Everything You Need to Know About Cardio

Woman using a rowing machine
Hero Images/Getty Images

The word 'cardio' is probably one of the first words you hear when you first start an exercise program.You know that cardio is an essential component of any workout, whether you want to lose weight, get fit, or just be healthier.

The reality is that, If you want to lose weight, you may have to do up to 300 minutes of cardio a week and that doesn't even include strength training.

So, you know you need cardio, but the real question is why do you need cardio? Getting a deeper understanding of cardio exercise may be what you need to get motivated to do it a little more often.

Why Cardio Is So Good For You

Before we talk about how to get going with a solid cardio routine, you should at least know what it is and why it's so good for you.

For the record, cardio exercise simply means that you're doing a rhythmic activity that raises your heart rate into your target heart rate zone, the zone where you'll burn the most fat and calories.

The Benefits of Cardio

When you realize just how much cardio exercise can do for you, you may want to do some right now. There are very few activities you can do for a short period of time that has this many benefits. Just a few of them:

  • It helps you burn fat and calories for weight loss
  • It makes your heart strong so that it doesn't have to work as hard to pump blood
  • It increases your lung capacity
  • It helps reduce risk of heart attack, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes
  • It makes you feel good
  • It helps you sleep better
  • It helps reduce stress
  • It improves your sex life

And the great thing about cardio is that you don't have to workout for an hour at a high intensity to get the benefits. Even just a few minutes of cardio can have health benefits. A 5-minute walk outside can boost your mood and help lower blood pressure, so even a little goes a long way.

Don't feel like you have to have a lot of time and energy for cardio. Doing a little each day is better than doing nothing at all.

With all the benefits laid out for you, it's time for the next step which covers exactly how to choose your cardio exercise.

Choosing Your Exercise

Your first step in setting up a program is to figure out what kind of activities you'd like to do.

The trick is to think about what's accessible to you, what fits your personality and what you'd feel comfortable fitting into your life. If you like to go outdoors, running, cycling, or walking are all good choices.

If you prefer going to the gym, you have access to many more options in the form of machines like stationary bikes, elliptical trainers, treadmills, rowing machines, stair climbers, the pool, and more.

For Home Exercisers

For the home exerciser, you can, of course, buy your own treadmill or elliptical trainer, but there are other great options like:

  • Exercise videos
  • Online exercises and workouts
  • Fitness apps
  • A variety of ​home cardio exercises you can do like jumping rope, jumping jacks, jogging in place, burpees, and more.

Getting Started

You have so many choices but, the trouble is, you may not even know what you like yet.

You may have to try several different activities before you find one that works for you. This is the experiment we all have to take part in and it can be hit or miss so don't be afraid to try something and, if it doesn't work, move on to something else.

Just about any activity will work, as long as it involves a movement that gets your heart rate into your heart rate zone. Walking is always an excellent choice. It's something most of us can do on a regular basis and you don't need fancy equipment.

Important Tips for Choosing Your Cardio

  • There is no 'best' cardio exercise. Just because your friend says running is the best doesn't mean you have to do it, especially if running makes you feel like your entire body is falling apart. Anything that gets your heart rate up fits the bill, even vigorous chores like raking leaves or washing the car.
  • It's not what you do, but how hard you work. Any exercise can be challenging if you make it that way. If you're walking, make it challenging by speeding up, walking up hills and pumping your arms.
  • Do something you enjoy or at least something you can tolerate. If you hate gym workouts, don't force yourself onto a treadmill. If you like socializing, consider sports, group fitness, working out with a friend or a walking club.
  • Choose something you can see yourself doing at least 3 days a week.
  • Be flexible and don't be afraid to branch out once you get comfortable with exercise.

How Long Should You Exercise?

After you choose what to do, the most important element of your workout will now be how long you do it. You should work on duration before you work on anything else like doing high intensity workouts; it takes time to build up the endurance for continuous exercise.

The guidelines suggest anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes of cardio to be healthy, lose weight and get fit, depending on the types of workouts you do. That's fine, but you don't want to start with an hour of exercise.

That's just too much for anyone if you haven't exercised for awhile...or ever.

How to Start If You're a Beginner

To start, choose an accessible exercise like walking or a treadmill, and start with about 10-20 minutes of brisk walking at a moderate intensity. That means you're just out of your comfort zone, at around a Level 5 or 6 on this Perceived Exertion Scale.

Beginner workout options:

Important Tips for How Long You Should Workout

  • You don't have to do it all at once. You can absolutely split your workouts into smaller workouts throughout the day. Try three 10-minute walks as a good start.
  • Add small bursts of cardio throughout the day by climbing stairs or speed walking.
  • Do all those things you know you should be doing: Take the stairs, walk more, stop driving around looking for that front row parking space, etc.
  • Make the time. People who workout don't have more time than people who don't. They've just practiced making exercise a priority. Scheduling your workouts and treating them like any other appointment you wouldn't miss may help you stick to your program.
  • Pay someone to make you exercise. Finding a good personal trainer can make a difference when it comes to motivation and reaching your goals.
  • Do something...anything. If you think 5 minutes isn't enough time to workout, you couldn't be more wrong. Whether it's 5 minutes, 10 minutes or 60 minutes, every single minute counts.
  • Consider your intensity. The harder you work, the shorter your workouts should be. So, if you're doing Tabata Training or some other kind of High Intensity Interval Training, your workout may only be 10-20 minutes long. If you're doing a slower, steady state workout, you can workout longer, maybe 30-60 minutes.

    Keep in mind that doing too much cardio is a no-no as well and can actually backfire. There is a point of diminishing returns, so keep it reasonable (3-6 days a week, depending on your fitness level), vary your intensity and don't forget to take rest days when needed.

    How Often Should You Do Cardio Exercise?

    The short, non-scientific answer to this is probably more than you think you should and, probably, more than you really want to or have the time for.

    The longer answer is that it depends on your fitness level, schedule, and goals.  If you want to be healthy and aren't worried about losing weight, getting in 20-30 minutes of moderate activity every day can do you some good.

    But, for weight loss, it's a whole other story.

    And it's not just about frequency. It's about intensity as well.  If you only do moderate workouts, you can probably workout every day.

    But, if you do high intensity interval training, you may need more rest days thrown in there. The bottom line here is that it's better to have a mixture of the two so that you're working different energy systems and giving your body something different to do so you don't burn out.

    The Basic Guidelines for Cardio Frequency

    The frequency of your workouts will depend on your fitness level and your schedule. The general guidelines are:

    • For health, try moderately intense cardio 30 minutes a day, five days a week, or vigorously intense cardio 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week - You can also do a mixture
    • To maintain weight and/or avoid regaining weight, you need about 150-250 minutes (20-35 minutes daily) or try burning 1200 to 2000 kcal a week
    • For weight loss, your workout time climbs to 200-300 minutes each week of a mix of moderate and high intensity exercise

    The Reality

    What happens if you can't follow the guidelines? If you're still working on building the endurance and conditioning, it may take a few weeks to work your way up to more frequent exercise.

    If it's a busy schedule that stands in your way or other obstacles, do your best to workout as many days as you can try shorter, more intense circuit training workouts to make the most out of the time you do have.

    10 Minute Timesaver Workout Ideas:

    Keep in mind that if you can't follow the guidelines because of your busy schedule, you may have trouble reaching your weight loss goals.

    If you can't do the work required to reach your goals, you may have to change your lifestyle or, if that isn't working, change your goal to fit where you are in your exercise or weight loss experience.

    Cardio Intensity

    Once you've gotten used to exercise (and are up to 30 minutes of continuous movement) you can start working on your intensity. How hard you work is a crucial factor in your workout because:

    • How hard you work is directly related to how many calories you burn.
    • Raising intensity is the best way to burn more calories when you're short on time.
    • It's an easy part of your workout to change--all you do is work harder.
    • It's easy to monitor with a heart rate monitor or perceived exertion scale.

    So How Hard Should You Work?

    That depends on several factors including your fitness level and your goals. There are three different levels of intensity you can focus on during your workouts, and you can even incorporate all of these levels into the same workout:

    • High Intensity Cardio: This falls between about 75-85% of your maximum heart rate (MHR) if you're using heart rate zones, or a 7 to 8 on the perceived exertion scale. What this translates to is exercise at a level that feels challenging and leaves you too breathless to talk much. If you're a beginner, you may want to work up to this level or try beginner interval training so that you work harder for shorter periods of time. Advanced exercisers can try high intensity interval training for more strenuous workouts.
    • Moderate Intensity Cardio: This level falls between about 60-70% of your MHR (a level 4 to 6 on the perceived exertion scale). The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) often recommends this level of intensity in its exercise guidelines. This is the level you typically want to shoot for during your workouts.
    • Low-Intensity Cardio: This type of exercise is considered to be below about 50-55% of your MHR, or about a level 3 to 5 on the perceived exertion scale. This is a good level to work at during your warm-ups or when you're squeezing in other activities, like walking, throughout the day.

      Keep in mind that your target heart rate calculation isn't 100% accurate so you might want to use a combination of perceived exertion and your heart rate to find a range that works for you.

      Whatever you do, remember to keep it simple. Just start somewhere and make it a goal to do something every day, even if it's just a 5-minute walk. Try doing it at the same time every day and schedule it on your calendar.

      The more you practice the easier it gets.

      Was this page helpful?
      View Article Sources
      • Bryant CX, Green DJ. ACE personal trainer manual: the ultimate resource for fitness professionals. San Diego, CA: American Council on Exercise; 2010.
      • Recommendations for Physical Activity. National Institutes of Health.