One of my favorite types of exercise routines is the interval cardio workout! That means that whatever cardio workout I choose, I’m not opting for steady state cardio (basically, staying at the same moderate intensity level for a length of time) — instead, I rely on high-intensity interval training (HIIT workouts) that consist of “bursts” of high-intensity exercise followed by brief rests.
What’s awesome about this technique? It can pertain to any cardio exercise! So that means your local run, bike ride, your rowing machine, those steps at the stadium, etc. Interval cardio workouts get your heart rate up, helping you to shed calories, boost your metabolism and deliver loads of energy.
In my experience, they’re the best accompaniment for a resistance-training program — so you not only shed fat, but also preserve your hard-won lean muscle!
Why & How to Do Cardio?
A cardio workout is defined as any exercise that raises your heart rate. Your heart is a muscle so when it is worked on a regular basis, it makes it stronger, just like any other muscle in your body.
When the heart is stronger, that means that your cardiovascular system is stronger because more capillaries are delivering more oxygen to the cells in your muscles. This is what kicks up that metabolism by enabling the cells to burn more fat during exercise and throughout the rest of day. Ultimately, it will make your body more efficient in your day-to-day living.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the largest sports medicine and exercise science organization in the world, reported a study which reflects the current scientific evidence on physical activity and includes recommendations on cardio exercise. Consistent with past guidelines, ACSM’s overall recommendation is for most adults to engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on a weekly basis. (1)
In order to benefit from cardio workouts, it’s important to keep the heart rate to at least 50 percent of its maximum level. Cardio exercise uses large muscle movement. You may want to find out what your target heart rate is and wear a heart rate monitor, such as with a trendy fitness tracker, to keep an eye on it.
Types of Cardio Workouts
There are many types of cardio workouts that you can explore to determine what is right for you, but I always recommend that you check with your doctor first, especially if you have an existing health condition. You will want to determine where you are with your fitness level.
For someone who has been sedentary, starting with walking to lose weight may be best. With consistent effort, you will gain more fitness and be able to do more over time!
If you are already somewhat active, you can consider other cardio workouts like running, bike riding/cycling, swimming, jump roping, rowing and aerobic workouts such as HIIT or my own fun brand of interval training called burst training — I encourage that you apply the burst training concept to all of these cardio choices.
With all of these cardio workouts, there are different levels. Don’t get discouraged if at first you feel like you cannot complete a workout. Start with realistic goals that you know you can accomplish.
If it is too easy, you need to increase the intensity a bit as well as the duration. If it is too hard, back off a bit and re-establish your goals to something slightly harder than what feels easy.
How do you know if it is too easy? If your heart rate is not increasing, or you can carry on a full conversation without being breathless, it is likely too easy. If you cannot talk at all, it is probably too hard.
Pay attention to your body and make sure to drink plenty of water to stay well hydrated in order to avoid common running injuries. Here is a great list of types of cardio workouts that you can choose from. Mix it up and have fun!
Brisk walking is just what it says. You simply want to walk more aggressively than a stroll in order to get your heart rate up. It may seem strange to consider walking as a cardio workout, but if done correctly, it can provide powerful health benefits.
Did you know that there are professional fast walkers and competitions? Something else you need to consider is importance of having the right shoe, typically a good running shoe, and can be found at your local running store. Fast walking is great because of the low impact; however, remember that we are not talking about a casual stroll. The key is to get your heart rate up. In order to do that, you will need to pick up the pace and tackle hills when you can.
Cycling can be done on a stationary bike at the gym or at home as well as on a bike in the great outdoors. You may want to take a spin class at your gym.
It is important to consider the type of cardio workout you plan to do in advance so that you accomplish that goal. Cycling classes are great because the workout has already been planned for you, and many of us perform better within a community. It is fun, too! I have provided a great cycling workout for you below.
The elliptical trainer is a great way to get a low-impact cardio workout. You can find them at most every gym. The movement is similar to running, yet you are not getting the same high impact of pounding the pavement that you do when running.
Like cycling and any other workout, you will want to plan your cardio workout in advance because otherwise, you may not perform your best. When you have a plan, you are more likely to stick to that plan, even as the workout gets tougher and you feel fatigue.
One of my favorite cardio workouts is running. I love how I can enjoy the outdoors and get to know an area when I travel by taking a run. Of course, the treadmill is another way to get in a great run. There’s many great running tips for beginners, such as when using the treadmill, remember to set the incline at a 1 percent grade to better mimic outdoor running terrain.
Running has picked up in popularity over the past few years. While it may not be for everyone, I have met so many of my patients who never thought they would run in their lives to completing their first 5k or marathon, for that matter. In fact, my mom is one of those people!
Like all cardio workouts, there are numerous levels for runners. Some choose to have an easy jog while others choose to introduce intervals into their workout — I strongly recommend the latter. Regardless, running can be a great way to benefit from a cardio workout, and you can do it most anywhere!
Stair Machine (Stair Master or Step Mill)
The stair machine is found at most gyms and can be one tough cardio workout! Though low impact, you can accomplish a lot in a short period of time, depending on the intensity that you set on the machine. Start slow and increase the speed or intensity gradually to a level that is slightly above easy. Add more as you can, but be careful on this machine.
I recommend starting with 10 minutes and adding on a minute or two each time you go back to the gym while slowly increasing the intensity. You will want to make sure you have good posture, too. Hold on to the bars and maintain focus to help avoid tripping; however, for a more advanced cardio workout, put your hands at the back of your head. You will notice a difference in your heart rate!
Swimming is an amazing cardio workout that has zero impact on the body. When you first start swimming, it is going to seem extremely difficult because it requires rhythmic breathing in addition to good strokes.
There are numerous swimming strokes that you can do, from the breaststroke to freestyle. Regardless, it is a wonderful way to gain fitness through a cardio workout. Once you have a feel for it, you can step into a masters swim class at your local gym.
Rowing is another great cardio workout, but has the added benefit of upper body work and some core work. Most gyms have rowing machines, also known as ergometers, and can be a great way to add some variety into your cardio workouts. It is fun, too, since it mimics that of actual rowing, all while working numerous large muscle groups! If you are not sure how to use the machine, just ask a fitness trainer to demonstrate it for you.
HIIT, Burstfit and Bootcamp
HIIT, Burstfit and bootcamp-style workouts are all amazing for your cardio fitness, as well as strength training, and can be done almost anywhere using your own bodyweight.
They are typically a set of low- to high-impact exercises done in a set time period; for example, 45 seconds of exercise with a short rest of 15 seconds. You can accomplish an amazing amount of fitness through these workouts because not only are you increasing your fitness through the cardio by getting your heart rate up, you are also getting a full-body strength workout.
Common Cardio Workout Questions
How Should I Feel When Doing Cardio Workouts?
Workouts should cause moderate sweating and an increased heart rate. Unless you are a trained athlete, if you can’t finish a sentence while doing your workout, you may be going at it too hard. But on the other hand, if you are having no trouble talking, you may be taking it too easy.
How Often Should I Do Cardio Workouts?
If you really want results, you need a minimum of 20 minutes of continued elevated heart rate at least three times per week. In fact, the ACSM recommends 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity most days of the week so if you can do more than three days, that would be great! But start off with three days and slowly increase the intensity, duration and frequency.
To get more specific, the ACSM suggests vigorous-intensity cardiorespiratory exercise training for at least 20 minutes per day three times per week or a combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise to achieve that minimum goal.
Exercise recommendations can be met through various combinations, such as 30–60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days per week or 20–60 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise three days per week. Another option could be one longer continuous session and multiple shorter sessions of at least 10 minutes.
As you can see, there are numerous ways to make sure you are getting your cardio workouts into your lifestyle. It’s important to begin with shorter, more moderate workouts, with a gradual progression of exercise time, frequency and intensity to help you stick to it and to ensure the least injury risk.
Even if you are not able to perform these suggested time frames, you can still benefit from some activity, and, over time will get stronger. Carol Ewing Garber, PhD, FAHA, FACSM, explains that, “When it comes to exercise, the benefits far outweigh the risks. A program of regular exercise — beyond activities of daily living — is essential for most adults.” (2)
6 Benefits of Cardio Workouts
There are so many benefits of exercise and regular physical activity — while it may seem like such a challenge, once you begin a steady program, even if small, it will become easier over time. There are numerous physical and mental health benefits in both men and women. It is well known that life is typically prolonged when regularly engaging in physical activity.
1. Weight Loss
It is no secret that exercise can help with weight loss. Combined with a great diet of lots of fruits and vegetables, cardio workouts can provide weight loss results quickly. Cardio, especially on the intense variety, can burn a lot of calories and help you lose weight fast. But make sure you add in some resistance training to retain and maybe even increase your lean muscle.
The key here is to be consistent. You want to determine a long-term plan that will help you reach your weight loss goals in the most healthy way. Any exercise is going to benefit, but through a good plan, you will be amazed at how quickly your body adapts to the challenges and how quickly the pounds drop.
2. Reduces the Risk of Heart Disease and Lower Blood Pressure
Your heart is a muscle and needs to be worked just like your other muscles. Cardio workouts can provide the much needed health to your heart, reducing the risk of coronary heart disease while strengthening your lung capacity. Cardio workouts help the heart to work more efficiently, positively affecting overall health.
The American Heart Association reports that exercise can reduce “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood, known as LDL, as well as total cholesterol, and can raise the “good” cholesterol, known as HDL. (3) Most health benefits occur with at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity, such as brisk walking. Additional benefits occur with more physical activity, but any amount of physical activity is good for you and will help you maintain a healthy heart. (4)
3. Increased Bone Density
When our muscles are strong, it provides support to our bones and therefore, helps to increase bone density. Cardio workouts are great weight-bearing exercises that can help increase your bone density and can be high-impact or low-impact.
High-impact weight-bearing exercises help build bones and keep them strong, but if you have broken a bone due to osteoporosis or suffer from osteoporosis, you may need to avoid high-impact exercises. Some examples of high-impact weight-bearing cardio exercises are dancing, high-impact aerobics, hiking, jogging/running, jumping rope, stair climbing and tennis. Low-impact cardio exercises can include elliptical training machines, low-impact aerobics, using stair-step machines, and fast walking on a treadmill or outside. (5)
4. Reduces Stress & Depression, and Boosts Self-Esteem
Exercise decreases our stress levels by releasing endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers. Exercise also helps to provide better sleep, which decreases stress levels and provides more energy.
Scientists have even found that regular participation in cardio workouts has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, and improve self-esteem. (6)
5. Increased Energy Levels for a More Active Lifestyle
While some may think that by exercising they are losing energy, it actually works the other way. As you become more consistent in your exercise routine, you gain more energy!
Cardio exercise gets your heart pumping, which is one of the key ways it helps boost energy levels. As your body and heart adapts to the cardio exercise, it grows stronger by creating more energy through the mitochondria in your body. These mitochondria are located in your cells and help produce energy by using more oxygen — thereby producing large amounts of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP is a biochemical way to store energy from food molecules. The more oxygen you burn, the more energy you create! (7, 8)
6. Reduce Effects of Diabetes
In diabetic patients, regular physical activity affects the body’s ability to use insulin to control glucose levels in the blood — thus working as a natural treatment for diabetes. It is through a consistent exercise that, when combined with other lifestyle modifications such as proper nutrition, eliminating smoking, etc, it can provide dramatic results and health benefits. (9)
In a recent study, researchers enrolled 202 people with type 2 diabetes into three exercise groups and a control group. Exercisers did either aerobic conditioning, resistance training or a combination of the two for nine months. People in all the exercise groups improved their waist circumference, body fat percentage, and hemoglobin A1c levels, regardless of changes in fitness capacity. (10)
Interval Indoor Cycling Cardio Workout
Duration: 60 minutes
Equipment: Stationary gym bike, towel, bottle of water, timer (most bikes have a built in timer), music of choice with earbuds
Setting up your bike:
You will want to make sure your bike is set up properly. Usually the saddle (the seat of the bike) will be at about hip level. You also want to adjust it horizontally so that your knee is over the pedal. Get on the bike to check, placing your feet on the pedals to extend one leg downward. You want to make sure there is a slight bend in the knee.
Once you feel comfortable, step off of the bike to adjust the handlebars. Most are comfortable with the handlebars at the same height as the saddle. Try it and adjust as needed. You will also want to position the handlebars either close to you or farther away. Base this on having a slight bend in the elbows. You want to be relaxed while on the bike. Overextending will cause stress and discomfort.
Lastly, make sure to adjust the straps securely on your feet. Another great option is to purchase indoor cycling shoes. If you find you are enjoying indoor cycling, it can be a great investment and really benefit your workout.
Warm Up: 10 minutes
Ride easy for 10 minutes to get the heart pumping and legs moving. Take this time to explore the tension settings on the bike. Some bikes will show you what gear you are using. Think of it as easy, medium and heavy. For this workout, you will use the medium gear for the intervals and the easy gear for your active recovery or “easy” period.
Remember, that if you can carry on a full conversation, you may not have the settings correct or may not be spinning fast enough. Start slow and work harder as you feel more comfortable.
Once you are warmed up, let’s start with the first interval!
Interval Set One: Ride a little harder (moderate pace: on a scale of 1–10, this would be a 5) for 15 seconds with 15 seconds easy. Do this 10 times.
Take 2 minutes easy.
Interval Set Two: Ride a little harder than before, just above moderate (on a scale of 1–10, this would be a 6), for 30 seconds with 15 seconds easy. Do this 10 times.
Take 2 minutes easy.
Interval Set Three: Ride a little harder than before at a harder effort, (on a scale of 1–10, this would be a 7), for 45 seconds with 15 seconds easy. Do this 10 times.
Take 2 minutes easy.
Interval Set Five: Ride at a level 10, for 2 minutes with 30 seconds easy between each. Do this 3 times.
Ride the rest of the workout easy, cooling down and slowing the heart rate.
Take 5 minutes to stretch.
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