Everything You Need to Know About Cardio

Full body of confident motivated young African American male and female runners in sportswear training together and running fast on pavement near fence during outdoor workout

Bonnin Studio / Stocksy

Cardiovascular exercise is exercise that gets your heart rate up. Though some people use it solely for weight loss, cardio has other benefits as well. There are a wide variety of cardiovascular exercises, but consistency, duration, and intensity are the most important factors for meeting your fitness goals. Read on to learn more about what this type of exercise is, the benefits it offers, and how to create a safe and effective cardiovascular routine.

What Is Cardio?

Cardio exercise, which is sometimes referred to as aerobic exercise, is any rhythmic activity that raises your heart rate into your target heart rate zone. This is the zone where you burn the most fat and calories.

Some of the most common examples of cardio include walking, cycling, and swimming. However, even household chores like vacuuming and mopping can qualify as cardio exercise.

Part of what sets cardio apart from other types of exercise—such as strength training—is that it relies on your body's ability to use oxygen during the workout session. A person's cardio ability or capacity can vary based on a number of factors.

Research published by the American Heart Association reports that genetics have a 20% to 40% influence over what you can do cardio-wise. Also, females tend to have a 25% lower cardio capacity than males and, for both sexes, this capacity tends to decline with age.

This is not to say that your genes, sex, or age will prevent you from improving your cardiovascular health. But it does help to know that there are many factors that can influence how (and how well) your body responds to cardio exercise.

Benefits of Cardio

Benefits of Cardiovascular Exercise

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

There are very few activities you can do for a short period of time that have all of the physical and mental health benefits that cardio exercise offers. Some of the known benefits of cardio include:

  • Burns fat and calories, making it easier to lose weight
  • Enhances sleep quality, especially if the exercise is moderate to vigorous in intensity
  • Expands lung capacity, or the amount of air that your lungs can hold
  • Improves your sex life by increasing your body's ability to become aroused, improving your body image, and even potentially helping to treat medication-related sexual dysfunction
  • Increases bone density when you do weight-bearing cardio exercises like hiking or climbing stairs
  • Lowers stress, in part by improving your ability to cope with issues in a positive way
  • Promotes feeling good, and can even help relieve depression and anxiety
  • Improves confidence in how you look and feel
  • Reduces risk of heart attack, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and some forms of cancer
  • Sets a good example for those around you, encouraging them to exercise with you
  • Strengthens the heart so that it doesn't have to work as hard to pump blood

How to Choose Cardio Exercise

Your first step in choosing the right cardio workout for you is to figure out what kind of activities you enjoy. Think about what fits your personality and what you'd feel comfortable fitting into your life. This is key because if you don't like the exercise, you're less likely to stick with it long-term.

If you like to go outdoors, running, cycling, and walking are all good choices. If you prefer going to the gym, you have access to many options in the form of stationary bikes, elliptical trainers, treadmills, rowing machines, climbers, the pool, and more.

Want to increase your heart rate at home? You can do at-home cardio exercises like jumping rope, jumping jacks, jogging in place, and burpees. Another option is to buy your own treadmill or elliptical machine. You might also consider using:

You may not even know what you like yet. In this case, try several different activities to find the one or ones that you enjoy most. This process can be hit or miss, so don't be afraid to try something and, if it doesn't work, move on to something else.

Beginner Workouts

If you are new to exercise, there are a few beginner workouts that can help get you started. These include:

Another option is to start with about 10 to 20 minutes of brisk walking at a moderate intensity. This means that you should be at a Level 5 or 6 on a perceived exertion scale of zero to 10, where sitting is zero and the highest level of effort possible is 10.

How Long Should a Cardio Workout Last?

Health authorities recommend that most people get 150 minutes of cardio exercise per week. The great thing about cardio is that you don't have to work out for an hour to get benefits.

Even sessions as short as 10 minutes count towards your weekly cardio exercise minutes. So, figure out how much you need to do per week and split it up in a way that makes sense for you.

If you are just starting out, it may feel less overwhelming to break your sessions into 10- to 15-minute chunks. Increase your time by 5 minutes as the exercise begins to feel easier. Work your way up to 30- to 60-minute sessions.

Frequency of Cardio Workouts

The answer to how often to do cardio workouts depends on a number of factors. Among them are your fitness level, schedule, and goals. 

If you are new to exercise, want to be healthier, don't have a lot of free time, and aren't worried about losing weight, exercising a little bit every day can do you some good. If you have been exercising regularly for years, are used to hitting the gym 60 minutes at a time, and are more focused on building muscle than burning fat, cardio 3 to 4 times a week is probably enough.

When thinking about frequency, it's important to consider intensity as well. Light or moderate-intensity cardio workouts can usually be performed every day. But if you do high-intensity training, you'll need more rest days in between your workouts. Mixing the two helps you work different energy systems and also keeps you from burning out.

Guidelines for Cardio Frequency

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

  • For general health, try moderately-intense cardio 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, or vigorously intense cardio for 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week. You can also do a mixture.
  • For weight loss and/or to avoid regaining weight, you may need to do more than 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week to meet your goals.
  • To maintain a healthy body weight, you need about 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week.

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

When Life Gets in the Way

What happens if you can't follow the guidelines? If you're still working on building 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 work out as many days as you can. Try shorter, more intense circuit training workouts to make the most out of the time you do have. Try these quick workouts:

Keep in mind that if you can't follow the guidelines because of your busy schedule, you may have trouble reaching 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 Exercise Intensity

Once you've gotten used to exercising (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 of:

  • Calorie burn: Intensity is directly related to how many calories you burn.
  • Ease of monitoring: A heart rate monitor or the perceived exertion scale makes it easy to monitor your exercise intensity.
  • Time savings: Raising your intensity burns more calories when you're short on time.
  • Variation: Intensity is an easy part of your workout to change without having to find a new exercise to do.

How Hard Should You Work?

Your best exercise intensity level depends on several factors, including your fitness level and 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 70% and 85% of your maximum heart rate (MHR), or a 7 to 8 on the perceived exertion scale. This level feels challenging and leaves you too breathless to talk much. If you're a beginner, try beginner interval training to work harder for shorter periods of time.
  • Moderate-Intensity Cardio: Moderate intensity falls between 50% and 70% of your MHR (a level 5 to 6 on the perceived exertion scale). The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services often recommends this level of intensity in its Physical Activity 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 50% of your MHR, or about a level 3 to 4 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 target heart rate calculation isn't 100% accurate. You might want to use a combination of perceived exertion and your heart rate to find a range that works for you.

Cardio for Weight Loss

While the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans suggest that most people get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, the amount of exercise needed to lose weight is often greater. If you want to lose more than 5% of your body weight, you may need 300 minutes per week or more.

These guidelines state that moderate-intensity activity is any activity that gets your heart rate going. However, they also indicate that incorporating high-intensity interval training often provides better results for people who are overweight or obese.

Adding resistance training to your weekly cardio can also help. It works by increasing your lean muscle mass. Muscle creates a higher energy demand on your body, meaning more calories burned both at rest and while exercising.

Combine your cardio with a healthy diet and you can boost your weight loss more. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating fruits, veggies, grains, low-fat dairy, lean proteins, and healthy oils while limiting added sugar, saturated fat, sodium, and alcohol.

A Word From Verywell

Before beginning this or any other exercise program, talk to your doctor. Make sure the exercise is safe for you to do. Also, listen to your body. If it tells you that you are doing too much, it's time to reduce the intensity, frequency, or duration of your exercise sessions.

Whatever you do, remember to keep your cardio workouts simple. Just start somewhere and make it a goal to do something every day, even if it's 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.

12 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lavie C, Arena R, Swift D, et al. Exercise and the cardiovascular system. Circulat Res. 2015;117:207-19. doi:10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.117.305205

  2. Chastin S, Palarea-Albaladejo J, Dontje M, Skelton D. Combined effects of time spent in physical activity, sedentary behaviors and sleep on obesity and cardio-metabolic health markers: a novel compositional data analysis approach. PLoS One. 2015;10(10):e0139984. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0139984

  3. Stanton A, Handy A, Meston C. The effects of exercise on sexual function in women. Sex Med Rev. 2018;6(4):548-57. doi:10.1016/j.sxmr.2018.02.004

  4. Kim JH, McKenzie L. The impacts of physical exercise on stress coping and well-being in university students in the context of leisure. Health. 2014;6(19):51245. doi:10.4236/health.2014.619296

  5. Knapen J, Vancampfort D, Morien Y, Marchal Y. Exercise therapy improves both mental and physical health in patients with major depression. Disabil Rehabil. 2014;37(16):1490-5. doi:10.3109/09638288.2014.972579

  6. Stubbs B, Vancampfort D, Rosenbaum S, et al. An examination of the anxiolytic effects of exercise for people with anxiety and stress-related disorders: a meta-analysis. Psych Res. 2017;249:102-8. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2016.12.020

  7. Nystoriak MA, Bhatnagar A. Cardiovascular effects and benefits of exercise. Front Cardiovasc Med. 2018;5:135. doi:10.3389/fcvm.2018.00135

  8. Piercy KL, Troiano RP, Ballard RM, et al. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. JAMA. 2018;320(19):2020-2028. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.14854

  9. Piercy KL, Troiano RP, Ballard RM, et al. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. JAMA. 2018;320(19):2020-2028. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.14854

  10. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans: 2nd edition.

  11. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Can you boost metabolism?

  12. U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for American 2020–2025.

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."