This type of exercise is great for your heart, bones, and mind. Here’s how to make it work for you.
If you know anything about cardiovascular exercise, it’s that it should be part of your workout routine. Outside of that, you probably have more questions than answers: How much do I need? What’s the best type for me? Is high-impact cardio safe?
Cardio is great for your ticker and whole body. To help you get both in tip-top shape, we took your top questions to the experts. Before you lace up another shoe, read on.
1. What Exactly Is Cardio? Is It the Same as Aerobic Exercise?
Cardiovascular and aerobic exercise are two sides of the same sweaty coin. Cardio is defined as any workout that gets your heart rate up, while aerobic is any form of activity that relies on oxygen for energy.
Any exercise that runs on oxygen is guaranteed to get your heart pumping, explains Pamela Geisel, C.P.T., a performance specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Likewise, any exercise that gets your heart pumping will require a lot of oxygen.
Traditionally, when people talk about cardio and aerobic exercise, they’re referring to low- to moderate-intensity steady-state movement like continuous jogging or biking. However, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) such as sprinting on the treadmill or stationary bike—as well as fast-paced circuits that involve moving from one exercise to the next with little to no rest—qualify as well.
2. What Are the Benefits of Cardio?
“The heart is a muscle, and like all muscles, it can become stronger and more efficient with exercise,” says Victoria Shin, M.D., a cardiologist at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in California. By enabling the heart to pump more blood with every beat, cardiovascular exercise can help lower your resting heart rate. It can also reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels to help lower your risk of heart disease, she says.
But despite its name, the benefits don’t end with the cardiovascular system. “Additional benefits include weight management, improved insulin sensitivity, increased lung capacity, stronger bones, and decreased stress and anxiety,” Geisel says. “It’s also a great social opportunity. Catch up with old friends or make new friends over a tennis match or walking club.” Or check out a SilverSneakers or fitness class near you.
3. How Much Cardio Should I Perform?
For overall cardiovascular health, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week (five 30-minute sessions) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week (three 25-minute sessions). Alternatively, you can perform a combination of the two. If you’re looking to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, the AHA recommends increasing your cardio to 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity three to four days per week.
Geisel recommends using a scale of 1 to 10 to gauge how hard you’re working: Low intensity exercise should feel like a 3 or 4, moderate intensity a 5 or 6, and vigorous intensity a 7 to 9.
If you can’t quite do 30 minutes of activity, five days a week yet, remember that some activity is better than no activity. Start by standing up and taking short walks during your day. As you get stronger, you’ll be able to do more and feel more confident.
4. What Are the Best Forms of Cardio for Me?
“The best form is the one you enjoy,” Geisel says. “You’re more likely to adhere to a program you find pleasure in.” It doesn’t matter if it’s water aerobics, cycling, dancing, running, speed walking, stair climbing, or anything else.
One guideline: Make sure your program includes weight-bearing exercise. Don’t just go swimming and cycling.
Weight-bearing cardio exercises—walking, playing tennis, dancing—not only strengthen your heart and muscles, but also your bones. If you have osteoporosis, it’s best to stick with low-impact forms of weight-bearing exercise so that you don’t put too much stress on your bones, Geisel says. Think: Walking instead of running.
Start at low to moderate intensity: between 3 and 6 on the effort scale. If, however, you exercise regularly, are in good health, and have your doctor’s blessing to push harder, you may benefit from mixing steady-state workouts with high-intensity intervals, Dr. Shin says. By alternating short periods of intense effort (7 to 9 on the effort scale) with recovery periods (3 or 4), you can reap greater benefits in less time.
“If you have a medical history of cardiovascular, metabolic, or kidney disease, it’s recommended that you speak with your doctor and find a qualified exercise professional to help you craft a workout to meet your needs,” Geisel says. “And always listen to your body.”
6. Do I Need to Perform Any Exercise Outside of Cardio?
Cardiovascular exercise is part of any great workout program—but it’s not a great workout program on its own. “A balanced program will include aerobic exercise, strength training, balance, and flexibility,” Geisel says. “Be sure to incorporate all of the fitness parameters to maximize benefits.”
Strength training is a particularly important complement to cardio, since it can help prevent the natural loss of muscle that occurs as we age, says Dr. Shin. She notes that the AHA also recommends performing strength-training activities at least two days per week for optimal health.
Fortunately, smart strength training can double as balance and flexibility training. Performing standing free-weight exercises with resistance bands, dumbbells, and kettlebells can increase balance, stability, and flexibility. Yoga’s another great option for improving all three at once. No matter the strength activity, focus on using good form and making sure you move through your entire range of motion with each rep.
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