If you’ve recently started working out, you might be wondering what the hype around cardio is all about.
Whether your goal is to improve heart health, lose a few pounds, or simply get your body moving, incorporating cardiovascular exercise into your routine is a great place to start. But what is cardio?
Cardio is any form of exercise that gets your heart pumping faster. You may also hear it referred to as aerobic exercise. A primary goal of cardio exercise 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).
Cardio workouts are great for burning calories and protecting your heart health, and they may even give your mental health a boost.
And the best part? You can do cardio activities just about anywhere.
And while finding time to fit in work, family, social obligations, and now exercise seems overwhelming, it can be done. Of course, it takes some balance, but don’t worry; we’ve got you covered.
This comprehensive guide goes over the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise, the different types of cardio, the health benefits on your cardiovascular system, examples of activities, and how to get started with cardio exercise.
Related Cardio Resources
Check out GymBird's robust cardio resources to find the best cardio exercises for you:
- Top Cardio Benefits
- Best Cardio Workouts
- Best Cardio for Beginners
- Best Cardio Workouts at Home
- Best Cardio Workouts for Runners
- Cardio vs Walking
- Cardio vs HII
- Is Cardio Aerobic or Anaerobic?
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How Does Cardio Work: Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise
Aerobic exercise is any exercise that raises your heart rate and keeps it elevated for an extended period. It’s also rhythmic in nature, recruits large muscle groups like the legs and glutes, and uses oxygen for energy.
Being able to maintain activity continuously for an extended period might be 20 to 60 minutes for someone with an average fitness level.
Cardiovascular exercise is an example of aerobic activity. In general, cardio or aerobic exercise increases your breathing and heart rate, but not to the point of being out of breath and needing to stop the activity.
Moderate to vigorous intensity activities like jogging, brisk walking, cycling, circuit training, swimming, or cardio machines qualify as aerobic exercise.
Anaerobic exercise, on the other hand, raises your heart rate but also starves the body of oxygen. This type of cardio is performed at a high intensity for short periods.
Because there is an absence of oxygen, the body uses glycogen as fuel. Examples of anaerobic exercise include sprinting, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), plyometrics, and weight lifting.
Types of Cardio
All cardio exercises should raise your heart rate and keep it elevated while working out. However, it’s the activity type that will determine the level of impact.
In general, there are three types of impact when it comes to cardio workouts: high-impact, low-impact, and no-impact.
But before we go over the three types, it’s important to point out the difference between impact and intensity. While both terms are often used together to describe physical activity, they have very different meanings.
Impact, which we’re discussing in this resource, refers to the amount of force your body endures during physical activity.
In contrast, intensity refers to the level of difficulty, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). For example, a high-impact activity like jumping puts a lot of stress on your body compared to swimming, which is a no-impact activity. Higher-impact activities may not be safe for everyone.
That’s why it’s important to consider the impact when deciding on the type of cardio to perform.
High-impact cardiovascular exercise is any physical activity that requires both feet to be off the ground at the same time. It places more stress on your body because both feet leave the ground and then come back into contact with the ground repeatedly.
High-impact cardio activities include jumping, running, plyometrics, and burpees.
Unlike high-impact cardio, low-impact cardio minimizes the stress on your joints and tends to be less jarring, making it easier on your body. At a minimum, low-impact cardio activities require one foot to be in contact with the ground or a pedal at all times.
Examples of low-impact cardio activities include walking, dancing, hiking, cross-country skiing, and golf (if walking). Swimming and exercise machines like the elliptical, rower, and bike are considered low-impact, but they also belong to a category called no-impact.
Low-impact and no-impact cardio share many features, but the main difference is that no-impact exercise eliminates contact with the ground.
This avoids stressing the musculoskeletal system (aka, bones, muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments). For instance, walking is an excellent low-impact cardio exercise, but it requires your feet to come into contact with the ground, which may cause too much jarring or impact on the joints for some people.
Physical activity that most closely fits the no-impact cardio category includes swimming, water aerobics, aqua jogging, recumbent exercise bikes, and upper body ergometer machine.
High-impact cardio is often found in sports-specific training or more vigorous physical activities.
Because high-impact cardio is weight-bearing, it may also increase bone density, according to Harvard Health Publications. However, too much impact can lead to injuries or pain.
Therefore, it may also be contraindicated for certain populations like older adults and people with chronic injuries or health conditions.
Low-impact cardio is an excellent choice for many people because it minimizes the stress on the body while also providing a moderate-intensity workout.
And, of course, no-impact cardio is appropriate for all populations who are cleared to exercise. More specifically, it’s beneficial for people with sports injuries, older adults, people with chronic or acute pain, and certain physical and medical conditions.
If you’re unsure about the type of cardio to include in an exercise routine, talk with your doctor or a physical therapist. They can suggest the right impact for your body and help you design a cardio training program that fits your needs.
Benefits of Cardio
There’s no doubt that cardiovascular exercise is beneficial. It burns calories, enhances weight loss, strengthens your heart and lungs, helps to slow down the decline in cognitive health, and decreases the risk of many diseases, including coronary heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
It may also help improve your mood and sleep.
Plus, most people can benefit from regular cardiovascular exercise, and it makes an excellent addition to any workout routine.
While not an exhaustive list, here are some of the most notable benefits of cardio exercise.
Reduced Risk of Type 2 Diabetes and Improvements in Type 1 Diabetes
Participating in a regular aerobic exercise routine may delay or prevent type 2 diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.
For people with type 1 diabetes, regular aerobic exercise decreases insulin resistance and increases cardiorespiratory fitness.
Better Lipid Profile
Regular moderate-intensity physical activity such as cardio may increase high-density lipoprotein or HDL cholesterol while maintaining or offsetting increases in low-density lipoprotein or LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
However, if the focus is to lower LDL levels, this same research supports the theory that high-intensity aerobic activity is needed to accomplish this.
Lower Blood Pressure Levels
According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), participating in regular aerobic exercise can lower resting systolic blood pressure 5-7 mmHG for people with hypertension.
What’s more, the ACSM says this drop in resting blood pressure may lead to a 20 to 30 percent reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
Improves Heart Health
Regular aerobic exercise can help reduce cardiovascular risk factors while also being a therapeutic treatment for people with cardiovascular disease, making this form of physical activity both protective and restorative, according to data from the Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine.
A recent observational study found that regular physical activity is associated with around a 60 percent lower risk of developing anxiety disorders compared to matched individuals from the general population.
Findings from another recent study support a causal inference between higher levels of physical activity and reduced odds of developing major depression.
Getting your body moving with a cardio session might be one way to improve overall sleep quality. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, a 30-minute moderate aerobic exercise workout may increase the amount of deep sleep you get each night.
For maximum benefits, aim to exercise at least one to two hours before going to bed.
Protect Your Immune System
Moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise may help boost immunity. More specifically, researchers found that regular physical activity can enhance resistance to many microbial infections.
Examples of Cardio Exercise
Cardiovascular exercise is easy to add to a daily routine. In some cases, all you need is a good pair of shoes and a long stretch of pavement or trail to get a solid 30-minute walk in.
That said, other forms of cardio exercise require equipment or access to a gym or swimming pool.
So, take inventory of what you have available, consider what you want to try, and talk to your doctor if you have any chronic health or medical conditions that may prevent you from performing certain aerobic exercises.
With that in mind, here are some ideas for cardio exercise to help you get started.
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
How to Get Started with Cardio
If you’re new to cardio exercise, you might be wondering how to get started. While it does not take much to get going, it is a good idea to plan things out and make sure you have everything you need. With that in mind, here are some tips to help you get off on the right foot with cardio exercise.
Talk to Your Doctor
If you’re new to cardio exercise or you have a chronic health or medical condition, a visit to your doctor is in order. They can provide guidance on the right type of cardio and amount to perform.
Where to Exercise
The first thing to consider is where you’re going to exercise.
If you’re at the gym and need an efficient workout, prioritize running or walking on the treadmill, elliptical, biking, the stair-climber, or the rowing machine.
You can use the elliptical machine or treadmill to perform short burst workouts, or sprints and biking can be used for warm-ups and long distances.
If the facility has a pool, opt for water aerobics or aqua jogging, especially if you need a no-impact form of cardio.
At-home workouts like jogging in place, jumping jacks, jumping rope, or burpees are all great forms of high impact cardio exercise that require minimal to no equipment.
You can also head outdoors for a walk, hike, bike ride, or participate in a recreational sport.
Duration and Frequency of Cardio Exercise
Once you have a general idea of where to exercise, the next order of business is to determine how long and how often to do it.
Some people may need assistance from a doctor or physical therapist to design a safe workout to meet their health or medical needs, but if you’ve been given the all clear to start cardio exercise, a great place to look for guidance is the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
According to the guidelines, 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.
Making time for 150 minutes of cardio a week might seem a bit overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Fitness trainer James de Lacey recommends smaller cardio sessions to get started.
“The first step in incorporating cardio into my routine was setting achievable goals," said trainer James de Lacey. "I didn't go from zero to running marathons overnight. I started with short, 10-minute sessions a few times a week. I found activities that I enjoyed, like swimming and cycling, which made it much easier to stick to my routine.”
Moderate-intensity aerobic activity is anything that gets your heart beating faster counts like brisk walking.
Warm-Up and Cool-Down
You’ll also want to build in time to warm up before a cardio activity and stretch after. In general, a 5 to 10-minute warm-up and 5-10 minute stretching or cool-down is sufficient.
The point of warming up is to get your body ready for work. You can accomplish this with a brisk walk or a few minutes on an exercise bike.
It’s also a good idea to include a few dynamic stretches which move your joints and muscles through a full range of motion.
Examples include hip circles, arm circles, leg swings, or walking lunges. After your workout is when to perform static stretches such as a seated hamstring stretch, standing calf stretch, and kneeling hip flexor stretch.
These moves require you to hold a stretching position for 30 to 60 seconds.
Shorter Workouts Count Too!
What if finding time to work out is a challenge? After all, when you’re crunched for time, exercise is often the first thing to get eliminated from your to-do list.
In fact, one reason people quit working out is that they don’t make time to fit it in.
But here’s the good news: Shorter, more intense bouts of fitness can have just as many benefits as longer sweat sessions.
According to a small April 2016 study published in the journal PLOS ONE, 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.
You can take this one step further and incorporate shorter cardio sessions throughout the day.
For example, a 10-minute walk in the morning, a 10-minutes of climbing stairs on lunch break, and a 10-minute walk in the evening.
The right shoes, socks, and workout clothes can make the difference between a comfortable session and a painful one.
If possible, visit a shoe store that specializes in running, walking, or cross-training shoes to get properly fitted.
Sweat-wicking socks and clothes are another factor to consider. If you’re exercising outdoors in extreme weather conditions, make sure to layer for cold temperatures or dress lightly for warmer ones.
And finally, don’t forget your snacks and water bottle. Hydration before, during, and after exercise is essential.
Unless a doctor, physical therapist, or registered dietitian has recommended another type of drink like one with electrolytes, water is all you need.
If you exercise in the morning, a small snack such as peanut butter toast or a banana and almonds should be enough for a simple cardio session. You can also try this combo later in the day if you plan on doing cardio after work.
A Word from Ashley
I'm Ashley Walton, Cofounder and Chief Content Officer at GymBird, and I wanted to add my personal thoughts to this article.
When I was new to working out, I used to only think of cardio exercise as running—which is totally embarrassing to admit now. Hopefully you can see that there's way more to cardio than running, and it encapsulates so many different types of exercise.
My approach to cardio has evolved over the years as I've gotten older. When I was younger, I loved running, but as I've gotten older (and a car crash resulted in a herniated disc in my back and chronic back pain), I've incorporated many more low-impact or no-impact forms of cardio exercise.
To get my cardio in, I love swimming, hiking, circuit training, and even dancing (where no one can see me). I urge you to explore different types of cardio exercise and find cardio workouts that feel good to your body and that fit within your needs, goals, and lifestyle.
What the Experts Say
We've reached out to fitness professionals, seeking their expert advice and valuable tips on how to effectively incorporate cardio into workout routines:
“Easy cardio has been a game-changer in my journey towards healing hormonal imbalances and PCOS. Gone are the days when I exclusively trained with heavy weights or pushed myself through hardcore HIIT sessions. Those routines left me feeling exhausted, struggling to recover, and constantly stressed. But ever since I embraced at-home cardio workouts, everything has transformed. Cardio is a gentle yet effective workout option that boosts energy without leaving you completely drained.”
—Anna Chabura, owner at Health Means Happiness
“Cardio was never my favorite form of exercise, but it has now been incorporated into my daily life! I teach live Zoom classes 5-6 days per week, and I make it a point to incorporate cardio into each class. Whether I am teaching sculpt, Pilates, or Barre; I throw in low-impact cardio intervals. I am a firm believer in LIIT (low-intensity interval training) vs. HIIT (high-intensity interval training). They both include lower and higher intensity intervals, except there is a difference in the intensity level. An example of LIIT would be intervals of walking and jogging, whereas HIIT would be intervals of walking and sprinting.
My live classes are 50 min., and I do about 15-20 min. of cardio in each class. The participants get strength and cardio in each session giving them a total body workout! I also try to take myself on a 15-20 min. walk daily to get fresh air and break up some lactic acid built up during the workouts.”
—Cara D'Orazio, fitness trainer and founder at C.G.M Fitness
“Steady state cardio, like walking on a treadmill, is what gives cardio a bad name, as it can be rather monotonous and dull. As a coach of aspiring professional cheerleaders, I recommend that my students incorporate HIIT workouts into their routines, so that they can dance for long periods of time, as practices can be three to four hours long of cheering, dancing, and being high energy.
For some, cardio can be the least appealing exercise. We recommend you define cardio as more than just running. HIIT workouts incorporate some cardio elements without it feeling like you have to stay on a treadmill for forever. HIIT is a good mix of cardio and strength training. We recommend drinking at least half a gallon of water each day for these kinds of workouts, or your body weight in ounces of water.”
—GeNienne Samuels, CEO at Sideline Prep.
Cardiovascular or aerobic exercise is a critical component of an overall fitness routine.
Not only does it get your heart pumping and increase breathing, but aerobic exercise also burns a ton of calories.
What’s more, performing high, low, or no impact cardio sessions at least 150 minutes each week can have substantial health benefits, such as improved heart health, a boost in mood, and better sleep. Plus, it’s easy to get started.
Aerobic activities range from running and hiking to brisk walking, swimming, recreational sports, dancing, and cardio exercise machines.
If you have any questions or concerns or you’re new to cardio workouts, it’s always a good idea to get the okay from your doctor before participating in an exercise program.
The Science of Cardio: Our Research Highlights
Why Cardiovascular Fitness is Important for Overall Health and Well-Being
|“Models suggested that vigorous physical activity, cardiorespiratory fitness and BMI were associated, both directly and indirectly, with mental well-being and QoL. It could, therefore, be postulated that enhancing cardiorespiratory fitness and BMI through increasing vigorous physical activity may be beneficial to both mental well-being and QoL in adolescents.”||https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11136-018-1915-3|
|“Aerobic exercise had the most significant effect on depressive symptoms (66.2%), followed by group training (62.5%), resistance exercise (59.0%), and aerobic combined with resistance exercise (57.9%)."||https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-023-16824-z|
|“Exercise can be used as a single treatment for depression (47). As a single therapy, one clinical trial (24) reported that depressive symptoms were significantly reduced in MDD patients (58%) after 8 weeks of moderate aerobic exercise, compared with 22% in the placebo group.”||https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.705559|
|“...studies have suggested that low to moderate levels of aerobic exercise are better than traditional demanding (anaerobic) exercise programmes in terms of enhancing mood and improving psychological functioning.”||https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9631216/|
How Cardio Can Help With Weight Loss
|“Weight loss through diet without physical activity, especially in older people, can increase frailty because of age-related losses in bone density and muscle mass. Adding aerobic and resistance training to a weight-loss program helps counter the loss of bone and muscle.”||https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/exercise/art-20050999|
|“Exercise, in conjunction with diet, is critical to losing weight and maintaining health in obese patients. While it can be challenging for an obese person to transition to a healthy lifestyle, the physical and emotional benefits of a regular exercise program make it worth the effort.”||https://www.ccjm.org/content/ccjom/83/2/141.full.pdf|
What are the long-term health benefits of engaging in regular cardiovascular exercise?
|“Physically active individuals have lower blood pressure, higher insulin sensitivity, and a more favorable plasma lipoprotein profile. Animal models of exercise show that repeated physical activity suppresses atherogenesis and increases the availability of vasodilatory mediators such as nitric oxide. Exercise has also been found to have beneficial effects on the heart. Acutely, exercise increases cardiac output and blood pressure, but individuals adapted to exercise show lower resting heart rate and cardiac hypertrophy.”||https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6172294/|
|“Exercise has many positive effects on heart health. A regular exercise routine can help: Lower blood pressure Lessen risk of developing diabetes Maintain healthy body weight Reduce inflammation throughout the body”||https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/exercise-and-the-heart|
How often should beginners incorporate cardio workouts into their fitness regimen?
|“…the American College of Sports Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that adults between the ages of 18 and 65 aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise per week. According to Dr. Keith, that’s when you can talk, but you feel winded. Cut that number in half if you’re doing vigorous cardio, where you’re too out of breath to speak.”||https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/03/well/move/strength-training-cardio-exercise.html|