Interval Cardio Workout

By the Editors of SilverSneakers |

Pick your two favorite cardio machines, and get ready for an energizing, calorie-blasting gym session!

You don’t have to spend hours at the gym to shape up or slim down. The trick is to maximize your workout time.

An easy way to do that: cardio intervals, which require you to push yourself hard briefly and then recover. An example: “We’re going to go for 30 seconds, and you’re going to give it all you’ve got—with good energy, good form, no pain,” says SilverSneakers fitness expert David Jack. “Then you’re going to recover nice and easy.”

You’ll use this on-off, push-recover rhythm throughout this interval cardio workout. The result: You’ll burn more calories and work more muscles in a short amount of time.

How the Interval Cardio Workout Works

You’ll use two different cardio machines for this workout. In the video and description below, we use a treadmill and an air bike, but you can choose a recumbent bike, an elliptical, or your favorite cardio machines.

Warm up with five minutes of easy cardio. Then perform the workout below. Cool down with deep breathing and stretches of your choice.

During your workout, pay attention to how you feel. Specifically, tune in to your rate of perceived exertion (RPE): On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the easiest and 10 being the hardest, how hard are you working?

As always, safety is key. The exercises here may be different or more advanced than those you’ll experience in a SilverSneakers class. If you have a chronic condition, an injury, or balance issues, talk to your doctor about how you can exercise safely.

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Set Up Your Machine

Before you start walking, pedaling, or stepping, check your machine and positioning. Use these tips to get it right.

Treadmill: Step on the sides of the treadmill rather than the belt, and attach the safety clip to your clothing. If you want, place your hands on the rails when you start walking.

Indoor bike: You want your legs to be almost straight at the bottom, but your knees shouldn’t be locked. The handlebars should be high enough that you can reach them comfortably as you sit up tall.

Recumbent bike: Make sure the balls of your feet are completely on the pedals. Adjust your seat until your front knee is slightly bent and your foot is comfortably extended on the pedal.

Elliptical: If you can, choose an elliptical with handles so you can engage your upper body. Stand up straight, make sure your whole foot is on the pedal, and push through your foot with each stride.

Exercise #1: Treadmill Intervals

This interval workout uses changes in incline and speed to increase or decrease the difficulty. You’ll alternate between pushing yourself hard and recovering at two different inclines.

To push yourself, pick a speed at the suggested incline that gets you to about a 7 RPE, where you’re working hard and can’t talk.

To recover, take the suggested amount of time to come down to a 2 or 3 RPE, where you can talk easily. It’s important to let yourself cool down enough so you’re truly recovering—the recovery period is what allows you to push hard in short bursts.

Keep in mind that suggested inclines and recovery times are just that: suggestions. Listen to your body, and feel free to use less incline and longer recovery periods as needed.

Do this sequence up to two times:

  • Gradually increase your incline to 5%.
  • 60 seconds, 7 RPE: Push hard for 60 seconds.
  • 90 seconds, 2 to 3 RPE: Gradually decrease your speed to recover.
  • Gradually increase your incline to 8%.
  • 30 seconds, 7 RPE: Push hard for 30 seconds. You may need to go slowly at this incline—that’s normal.
  • 90 seconds, 2 to 3 RPE: Gradually decrease your speed to recover.
  • Gradually decrease your incline to 5%.
  • 60 seconds, 7 RPE: Push hard for 60 seconds.
  • 90 seconds, 2 to 3 RPE: Gradually decrease your speed to recover.

After you’ve completed two rounds, decrease your incline and speed gradually to stop the treadmill. When it stops completely, step off safely to transition to your next machine.

Exercise #2: Bike Intervals

Set yourself up on the bike or whichever cardio machine you prefer, and get ready to alternate between pushing yourself hard and recovering.

Remember: When pushing hard, you should be at about a 7 or 8 RPE—you’re breathing hard and it’s difficult to talk—but you’re not working at your hardest. During the recovery periods, take the suggested amount of time or longer if needed to come down to a 2 or 3 RPE.

Do this sequence up to two times:

  • 30 seconds, 7 to 8 RPE: Push hard for 30 seconds.
  • 90 seconds, 2 to 3 RPE: Recover for 90 seconds or longer.
  • 15 seconds, 7 to 8 RPE: Push hard for 15 seconds.
  • 15 seconds, 4 to 5 RPE: Go a little easier for 15 seconds.
  • 15 seconds, 7 to 8 RPE: Push hard again for 15 seconds.
  • 15 seconds, 4 to 5 RPE: Go a little easier for 15 seconds.
  • 60 seconds, 2 to 3 RPE: Recover for 60 seconds or longer.
  • 30 seconds, 7 to 8 RPE: Push hard for 30 seconds.
  • 90 seconds, 2 to 3 RPE: Recover for 90 second or longer.

After you’ve completed two rounds, gradually reduce your speed until you come to a complete stop. Find some open floor space to cool down and stretch on your own. Try these five stretches you should do after every walk.

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