Cardiovascular exercise—or “cardio” as it’s usually called—is an integral component of any effective, balanced fitness program. At a base level, to optimize your results from a cardio workout, the level of exertion should cause your heart rate to increase and your breathing to be heavier than normal, says The American Heart Association
Most healthy adults will benefit from 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio
or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio per week, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
You may be wondering, however, what actually counts as cardio? More importantly, why does it matter and how can you get the most out of it? Here’s what you need to know about cardio.
What is cardio exercise?
When you think of cardio exercise, another term likely comes to mind is “aerobic.” These two words are often used interchangeably, but are they the same? The short answer is yes, but with a caveat. Aerobic means, “with oxygen,” suggests The Cleveland Clinic
. So when you do aerobic activities, your breathing controls how much oxygen circulates to the muscles which, in turn, allows them to move and burn energy.
Because the cardiovascular system (otherwise known as the heart) is a muscle, it’s involved in this process too. The heart’s main function is to circulate oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to other parts of the body. Breaking it down even further, aerobic refers to the lungs, while cardio refers to the heart, but both mechanisms work together simultaneously to fuel and sustain exertion levels.
The opposite of this is called anaerobic exercise, referring to physical activities that do not require as much oxygen and instead, are powered by short, intense bursts of speed, energy, and power. Most of these fitness routines fall under the resistance training umbrella.
Here are some types of workouts that fall under cardio (aerobic), not resistance (anaerobic). Click on the following links to find workouts and to further explore the benefits of each one:
What are the benefits of cardio?
While cardio is most closely associated with the heart, the wellness benefits
do not stop there. A consistent cardio fitness plan
is crucial for both physical and mental health to enhance vitality from the inside out.
You might be surprised by how many functions can be strengthened and optimized with a boost from cardio exercise. According to Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine
, here are a few key health benefits you’ll reap by adding cardio to your routine:
- Increased physical endurance
- Optimal cholesterol levels
- Lower risk of heart arrhythmia
- Improved metabolic rate
- Healthy blood pressure regulation
- Strong respiratory function
- Optimal weight management
- Lower risk of cardiovascular disease
That’s not where the benefits end. Clinical exercise physiologist Dr. Erik Van Iterson
of The Cleveland Clinic suggests the following also result from cardio:
- Full range motion in the joints
- Arthritis pain management
- Lower risk of osteoporosis
- Improved working memory
- Protection from cognitive decline
- Increased blood flow to the brain
- Clearer and healthier skin
- Improved muscle tone
- Optimal digestive function
- Lower risk of Type 2 diabetes
- Enhanced sexual well-being
- Relief from stress to elevate mood
- Healthier REM sleep cycles
- Bolstered immune system
How do you maximize cardio results?
While you know cardio fitness can improve most areas of your well-being and quality of life, how can you maximize your efforts? Here’s what to keep in mind as you lace up those sneakers and hit the pavement (or gym or trail or pool—whichever you prefer) for a cardio sweat session.
- Do not forget to stretch. It’s essential to warm up your joints and muscles before any workout routine. Cardio is no exception. Choose active, dynamic stretches that mimic the kind of movement you’re about to do. This will put the body through its full range of motion. Stretching increases muscle flexibility and elongation, which makes it easier to perform the exercise and can also protect against injury, reports the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
- Switch up intensity levels. There are two main forms of cardio exercise: Steady-state and high-intensity. Steady-state refers to continuous exertion at one sustained pace for the whole time (e. a long-distance run). High-intensity refers to interval circuits during which you alternate back-and-forth from intense energy output to quick bouts of rest or light movement. Only exercising at one intensity level can cause results to plateau over time, suggests another recent study. To maximize results, vary the workout intensities.
- Aim for the right duration. Not counting the warm-up and cool-down portions of your workout, aim to perform 20 to 60 minutes of cardio exercise within your target heart rate zone. This is the optimal beats-per-minute range, where the most aerobic benefits occur. To find your target heart rate zone, use this guide from the American Heart Association. A 20- to 60-minute duration at this intensity level will ensure the body has a chance to burn fat as fuel.
- Let the body cool down. A cool-down after exercise is not as imperative as a warm-up stretch before exercise. However, some research indicates that a cool-down normalizes your heart rate and breath cadence following an intense workout, the Sports Medicine Journal As a result, this could promote a faster recovery of both the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. An ideal cool-down is about 5-10 minutes of gentle activity at low-level exertion (i.e. from running to walking).
Cardio is vital to overall health and wellbeing
Cardio is both an essential and versatile form of exercise. From swimming and running to biking and playing soccer, there are plenty of options to choose from, and each comes with a wide range of physical and mental health benefits. If cardio is not already a consistent part of your fitness plan, now is the time to make time for this important style of movement.