commenting!

Amber June 10, 2010 - 8:28 AM

Re: lowering my speed. I started out at like 4.5-4.7 on the treadmill and it seemed that I got tired and felt like I was slugging along. When I amped up the speed to 4.9-5.2 I felt like the wind…then the wind went caput 🙂 I will try and play with the speeds but the lower speeds seem to do me in. I am doing intervals today, so I will see how I fare around 4.9. Thanks again for the inspiration!

Erika June 10, 2010 - 8:50 AM

Good luck! And thank YOU! 🙂

Evelyn June 10, 2010 - 11:47 AM

Just saw your response Amber, THANK YOU! Let’s keep going!!

Ty June 10, 2010 - 3:03 PM

For some reason I find the more I work out the more I dont hate working out. I kinda look forward to it. I currently run 3 miles on the elliptical 5 to 6 days a week. I really enjoy it and its liberating for me to know that I can push myself to improve my time vs distance from days before. For me the key has been having really good music on my ipod. It helps me to get in a zone and to go harder to the beats. One day, I hope to transition to running on payment but for now im in love with the elliptical. As you mentioned in the post, people should go at their own pace and build themselves up to getting more in. I didnt always start off being able to do 3 miles. I started with doing 10 mins then 20 mins. Now im up to 3 Miles in 25-26 mins.

Daisy December 11, 2013 - 5:44 AM

I love this post! Thanks so much for your insight about the heart as it relates to cardio.

Correct me if I’m wrong but I liken cardio to childbirth, it is painful for awhile but there’s a threshold. And just as people sign up again for child birth (the benefit outweighs the momentary pain) I do the same for cardio/running. There’s a thrill in passing that threshold. I believe it has spiritual undertones. God created us to excel even under resistance. Just as He gives us gifts according to the measure of faith ascribed to us (again, spiritual undertone) each person has to listen to their body and excel the best way they know how. Running is a release of resistance for me 🙂

Dee February 20, 2016 - 6:30 PM

I had this feat of overworking my heart until it dawned on me that every day I was carrying almost 300 pounds on my body, I was overworking my heart. It actually is something to think about. I was carrying the equivalent of a GROWN MAN on my body 24 hours a day, every day. That fact in itself let me know how strong my heart actually is.

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