It’s not just the health perks that motivate people to get sweaty. It’s also the variety of cardio workouts available and the convenience of being able to exercise just about anywhere.
Plus, many cardio activities are adaptable to all fitness levels, making this type of exercise an excellent addition to your daily routine.
Read on to learn more about cardiovascular workouts, including the benefits of cardio, who it is best for, and how to get started.
Introduction to Cardio
Cardio – also called aerobic activity or cardiorespiratory endurance – is any exercise that gets your heart pumping faster, increases your breathing rate, and often makes you sweaty.
This exercise type is critical to overall physical health because it improves your heart and lungs ability to deliver oxygen to working muscles during continuous physical activity, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
Cardio workouts also burn calories, reduce stress, boost muscular endurance, and may help you live longer.
There are two general types of cardio exercise: high-impact and low-impact.
High-impact cardio, such as running, requires both feet to leave the ground at the same time and then come back into contact with the ground repeatedly. This type of movement places more stress on your body.
Low-impact cardio workouts like cycling are more joint-friendly and require one foot to be in contact with the ground. Another type of low-impact (also referred to as no-impact) cardio that is even easier on the body are water activities like swimming and water aerobics, which eliminate all contact with the ground.
Understanding what makes up a cardio workout is the first step to getting started.
The next thing to consider is how much you need to do. According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults should get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular or aerobic exercise each week.
You can also opt for a more vigorous intensity and reduce your time to 75 to 150 minutes spread throughout the week. If you’re doing 30 minutes of moderate-intensity each session, this translates to about five days a week.
Benefits of Cardio
Participating in regular aerobic exercise has numerous physical and mental health benefits for people of all ages and fitness levels.
While not an exhaustive list, here are eight ways your physical and mental health can benefit from regular cardio activity.
Cardiovascular workouts can help you:
- Burns calories
- Helps manage diabetes
- Boosts heart health
- Better lipid profile
- More sleep
- Improves mood
- Immune system support
- Boosts brain power
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Cardio activities like running, biking, swimming, and rowing are all excellent calorie burners. In fact, a 155-pound person can burn 250 to 350 calories during a 30-minute moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise session, according to Harvard Health.
This is great news for anyone wanting to lose weight. But of course, exercise is only one piece of the puzzle. To safely shed pounds and keep them off, you’ll need to eat a healthy diet and include a few days of strength training activities.
Boosts Heart Health
Heart health is important at any age, especially as you get older. That’s why regular cardiovascular exercise plays such a critical role in keeping your heart strong.
“Adding in targeted cardio exercise will improve heart health and reduce the work it takes to complete daily tasks,” says Landon Uetz, PT, DPT, virtual physical therapist and expert instructor on TeachMe.
Not only can participating in aerobic activities help reduce cardiovascular risk factors, it also serves as a therapeutic treatment for people with cardiovascular disease.
Moreover, if you have hypertension, participating in a regular aerobic program may lower resting systolic blood pressure by 5-7 mmHG, leading to a 20 to 30 percent reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).
Better Lipid Profile
In addition to an overall boost in heart health, regular moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise may also lead to a better lipid profile. More specifically, research shows that aerobic activity can increase high-density lipoprotein or HDL (“good” cholesterol) cholesterol while maintaining or offsetting increases in low-density lipoprotein or LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides.
If you struggle to get enough restful sleep each night, you may want to consider the amount of exercise you’re logging each day. Something as simple as a 30-minute moderate cardio workout may help increase the amount of deep sleep each night, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Getting in a few sweat sessions each week may help ease symptoms of anxiety and depression.
While the exact link is not entirely clear, the Mayo Clinic suggests being able to take your mind off worries combined with a release of feel-good endorphins may boost overall mood and sense of well-being.
Immune System Support
Engaging in regular moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise may increase your immunity to certain illnesses, leaving you less susceptible to the flu, common cold, and other microbial infections.
Boosts Brain Power
You can feel the physical benefits of cardio almost immediately. But what about the boost it gives your brain?
According to Harvard Health, regular aerobic exercise increases key chemicals that encourage new brain cell growth. It also improves blood flow to the brain, which may help protect against vascular dementia.
Plus, the research found that 20 minutes of moderate cardio resulted in a significant cognitive boost even for nonathletic people.
Better Management of Diabetes
If you’re living with type 1 diabetes, regular cardiovascular exercise may decrease insulin resistance and increase cardiorespiratory fitness, according to the American Diabetes Association. For people without diabetes, regular aerobic activity may help reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
How to Prepare for Cardio
Incorporating cardio activities into your fitness routine is a great way to boost your overall health.
And while it may seem like getting started is easy, doing some prep work before you embark on your first cardio workout can help make the experience more enjoyable and safer.
Get the Okay
The first step is to get clearance from your doctor, especially if you are new to cardiovascular workouts. In addition to providing care for a health or medical condition, your doctor can guide you on the right type of cardio and the amount to perform.
Slow and Steady
Once you get the okay, the next step is to determine how long and how often to do cardio workouts. The most important thing is to start slow.
This may look like a 20-minute session three days a week, or two to three 10-minute mini cardio workouts spread throughout the day several days a week.
As your body adjusts to the activity, consider extending each session or adding a workout each week.
Some people may benefit from working with a physical therapist or certified personal trainer to design a program, while others can use the information found in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
“I always recommend cardio activities such as walking to individuals that have not been experienced or are looking to begin a routine,” says Landon Uetz. He recommends slowly increasing the duration of your walks as they become easier, working up to 30-60 mins per day over time. “My major tip is that consistency over a long period of time will lead to sustainable results,” Uetz adds.
My Personal Experience
And we agree! Even though I have decades of experience with cardio exercise, I treated my body and fitness level as a beginner after my second child was born. That’s because the last six weeks of this pregnancy landed me on bed rest with minimal activity.
Until then, I had been walking, riding an indoor exercise bike, lifting weights, and going to Pilates and yoga classes. Well, one tumble down the stairs took care of that, and I spent the remainder of my time with my feet up instead of on the ground.
After my son was born, I realized how much muscle I had lost and how quickly my cardio levels had dropped, even in a short time. And because my body was still recovering from childbirth, I knew going slow and steady was the only way I could get moving again safely.
So, I made a commitment to myself to do 3, 10-minute cardio bursts each day. Some days, this looked like walking up and down my driveway or doing a quick loop around the neighborhood, while other days, I found myself doing laps in the house while carrying my newborn and chasing my toddler.
As my fitness levels increased, I extended those 10-minute sessions each week, eventually making it to 30 minutes of continuous cardiovascular exercise most days of the week.
Try Indoor and Outdoor Activities
Cardio workouts include outdoor activities like walking, running, hiking, biking, paddle sports, tennis, and recreational games. When exercising indoors, you can use cardio machines such as an elliptical, treadmill, stair climber, exercise bike, rower, or arm ergometer.
Fitness facilities and gyms also have aerobic classes that provide an excellent cardio workout. Examples of fitness classes include kickboxing, Zumba, step aerobics, boot camp, spin, and dance.
If you’re working out at home, make sure you have enough space. Some people will create a small exercise room in a garage or office. If you’re using equipment like a treadmill or bike, you’ll need a larger footprint.
But if you’re doing bodyweight cardio workouts, you should be fine with a space that accommodates aerobic movements like jumping jacks, mountain climbers, or running in place.
Wear the Right Gear
While working out indoors, opt for comfortable, sweat-wicking clothes and a supportive pair of cross-trainers or running shoes. If you’re taking your sweat session outside, make sure to dress for the weather.
Layer with breathable cotton or compression gear for colder days and light layers when the temperatures heat up. And don’t forget about a good pair of athletic socks.
The wrong fit or fabric can lead to painful blisters. If possible, visit a shoe store specializing in running, walking, or cross-training shoes to get properly fitted.
Fuel Up with Food and Water
Most cardio sessions will last between 20 and 60 minutes. And while having a full stomach is not essential, you’ll want to eat a light snack such as peanut butter toast or a banana and almonds if you’re hungry.
You’ll also want to drink plenty of water before, during, and after a cardio workout. Unless a doctor, physical therapist, or registered dietitian has recommended another type of drink like one with electrolytes, water is all you need.
Wind Up and Cool Down
And finally, you’ll want to allow five to 10 minutes before and after a cardio session to do a proper warm-up and cool down. The warm-up should consist of an aerobic activity like a brisk walk, high knees, or jumping jacks.
You can also do a few minutes of dynamic stretches like hip circles and leg swings, which move your joints and muscles through a full range of motion.
At the end of your aerobic activity, take three to slow your heart rate and allow your breathing to return to its normal pace.
Best Gyms for Cardio
One of the best things about cardio workouts is you can do them at most gyms nationwide, making the task of finding the best gym that much easier! That said, there are a few factors to consider when looking for the right gym to meet your needs.
First, you’ll want to consider quantity and quality. Gyms with large cardio areas often have multiple pieces of equipment, which eases the wait time during busy hours. But you’ll also want to look at the type of equipment to ensure it’s in good condition and from reputable companies.
If possible, look for facilities that offer treadmills, ellipticals, bikes, stair climbers, rowers, and other cardio options like swimming pools, indoor tracks, and group exercise classes.
Many national gym chains like Life Time Fitness, Crunch Fitness, Planet Fitness, Gold's Gym, YMCA, and 24-Hour Fitness have a robust selection of cardio machines. And because these gyms are typically on the larger side, you should have no problem finding equipment that works for you.
Best Equipment for Cardio
Getting started with cardio workouts might be as simple as lacing up a pair of shoes and heading outdoors for a long walk, but it could also involve using exercise equipment at home or the gym. And while the world of cardio gear is as diverse as the workouts themselves, a few standout pieces can truly make a difference.
One of the most popular pieces of cardio equipment is the treadmill. This classic machine offers a versatile platform for walking, jogging, or sprinting, all within the comfort of your home or at the gym. We believe NordicTrack is a top brand to consider if you’re shopping for a home gym.
Best for high-quality connected treadmill
NordicTrack is known for its connected Nordic ski machines, low-impact exercisers, ellipticals, and incline trainers. NordicTrack is owned and managed by iFIT Health & Fitness Inc.
Broad Selection of Equipment to suit preferences
App-enabled equipment for access to classes
Over 40 years in the fitness industry
If you’re looking for a way to ease the stress on your joints while still getting a fantastic workout, an elliptical trainer might be your go-to machine. Here are a few brands to consider if you’re shopping for a home gym: Bowflex Max Trainer Ellipticals, Nautilus Ellipticals, and NordicTrack Ellipticals.
Indoor cycling, which includes recumbent and upright bikes, are another fan-favorite for cardio enthusiasts. Plus, many fitness facilities offer group cycling classes for an extra boost of motivation and accountability. Here are a few brands to consider if you’re shopping for a home gym: Bowflex Exercise Bikes, Nautilus Bikes, NordicTrack Exercise Bikes.
Another piece of equipment that is seeing a surge in popularity is the rowing machine. This low-impact, calorie crusher, boosts aerobic endurance and provides an excellent upper and lower body workout. Here is one to consider if you’re shopping for a home gym: NordicTrack Rowers.
The stair climber is not only a fantastic cardio booster, it’s also a killer workout for your glutes, hamstrings, and quads. Here are a few brands to consider if you’re shopping for a home gym: NordicTrackFS14i and ProForm Carbon HIIT H10.
And let's not overlook the simplicity and effectiveness of jump ropes, an underrated yet fantastic tool for cardio that can be taken anywhere.
Best Apps for Cardio
If you’re looking for some inspiration to make it through your next aerobic session, why not consider using a fitness app. Classes and workouts from these digital platforms are designed to help you break a sweat and boost your cardiovascular health through live and on-demand cardio programming.
Best Overall: iFIT
Best for Indoor Cycling and Treadmill: Peloton
Best for BowFlex and Schwinn Equipment Users: JRNY
Best for Equipment-Free Cardio: DailyBurn
Best for Comprehensive Cardio Programs: BODi
Best for stand-alone and equipment-based workouts
The iFIT app gives you access to one system you can use on iFIT-enabled equipment, Bluetooth-connected machines, and a compatible mobile device or TV.
Instructor-led studio classes
Instructor-led audio workouts
140+ workout series
Is Cardio Right for You?
Cardiovascular activity is an excellent form of exercise for most people. Not only is it appropriate for a wide range of ages, but it’s also adaptable to a variety of body types and abilities. Plus, it’s easy to adjust based on experience, current physical health, and interests.
Because aerobic exercise increases your heart rate and breathing, it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor if you have a health or medical condition that may be contraindicated with this type of activity.
Also, if you’re pregnant, dealing with an acute or chronic injury, or have any other condition that may cause pain during cardio workouts, get clearance from your doctor or a physical therapist before participating in an aerobic activity.
Even though most people can benefit from regular cardio workouts, it’s not the only type of exercise you should incorporate into your routine.
In addition to aerobic activity, adults should also get at least two days each week of muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity involving all major muscle groups.
Resistance training exercises focus on building strength in the muscles. Unlike cardio, which is an aerobic activity, strength training is an anaerobic exercise that relies on glucose for energy instead of oxygen.
According to the ACSM, the benefits of adding resistance exercises include stronger muscles, better balance, injury prevention, management of chronic conditions like arthritis, and increased bone, muscle, and connective tissue growth and durability.
The Bottom Line
The health benefits of cardio exercise are impressive. Not only can cardio workouts help improve overall heart health and reduce the risk of developing certain health conditions, but they can also burn calories, decrease stress, and boost your mood.
Plus, it’s relatively affordable and easy to get started, especially since you can exercise at home, outdoors, or at the gym.
That said, getting the okay from your physician or another healthcare provider is important, especially if you have a chronic health or medical condition or musculoskeletal injury.
If you're ready to make the jump into cardio training regularly, consider purchasing a treadmill, rowing machine, or stationary bike to make it as convenient as possible.
More Cardio Advice from GymBird Experts
- What is Cardio?
- Cardio for Beginners
- Best Cardio Workouts
- 5 Cardio Workouts at Home
- Cardio Workouts for Runners
- Cardio with Weights
- Cardio vs HIIT
- Cardio vs. Walking
- How to Avoid Cardio Injuries
- Is Cardio Aerobic or Anaerobic?
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