Cardio 101

Written by Dana Sullivan Kilroy | Published on September 10, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on September 10, 2014

The Basics of Cardio

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. The tragedy is that many of these deaths are both premature and preventable. So what’s an effective way to improve heart health and avoid becoming a statistic? Aerobic exercise.

Still, many people seem confused about what to do. “How much is enough?” and “What kind is best?” are two of the most common questions people ask about exercise. Here are some helpful parameters to keep in mind as you embark on a new fitness routine. Remember to speak with your healthcare provider before beginning any new workout regimen. They can help you tailor a routine that fits your specific fitness needs and goals.

How Much Is Enough?

The American Heart Association recommends that healthy adults between 18 and 65 should aim for 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity. That’s not as much as it sounds like if you break it into 30-minute sessions of activities such as walking, riding your bike, or gardening and other work around the house. You’re working hard enough to meet this recommendation if you break a sweat and feel your heart beating a little faster than normal. You should still be able to carry on a conversation during this type of exercise.

On the days you’d prefer to exercise for less time, just work harder. Swim laps, jog, or play basketball for 20 minutes, three times a week and do eight to 10 strength-training exercises twice a week.

What Kind Is Best?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to fitness. Any type of low-to-moderate intensity aerobic exercise will offer immediate and long-term health benefits. If you shudder at the thought of running, walk. If swimming laps sounds as appealing as a root canal, try water aerobics. At the gym, try alternating the cardio machines every few weeks so you don’t get bored. You could even try doing 10-minute intervals on several different machines. Recumbent bikes, elliptical machines, stair-climbers, and treadmills are usually at every gym, giving you at least four options to mix it up.

Once You Have a Solid Base, Add Intervals

The human body adapts amazingly well, and quickly, to the stress of exercise. Once you are consistently exercising and can do so for at least 30 minutes at a time, try adding some interval training into your routine. Interval training involves adding short periods of more intense effort to your workouts. Just mix some short bursts of effort into whatever you’re already doing. It’s a great way to get more out of your workouts without making them longer.  

Research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology studied the effects of interval training on women in their 20s. They monitored eight women of varying fitness levels as the subjects rode stationary bikes in intervals that alternated between hard and easy efforts. The four-minute bursts of 90 percent effort were followed by two minutes of rest. The women did 10 sets at each session and trained every other day for two weeks. At the end of the training period, the amount of fat they burned during one hour of continuous moderate cycling increased by 36 percent, and their cardiovascular fitness increased by 13 percent.

The findings suggest that just one or two interval sessions per week are all it takes to see a real benefit. Intervals can be slowly incorporated into any existing routine. If you walk for exercise, do a five-minute warm-up, increase your speed to a very brisk pace for two to four minutes, and then slow down to your normal pace for the same amount of time. Alternate between hard and easy for about 10 minutes.

The Benefits

Cardiovascular fitness has many benefits, the biggest of which is increased heart health. Getting your 150 minutes of weekly cardio can also help you lose weight and keep stress to a minimum, both major benefits in their own right. 

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