Should Add Cardio to Your Workout Routine?

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Cardiovascular exercise is low- and high-intensity activity that depends on the aerobic energy-generating process to elevate your heart rate. Though some use it solely for weight loss, cardio has many other benefits.

Cardio should be used in combination with strength training exercises for overall wellness. And while there are many cardio exercises to choose from, consistency, duration, and intensity are the most critical factors for meeting your fitness goals. Read on to learn more about cardio, as well as its benefits, and how to create a safe and effective cardio workout routine.

What Is Cardio?

Cardio exercise, which is sometimes referred to as aerobic exercise, is any rhythmic activity that raises your heart rate into your target heart rate zone. This is the zone where you burn the most fat and calories.

Some of the most common examples of cardio include walking, cycling, and swimming. However, even household chores like vacuuming and mopping qualify as cardio exercise.

Part of what sets cardio apart from other types of exercise—such as strength training—is that it relies on your body’s ability to use oxygen during the workout session. A person’s cardio ability or capacity can vary based on a number of factors.

Research published by the American Heart Association reports that genetics have a 20% to 40% influence over what you can do cardio-wise. Also, females tend to have a 25% lower cardio capacity than males and, for both genders, this capacity tends to decline with age.

This is not to say that your genes, gender, or age will prevent you from improving your cardiovascular health. But it does help to know that many factors can influence how (and how well) your body responds to cardio exercise.

Benefits of Cardio

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

There are few activities you can do for a short period that have the physical and mental health benefits that cardio offers. Some of the known benefits of cardio include:

  • Burns fat and calories, making it easier to lose weight
  • Enhances sleep quality, especially if the exercise is moderate to vigorous in intensity
  • Expands lung capacity or the amount of air that your lungs can hold
  • Improves your sex life by increasing your body’s ability to become aroused, improving your body image, and even potentially helping to treat medication-related sexual dysfunction
  • Increases bone density when you do weight-bearing cardio exercises like hiking or climbing stairs
  • Lowers stress in part by improving your ability to cope with issues positively
  • Promotes feeling good, and can even help relieve depression and anxiety
  • Improves confidence in how you look and feel
  • Reduces risk of heart attack, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and some forms of cancer
  • Sets a good example for those around you, encouraging them to exercise with you
  • Strengthens the heart so it doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood

How to Choose Cardio Workouts

Your first step in choosing the right cardio workout is to decide which activities you enjoy. Think about what fits your personality and movement you’d feel comfortable fitting into your life. This is key because if you don’t like the exercise, you’re less likely to stick with it long-term.

Exploring nature, running, cycling, or walking—all great cardio options. If you prefer going to the gym, you have many options in the form of stationary bikes, elliptical trainers, treadmills, rowing machines, climbers, swimming pools, and more.

Want to increase your heart rate at home? You can do at-home cardio exercises like jumping rope, jumping jacks, jogging in place, and burpees. Another option is to buy your own treadmill or elliptical machine. You might also consider using:

You may not even know what you like yet. In this case, try several different activities to find ones you enjoy. Don’t be afraid to try something new and, if it doesn’t work out, move on. For example, you might find that workout sandbags offer a full-body workout with a single piece of equipment.

Beginner Cardio Workouts

If you are new to cardiovascular exercise, try beginner workouts to help get you started. These include:

Another option is to start with about 10 to 20 minutes of brisk walking at a moderate intensity. This means you should be at Level 5 or 6 on a perceived exertion scale of zero to 10, where sitting is zero and the highest level of effort possible is 10.

How Long Should a Cardio Workout Last?

Health authorities recommend that most people get 150 minutes of cardio exercise per week. The great thing about cardio is that you don’t have to work out for an hour to receive benefits.

Even cardio sessions as short as 10 minutes count toward your weekly exercise totals. So, figure out how much you need to do each week and split it up in a way that makes sense for you.

Beginners can find it more manageable to break up cardio into 10- or 15-minute segments. Increase your time by 5 minutes as exercise begins to feel easier. Work your way up to 30- to 60-minute sessions.

Frequency of Cardio Workouts

The answer to how often to do cardio depends on several factors. Among them are your fitness level, schedule, and goals. 

If you are new to exercise, want to be healthier, don’t have a lot of free time, and aren’t worried about losing weight, exercising a little bit every day can do you good. If you have been exercising regularly for years, are used to hitting the gym for 60 minutes at a time, and are more focused on building muscle than burning fat, cardio three to four times a week is likely enough.

When thinking about frequency, it’s important to consider intensity as well. Light- or moderate-intensity cardio workouts can usually be performed every day. But if you do high-intensity training, you’ll need more rest days between workouts. Mixing the two helps you work different energy systems and keeps you from burning out.

Guidelines for Cardio Frequency

The frequency of your workouts depends on your fitness level and schedule. The basic guidelines are:

  • For general health, try moderately intense cardio for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, or vigorously intense cardio for 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week. You can also do a mixture.
  • For weight loss and/or to avoid regaining weight, you may need to do more than 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week to meet your goals.
  • To maintain a healthy body weight, you need 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week.

Doing too much cardio is a no-no and can backfire. There is a point of diminishing returns, so keep it reasonable (three to six days per week, depending on your fitness level), vary your intensity, and don’t forget to take rest days.

When Life Gets in the Way of Cardio

What happens if you can’t follow the guidelines? If you’re still building endurance and conditioning with cardio exercises, it may take a few weeks to work up to more frequent movement.

If a busy schedule stands in your way, work out as many days as possible. Try shorter, more intense circuit-training workouts to make the most of the time you have. Try these quick workouts:

Keep in mind that if you can’t follow the guidelines due to a busy schedule, your wellness goals may take a back seat until you can change your lifestyle to accommodate more daily movement.

Cardio Exercise Intensity

Once you’re used to exercising at 30 minutes of continuous movement, begin working on intensity. How hard you work is a crucial factor in your workout because of:

  • Calorie burn: Intensity is directly related to how many calories you burn.
  • Ease of monitoring: A heart rate monitor or the perceived exertion scale makes it easy to monitor your exercise intensity.
  • Time savings: Elevating intensity burns more calories when you’re short on time.

Variation: Swap your usual cardio workout with something new, whether cycling, a HIIT or dance class, rock climbing, or workouts on a trampoline or rebounder. Your body will love the new challenge.

How Hard Should You Work?

Your best cardio intensity level depends on several factors, including your fitness and goals. There are three different levels of intensity you can focus on during your workouts, and you can even incorporate all levels into the same workout:

  • High-Intensity Cardio: This falls between 70% and 85% of your maximum heart rate (MHR), or a 7 to 8 on the perceived exertion scale. High-intensity cardio is challenging and leaves you too breathless to talk much. If you’re a beginner, try beginner interval training to work harder for shorter periods.
  • Moderate-Intensity Cardio: Moderate intensity falls between 50% and 70% of your MHR (a level 5 to 6 on the perceived exertion scale). The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services often recommends this level of intensity in its Physical Activity Guidelines. This is the level you typically want to shoot for during your workouts.
  • Low-Intensity Cardio: This type of exercise is considered below 50% of your MHR, or about a level 3 to 4 on the perceived exertion scale. This is a good level to work at during warm-ups or when you’re squeezing in other activities, like walking, throughout the day.

Keep in mind that target heart rate calculation isn’t 100% accurate. You might want to use a combination of perceived exertion and your heart rate to find a range that works for you.

Cardio for Weight Loss

While the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans suggest that most people get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity weekly, the amount of exercise needed to lose weight is often greater. If you want to lose more than 5% of your body weight, you may need 300 minutes per week or more.

These guidelines state that moderate-intensity cardio is any activity that elevates your heart rate. However, they also indicate that incorporating high-intensity interval training often provides better results for people who are overweight or obese.

Adding resistance training to your weekly cardio can also help. It works by increasing lean muscle mass to create a higher energy demand on your body to burn more calories at rest and while exercising.

Combine cardio with a healthy diet to boost your weight loss. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating fruits, veggies, grains, low-fat dairy, lean proteins, and healthy oils while limiting added sugar, saturated fat, sodium, and alcohol.

A Word From Verywell

Before beginning cardio or any other exercise program, talk to your doctor to ensure exercise is safe. Also, listen to your body. If it tells you to slow down, reduce your intensity, frequency, or exercise duration.

Keep your cardio workouts simple. Start somewhere and make it a goal to do something every day, even if it’s a five-minute walk. Try doing it at the same time every day and schedule it on your calendar. The more you practice, the easier it gets.

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