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Cardio 101

The basics of cardio

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Many of these deaths are both premature and preventable. So, how can you improve your heart health and avoid becoming one of these statistics? Get regular aerobic exercise.

"How much is enough?" and "What kind is best?" are two common questions that people ask about exercise. Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind as you embark on a new fitness routine. Remember to speak with your healthcare provider before you start any new workout regimens. They can help tailor your routine to fit your specific fitness needs and goals.

How much is enough?

The American Heart Association advises healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 65 to get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week. That may sound like a lot, but it’s easy to do if you break it into 30-minute sessions.

What counts as moderate-intensity aerobic activity? You should be working hard enough to break a sweat and feel your heart beating a little faster than normal. You should still be able to carry on a conversation, but you shouldn’t be able to sing. For example, you can walk, ride your bike, garden, or complete other work around the house.

On days when you’d prefer to exercise for less time, just work harder. Instead of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, you can aim for 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week. At this level of intensity, you should only be able to say a few words at a time, without pausing for breath. Consider swimming brisk laps, jogging, or running, or playing basketball for 25 minutes, three times a week.

In addition to aerobic activity, make time for at least two sessions of muscle-strengthening exercises every week. For example, do yoga, lift weights, or use your own body weight for resistance in pushups, situps, lunges, and other simple strengthening activities.

If you have lived a sedentary lifestyle, start out slowly. If you can’t make it for 30 to 40 minutes, set a goal that you can reach and then gradually add time as you grow stronger.

What type is best?

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to fitness. Any type of aerobic exercise will offer immediate and long-term health benefits. If you shudder at the thought of running, consider walking instead. If swimming laps sounds as appealing as a root canal, try water aerobics. If you can’t muster the motivation to exercise alone, grab a friend and hit the tennis courts or join a sport league.

At the gym, try alternating cardio machines every few days or weeks so you don’t get bored. You can even do 10-minute intervals on different machines during each trip to the gym. Recumbent bikes, elliptical machines, stair climbers, and treadmills are usually available, giving you options to mix up your routine.

Add intervals

The human body adapts amazingly well, and quickly, to the stress of exercise. Once you’re consistently exercising for at least 25 to 30 minutes at a time, try adding interval training to your routine. During interval training, you incorporate short periods of more intense effort into your workouts. 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. The researchers monitored eight women of varying fitness levels. The participants rode stationary bikes, alternating intervals of hard and easy effort. They followed four-minute bursts of 90 percent effort with two minutes of rest. They complete 10 sets of these intervals during each workout 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 had increased by 36 percent. Their cardiovascular fitness had increased by 13 percent.

These findings suggest that just one or two interval training sessions per week are all you need to see a real benefit. You can slowly incorporate interval training into your existing routine. For example, if you walk for exercise, start with a five-minute warmup. Increase your speed to a very brisk pace for two to four minutes. Then slow down to your normal pace for the same amount of time. Alternate hard and easy intervals for about 10 minutes.

The takeaway

Cardiovascular exercise offers many benefits, the biggest of which is increased heart health. Getting 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, per week can also help you lose weight and relieve stress. 

Even when life gets busy, it’s important to make time for self-care. Regular exercise is a big part of that. Give your body the care it needs by making fitness training a consistent part of your life.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Dana Sullivan Kilroy
Medically reviewed on: Jun 20, 2016: Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, CNE, COI

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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