Strength workouts may be having a moment. And with good reason: Strength training has tons of health benefits. But aerobic exercise, or cardiovascular exercise (“cardio” for short) the type of movement that hastens your breath and gets your blood pumping is a health boosting powerhouse, too.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) defines cardio as those exercises that are rhythmic, continuous, and involve large muscle groups.
Cardiovascular exercise comprises several different exercises, explains Jared Rosenberg, an exercise physiologist at Duke Health in Durham, North Carolina. “Think walking, running, swimming, riding a bike, or using the elliptical machine.”
As the name suggests, cardiovascular exercise gives your heart muscle a workout, says Alexis S. Tingan, MD, an assistant professor of clinical physical medicine and rehabilitation at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia. “For healthy adults without heart disease, this type of exercise can actually improve the health of your heart. The heart is like any other muscle in this way; you work it out and it gets stronger,” says Dr. Tingan.
But improved heart health is just one of the numerous health benefits of getting in your cardio.
“Research has found time and time again that those who exercise more consistently live longer and are less likely to develop chronic diseases,” says Rosenberg. A study published in Scientific Reports in July 2018 found that people over the age of 50 who exercised the most were twice as likely to avoid stroke, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. And cardiovascular exercise is part of the physical activity equation that delivers those benefits.
Any type of cardiovascular exercise helps improve lung function. The more you do, the less demand your lungs will feel with each workout, improving their functioning overall, according to the Cleveland Clinic. “You’re able to improve the efficiency with which you breathe,” Tingan explains.
Weight-bearing aerobic exercises, like running or walking, can help improve bone density, Tingan adds. And many types of cardio improve range of motion for your muscles and joints.
Aerobic exercise can also help with weight loss by increasing calories burned over the course of a day, says Rosenberg.
“It’s been shown that exercise, including cardio, helps boost your mood and improve the quality of your life,” he says. A study published online in January 2019 in JAMA Psychiatry found that participants who replaced time sitting with time running or walking decreased their odds of becoming depressed. The authors found that even moving for just 10 minutes helped with mood, but recommended that people do at least 15 minutes per day of higher-intensity exercise, such as running, or an hour of lower-intensity physical activity like walking.
How Much Cardio Should You Be Doing? Is It Safe to Do Every Day?
The Department of Health and Human Services guidelines recommend that adults get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise every week. To hit this goal, you’ll probably have to exercise on consecutive days, which is safe and appropriate, says Rosenberg. “It’s fine to do cardio on consecutive days even if you’re doing the same activity, but you should plan your workouts to vary the intensity and amount of time you’re doing it.”
For most people, for example, it’s safe to run five days a week, but vary the intensity and distance, Rosenberg says. Or alternate different types of cardiovascular exercise on consecutive days to lower the risk of overuse injuries.
It’s ideal to get a mix of low-, moderate-, and high-intensity activity, Tingan adds. Do too much high-intensity cardio on consecutive days and your body doesn’t have time to recover, he says.
You can measure exercise intensity with a wearable heart rate monitor (or by taking your pulse). Or you can gauge intensity by monitoring perceived effort, Rosenberg says. Low-intensity exercise means you’re exerting more effort than you would be if you were sitting on your couch or standing, but you’re not very taxed. Moderate-intensity exercises means you’re exerting yourself (you might be sweating and a little short of breath), but you can still carry on a conversation. High-intensity exercise means you’re going all-out: You’re breathing heavily and talking is difficult.
And do give yourself rest days to let your muscles recover. Giving your body a day off from working out helps you up the intensity of your workout the next time, Tingan says. How many rest and recovery days you need each week depends on your fitness level and workout schedule.
Want to Add More Cardio to Your Routine? Here’s How to Get Started and Stick With It
There are so many reasons any one part of our health and fitness routines can fall off track from time to time.
For Jennifer Ashton, MD, the chief medical correspondent for Good Morning America and ABC News, after years of being a major cardio enthusiast, she found herself over the past few years opting instead for strength-training workouts, she says in her new book, The Self-Care Solution: A Year of Becoming Happier, Healthier, and Fitter — One Month at a Time.
Finding herself missing the overall fitness, stress-busting benefits, and the “good sweat” that a cardio training session brings, Ashton dedicated a month (and a chapter of her new book) to reinstating a cardio habit. She challenged herself to do 20 minutes of aerobic activity most days of the week for that month. Part of what helped her stick with the goal was making it an attainable one and giving herself options that would allow her to fit a workout into her otherwise busy schedule, she says. “This didn’t have to be a heart-pounding run or a sweaty session in the gym,” she writes, but could include brisk walk, a dance party in your own living room, or an intense bout of gardening.
If you’re ready to start adding cardio workouts to your weekly schedule, it’s a good idea to consult your doctor to make sure you’re not putting yourself at risk, Tingan notes.
When you’re ready to get moving, here are more tips to help you get started:
- Start low and go slow. Sometimes people have a tendency to want to do too much too soon, says Tingan. “I recommend just starting with something that feels easy — whether that’s the number of minutes you run or laps you swim,” he says. Once you get started, Tingan recommends a general progression of no more than 10 percent on a week-to-week basis. So if you start by running 20 minutes a day on three days of the week, you could try running 22 minutes on those days the next week.
- Set goals. Setting a goal can be a good motivator to help you keep going when your initial enthusiasm begins to lag, says Rosenberg. “Just make sure your goal is realistic. If you just started running, you may want to train for a 5K rather than a marathon.”
- Use the buddy system. Exercising with friends can help you stay engaged in an activity even when it gets tough, and it adds a level of accountability, says Rosenberg. “Even if you’re doing something you don’t fully enjoy, if you’re doing it with people you like, that can make a huge difference,” he says.
- Listen to your body. “You have to listen to your body to avoid injury, and this looks different for everyone,” says Rosenberg. That means push it when your body can handle it and rest when you need a break. “There’s no playbook. You just need to pay attention to how you’re feeling and be honest with yourself,” he says. This is where having a workout partner or trainer can help, by offering objective feedback for what you’re doing or experiencing, Rosenberg adds. “Exercise isn’t always pleasant, but it shouldn’t be painful; you need to find the proper balance,” he says.
- Find something you don’t hate. Most experts recommend finding an activity you enjoy to help you stick with it, but what if you don’t love any exercise? “Even if you may not find something that you truly enjoy, try to remember it’s important for your health,” says Rosenberg. “I don’t like broccoli, but I make myself eat it sometimes because I know it’s good for me,” he says. And if there’s an option that feels moderately more tolerable, do that one instead of the one that you hate. There are plenty of other options for getting a cardio workout in that do not involve running.
- Get it done early. Everyone has a different schedule, but if you can make time for exercising in the morning it can help you be more consistent, says Tingan. “There are typically fewer distractions in the morning versus later in the day,” he says.
- Consult an expert. For people who have no experience whatsoever, Tingan recommends at least consulting with a personal trainer for some tips on how to start. “You may not need [a trainer] on a regular basis, but an initial visit can help you understand your body and what activities might work best for you, as well as what’s safe and what’s not,” he says. A trainer can also suggest the right amount and intensity if you’re just starting out. “Unless you have an athletic background or are very aware of your body and your limits, if you push too hard too fast, it may lead to injury,” Tingan says.
- Make it about you. Because fitness is a personal journey, it’s important to keep the focus on yourself and the improvements you’re making, says Rosenberg. “Unless you’re a competitive athlete, it’s not helpful or productive to compare yourself to other people,” he says. “Compare yourself with yourself,” he says.