Cardio workouts can help you build strength while lowering your risk of heart disease and other health conditions. Here’s how to reap its many benefits.
If you’ve ever gone for a jog, swam laps in a pool, or taken a brisk walk, you’ve done cardiovascular exercise. Usually shortened to “cardio,” this type of exercise gets your heart rate and breathing rate up.
When it comes to putting together a fitness mix for healthy aging, cardio should be a major component, according to the National Institute on Aging. And for many cardio exercises, all you need is yourself — and a good pair of supportive sneakers.
Here’s everything you need to know about cardio exercise, including how to get started and the kind of health benefits you can expect.
Remember to get your healthcare provider’s OK before beginning any new exercise program. If you have a chronic condition, balance issues, or are recovering from an injury or surgery, talk to your doctor about how you can exercise safely.
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Is cardio the same as aerobic exercise?
While they’re related, cardio and aerobic exercise are not exactly the same — although it’s likely you’ll be doing them simultaneously.
While cardio focuses on increasing your heart rate, aerobic exercise focuses on oxygen use and breathing. Cardio is about getting your heart pumping faster and aerobic exercise is about getting your lungs to work harder.
It’s no surprise the two are often used as synonyms. During cardio, your respiratory system works harder. This prompts your blood vessels to expand, bringing more oxygen to your body. And as your heart beats faster, your breathing gets heavier.
In fact, one of the measures of cardio exertion is called the “talk test.” The harder you’re working out, the more challenging it becomes to hold a conversation. At the beginning of a treadmill or stationary bike workout, for example, you might be able to carry a conversation like normal with someone next to you. But after a few minutes, you’ll likely only be able to get out a few breathy words at a time.
All of this means that as you’re doing cardio, you’ll also be getting aerobic advantages, including improved lung function.
What counts as cardio exercise?
Because cardio is any activity that gets your heart beating faster, it can encompass a wide range of activities — everything from pushing a lawn mower to a dressed-up night on the dance floor.
Common cardio workouts include:
- Brisk walking
- Pickleball or tennis
- Cross-country skiing
- Kayaking or canoeing
- High-intensity interval training (aka HIIT)
- Martial arts
Good to know: Many SilverSneakers fitness classes are a fun way to get your cardio workouts in. Options range from the beginner-friendly Zumba Gold (offered in-person and online) to SilverSneakers Circuit (in-person and online) and Cardio Mix (online) for those who are looking for more of a challenge.
There are even 15-minute “Express” cardio classes that you can take online with SilverSneakers LIVE. A few to try:
- Cardio Interval
- Cardio & Strength
- Walk Strong
- View the schedule and RSVP here
Here’s a mini version of the popular SilverSneakers Circuit class that you can try right now:
What are the health benefits of cardio exercise?
Cardio exercise is best known for its heart-health benefits, but cardio workouts can help older adults improve their overall health in a number of ways.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the health benefits of regular cardio exercise include:
- Lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, dementia and Alzheimer’s, and several types of cancer
- Better sleep, including improvements in insomnia and sleep apnea
- Improved cognitive function, including memory, attention, and processing speed
- Weight loss
- Better bone health and balance, with less risk of injury from falls
- Fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Better quality of life and improved sense of overall well-being
Plus, if you exercise with a friend or family member, you’ll get an added mental boost from the social interaction.
How much cardio exercise should you do weekly?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans call for 150- to 300-minutes a week of moderate-intensity cardio or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio.
You could also do a combination of the two. But know that it’s better to space out your cardio workouts, rather than trying to load up on one day per week.
If an on-going health condition prevents you from doing 150-minutes, try to be as physically active as possible. Also, talk to your doctor about ways you can stay active and exercise safely.
If you’re new to cardio exercise — or exercise in general — 150 minutes might sound like a lot. Don’t stress. Try to view this effort as a lifelong endeavor.
Begin slowly and gradually increase the intensity over time. That helps prevent injury, as your heart and lungs have time to adjust to increasing amounts of cardio.
How can you determine intensity level?
To figure out if you’re getting the most out of each workout, it helps to understand intensity.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses a 10-point scale to demonstrate cardio intensity. Zero is sitting and 10 is working as hard as you can.
Moderate-intensity activity falls at a 5 or 6 on that scale. It will make your heart beat faster and make you breathe harder, but you can still hold a conversation. Slower than that would be a low-intensity activity, where you’d have enough breath to be able to sing.
Vigorous-intensity activity is a 7 or 8: Your heart rate and breath rate increase even more. One minute of vigorous-intensity activity is about the same as two minutes of moderate-intensity activity, according to the CDC. Anything above an 8 is not recommended.
Remember: Everyone’s fitness level is different. What feels like vigorous activity to you might be moderate to someone else. What’s important is to do activities that feel right to you, in a way that’s challenging but not pushing yourself too far.
What should your heart rate be when doing a cardio workout?
In addition to striving for a moderate- to vigorous-intensity, it’s helpful to know your target heart rate. That’s a training measurement that helps you gauge your effort.
Most adults have a resting heart rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute, according to the AHA. Your target heart rate is the “zone” you want to strive for during each cardio workout in order to reap those health benefits discussed earlier.
During moderate-intensity exercise, the target heart rate zone is 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. During vigorous-intensity exercise, the target heart rate is 70 to 85 percent maximum, according to the AHA.
In general, someone who is 65 years old has a target heart rate of 78 to 132 beats per minute, while someone who is 70 or older should stay within 75 to 128 beats per minute. That said, it’s a good idea to ask your doctor what your heart rate should be during exercise. Many medications affect heart rate, so your target zone may be different.
A heart rate monitor or wearable activity tracker can help you keep track of your cardio progress during workouts. That way, it’s easy to see when you’re hitting your target heart rate.
If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, you can periodically check your heart rate as you exercise. Here’s how:
- Take your pulse on the inside of your wrist, on the thumb side
- Use the tips of your first two fingers to gently press on the artery
- Count the beats for 30 seconds and multiply by two to find the beats per minute
If your heart rate is too low or too high during a workout, use that information to adjust your intensity accordingly.
Recommended reading: 5 Tips to Know When to Push Yourself
Should you skip cardio if you have heart disease or other heart issues?
When you have a heart condition, it may be tempting to take it easy to avoid putting too much stress on your heart. However, sedentary behavior is much tougher on your heart than cardio, research suggests. A 2019 study in the journal Circulation notes that physical inactivity is among the leading modifiable risk factors worldwide for cardiovascular disease.
Cardio exercise, on the other hand, can boost your heart health. According to the National Library of Medicine, this form of exercise can strengthen your heart muscle and help manage your blood pressure. This makes cardio an ideal workout for people with heart disease and other heart issues.
If you’re looking to get into cardio and you have a heart condition, keep these tips in mind:
- Start slowly with an activity like walking, swimming, or a SilverSneakers class, and do this at least three or four times a week
- Always do at least five minutes of stretching or walking to warm up your heart and muscles before exercise
- Cool down after your workout by doing the same activity at a slower pace
- Take frequent rest periods so you don’t get too tired
- Stop if you feel tired or have any heart symptoms like discomfort in the chest, dizziness or lightheadedness, pain, irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, or nausea
In addition, during hot weather you should take a few extra precautions. Try to exercise indoors in an air-conditioned room, or outdoors in the morning or evening. That’s because heat and humidity can cause your heart to work harder, so it may be working too hard if you’re exercising in the middle of the day.
Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider before starting a new cardio regimen. This is especially true if you have a condition like heart disease or congestive heart failure and want to do exercises that change your heart rate. It’s possible your doctor may suggest doing supervised cardiac rehab, so a physical therapist can monitor you in a safe setting.
Recommended reading: Dos and Don’ts of Exercising With Heart Disease
Can you do cardio if you have joint pain or mobility limitations?
There are plenty of cardio workouts that are high-impact, especially ones that include running and jumping.
Luckily, there are just as many options that offer cardio benefits without stressing your joints. For example, swimming laps or taking a water aerobics class like SilverSneakers Splash is no-impact while still providing an ideal amount of resistance.
You can also opt to slow down your cardio workouts, as well as get your heart rate up with low-impact activities like bicycling, rowing, elliptical training, and brisk walking.
Recommended workout: Low-Impact HIIT Workout That’s Good for Achy Joints
Just as you would if you have heart issues, talk to your doctor to get the green light before starting a new exercise program. And be sure to take it slow when you first begin. Remember that even a couple minutes of exercise at a time adds up to a larger fitness goal.
What’s a good way to get started with cardio exercise?
If you don’t know where to begin, a brisk walk is a great option. The more you pick up the pace, the better your workout will be.
One of the best aspects of cardio is that you can tailor it to fit your individual needs and lifestyle.
Short on time? Try this 6-Minute Cardio Interval Workout:
The most important thing is that you choose activities you enjoy doing. You’re more likely to stick to your routine if you’re having fun.
And remember that everyone starts somewhere. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re out of breath 15 minutes into your 30-minute workout. The more you do cardio, the easier it will feel.
In time, you’ll boost your heart health, feel more energized, and have plenty of fun along the way.
- See our sources:
Fitness mix: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021) How can I stay active as I get older?
Guidelines: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021) Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans and Executive Summary
Benefits: Centers for Disease Control. (2022) Benefits of Physical Activity and How much physical activity do older adults need?
- Exercising with heart disease: National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health. (2020) Being active when you have heart disease
- Target heart rate: The American Heart Association. (2022) Target Heart Rates Chart
- Cardio benefits: The American Heart Association. (2022) Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids
Sedentary behavior and heart health: Circulation Research. (2019) Sedentary Behavior, Exercise, and Cardiovascular Health
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