Cardio workouts are a critical component of an overall fitness program. However, getting at least 150 minutes a week of aerobic exercise is the minimum for health benefits.
While that may seem like a lot, it only amounts to about 30 minutes a day, five days a week. And the best part? There are numerous ways to participate in cardio workouts, such as walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, dancing, kayaking, and participating in recreational sports.
Introduction to Cardio Workouts
Aerobic exercise is any form of activity that increases your heart rate and keeps it elevated throughout the cardio session. A primary goal of cardio workouts is to boost cardiorespiratory fitness by improving the heart and lungs ability to supply oxygen-rich blood to the muscles during sustained physical activity, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
Many people participate in cardio workouts to help improve their overall heart health, reduce the risk of developing certain health conditions, burn calories, lose weight, or manage stress. Cardiovascular exercise is also a part of many recreational and competitive sports training programs.
One of the reasons cardio workouts are so easy to implement is you can do them at a fitness facility, outdoors, at home, and even on your lunch break. They’re also available online and through various fitness apps. And many aerobic activities require minimal equipment, so getting started is easy and affordable.
You can do cardio sessions on your own or with a friend, but you can also join a class or work with a personal trainer. Many cardio activities are easily adaptable to various fitness levels, and you can choose from no-impact, low-impact, and high-impact activities to match your goals, physical needs, and overall health.
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Getting Started with Cardio Workouts
Getting started with cardio workouts is relatively simple and requires minimal equipment. That said, you’ll want to do some prep work that may include a visit with your doctor and deciding where you’re going to exercise – for example, at home, the gym, or outdoors. Here are some additional tips to help you get started with cardio workouts.
Get the Okay from Your Doctor
Whether you’re new to exercise or concerned about participating in cardiovascular workouts because of a health or medical condition, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting a new program. They can provide guidance on the right type of cardio and the amount to perform.
Understand Target Heart Rate
Knowing your target heart rate zone can make a workout more effective while still allowing you to exercise safely. Your target heart rate zone is a percentage of your maximum heart rate, which is about 220 minus your age, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). During moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise, your target heart rate zone should be about 50 to 70 percent of your max heart rate. If you want to work at a vigorous level, bump the range up to 70 to 85 percent of your maximum.
Know How Long and How Often to Perform Cardio Workouts
According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults should get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular or aerobic exercise each week or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity spread throughout the week.
Of course, how you decide to accumulate time is up to you. One of the easiest ways to get started is by doing 30 minutes a day, five days per week. That said, you can do cardiovascular exercise daily, especially if the majority of your sessions are moderate-intensity.
Just make sure you also include at least two days of strength training exercises that target the major muscle groups.
Take Time to Warm Up
Getting your body ready for cardiovascular exercise is a key step in a successful workout. Therefore, you’ll want to allow for a five to 10-minute warm-up before you dive into more intense activity.
A warm-up can simply be a slow version of what you plan to do, or it can be a different aerobic activity like a brisk walk, high knees, or jumping jacks. Another part of the warm-up is dynamic stretches, which move your joints and muscles through a full range of motion. This includes exercises like walking lunges, hip circles, and leg swings.
Save Time to Cool Down
After your cardio session is over, take about five minutes to slow your heart rate, allow your breathing to return to its normal pace, and stretch your muscles. This is also an excellent time to perform a few static stretches, like the seated hamstring stretch or standing calf stretch, which requires you to hold the stretched position for 30 to 60 seconds.
Best Cardio Workouts to Try
If you’re ready to incorporate aerobic exercise into your weekly routine, you might wonder which cardio workouts are the best. Cardio workouts consist of no-impact activities like swimming and aqua jogging, low-impact activities, such as biking and aerobic machines, and high impact activities like running and jumping rope.
Moreover, many aerobic-based activities require minimal to no equipment, and you can get started immediately. Here are some ideas for cardio exercise, sample cardio moves you can do anywhere, and several cardio workouts you can do at home, the gym, or outdoors.
Ideas for Cardio Exercise:
- Running (treadmill or outdoor)
- Brisk walking (treadmill or outdoor)
- Water aerobics
- Aqua jogging
- Kayaking or paddling
- Climbing (rock wall or mountain)
- Jumping rope
- Organized sports like soccer, basketball,
- Racquet sports like tennis, pickleball, and racquetball
- Golfing (walking the round, no cart)
- Circuit training
- Cross-country skiing
- In-line skating
- Elliptical machine
- Rowing machine
- Stair climbing machine
- Indoor cycling (upright bike, recumbent bike, spin bike)
- Upper body ergometer
Cardio Exercises You Can Do Anywhere
No cardio equipment? No problem! The following heart-pumping exercises are excellent aerobic moves you can do at home, the gym, or outdoors. You can choose three to four exercises for an aerobic routine or do a few between resistance training exercises to keep your heart rate elevated.
- Jumping jacks
- Jogging in place
- High knees
- Jump squats
- Jump rope
- Mountain climbers
- Jumping lunges
- Kettlebell swings
- Speed skaters
- Lateral shuffles
- Plank jacks
Gym Cardio Workouts
The gym is an excellent place to do cardio workouts. Not only do you have access to multiple exercise machines, but you also avoid extreme weather conditions that may interfere with working out.
While many people have a favorite piece of equipment, it’s a good idea to mix things up. You can accomplish this by using different machines throughout the week or by changing it up within a workout.
Cardio Machine Weekly Workout
If cardio machines are a regular part of your routine, mixing it up throughout the week and month will help stave off boredom, keep your body guessing, and target different muscle groups.
These types of workouts are appropriate for all fitness levels, especially since you can vary the intensity, speed, resistance levels, and duration. Here is an example of how to structure a weekly cardio workout using gym equipment.
- Monday: 30 minutes on the treadmill
- Tuesday: 30 minutes on the rowing machine
- Thursday: 45 to 60-minute indoor cycling class
- Saturday: 30 minutes on the stair-climbing machine
Mix It Up Cardio Machine Workout
Another method is to change machines within a particular session. The following mix-it-up cardio machine workout is one example of how to structure this type of cardio workout.
Feel free to swap out any machine for a different piece of cardio equipment. This cardio workout has you alternating between different cardio machines, which helps to keep boredom away. Do each machine for the desired amount of time once and then hop onto the next machine.
- 10 minutes on the treadmill
- 10 minutes on the elliptical
- 10 minutes on the rower
You can do this workout at a moderate intensity for the entire time or change things up and apply high-intensity interval training (HIIT) principles. HIIT is an advanced training method that relies on near-maximal efforts followed by active rest or recovery periods, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).
You can structure the intervals any way you want, but one of the easiest ways to get started is with a 1:1 ratio – for example, 30 seconds of sprinting or fast running followed by 30 seconds of walking.
Pool Cardio Workouts
Swimming is an excellent no-impact cardiovascular workout. If you have access to a pool, you can swim laps, take a water aerobics class, or do an aqua jogging session.
Pool workouts such as aqua jogging also double as cross-training sessions for runners and cyclists who need a different mode of aerobic exercise. With aqua jogging, also called deep water running, you wear a flotation device around your trunk while running in place.
Cardio workouts in the pool are also recommended for people with arthritis and anyone recovering from an injury.
At-Home, No Equipment Cardio Workout
Working out at home is convenient and affordable. This no-equipment routine is fast, effective, and requires minimal space.
For example, all you need is enough floor space to do a burpee and ceiling height to perform a jumping jack.
- Warm up for three to five minutes by walking or jogging in place.
- Do each exercise for the specified repetitions.
- Immediately move to the next move with no rest.
- Rest for 20 seconds at the end of the round.
- Repeat three times.
- Cool down for three to five minutes by walking in place and performing a few static stretches.
- 30 mountain climbers
- 20 jumping jacks
- 10 burpees
- 20 high knees
Outdoor Cardio Workouts
Getting outside for exercise benefits both your mind and body. The fresh air, wide open spaces, and easy access make outdoor workouts one of the best ways to meet your cardio exercise requirements.
Outdoor cardio activities include:
- In-line skating
- Track workouts
Mini Cardio Workouts
Sometimes, fitting in a 30-minute cardio session is not possible. So, rather than skip it, why not break it up into smaller chunks? Mini workouts are a simple way to accumulate exercise throughout the day and still reap the benefits.
In fact, research from a small April 2016 study published in the journal PLOS ONE found that doing 10 minutes of cardio, with at least one minute of high-intensity built-in, can have similar benefits as a longer, moderate-intensity workout. The key to making them effective is to increase the intensity for a short period.
Another way to approach mini workouts is to incorporate shorter cardio sessions throughout the day. For example:
- 10-minute cardio bodyweight circuit in the morning
- 10-minute stair climbing session on your lunch break
- 10-minute brisk walk in the evening
Participating in regular cardiovascular exercise has numerous physical and mental health benefits.
For starters, data from Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine demonstrates that engaging in aerobic exercise is both protective and restorative for heart health because it can help reduce cardiovascular risk factors and serve as a therapeutic treatment for people with cardiovascular disease.
Moderate-intensity aerobic activity may also result in a better lipid profile. More specifically, research shows an increase in high-density lipoprotein or HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol) while maintaining or off-setting increases in low-density lipoprotein or LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides.
Your blood pressure will thank you too! That’s because engaging in regular aerobic exercise can lower resting systolic blood pressure 5-7 mmHG for people with hypertension, according to the ACSM. This drop in resting blood pressure may lead to a 20 to 30 percent reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
But it’s not just your physical health that benefits from regular cardiovascular exercise. Your mood and mental health can reap the rewards too.
In fact, research from an observational study found that regular physical activity is associated with around a 60 percent lower risk of developing anxiety disorders, while another recent study supports a causal inference between higher levels of physical activity and reduced odds of developing major depression.
And when it comes to better sleep, a 30-minute moderate aerobic exercise workout may be all you need to increase the amount of deep sleep you get each night, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
The Bottom Line
Cardio workouts should be on the top of your list if you’re looking to improve cardiorespiratory health, burn calories, and reduce stress. Aerobic sessions are convenient, customizable, cost-effective, and easy to perform at home, outdoors, or at the gym.
You can get started with the cardio workouts included in this guide or make your own using the list of exercises provided.
But before jumping in with both feet, make sure you’ve got the okay to exercise from your physician or another healthcare provider, especially if you have a chronic health or medical condition or musculoskeletal injury.