How Beginners Can Get Started With Cardio

Senior woman jogging on beach boardwalk

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Most of us already know that cardio exercise is important for a number of reasons. It helps you burn calories and lose weight, it keeps your heart and lungs healthy, and it gives you energy. It can also help prevent and/or manage certain types of cancer, protect you from diabetes, and help avoid metabolic syndrome.

Even knowing all these great benefits doesn't make it any easier to get started, especially if you've never exercised or it's been a long time since you tried cardio.

The point of cardio is to, of course, get your heart rate up so that you're breathing harder and burning calories. The problem is that this can be really uncomfortable, especially if you've never experienced that kind of discomfort before. 

Getting Started With Cardio

This step-by-step guide can help you take the leap and get back to cardio.

Choose an Activity That You Enjoy

The best exercise for you is the one you'll actually do, not the one you think you should do. Walking is a great place to start since it doesn't require special equipment and you can do it anywhere.

If walking isn't for you, anything will work as long as it involves some kind of continuous movement. This includes cycling, swimming, running, aerobics, rowing, climbing, dancing, etc.

Keep in mind that any activity may feel difficult, so don't rule something out just because it's hard the first time. It always gets easier.

Set Up a Simple Schedule

If you're just starting out, you may not know how much exercise your body can handle. If you're a beginner, a great place to start is with about three days of exercise with a day of rest in between.

This will allow you to get a feel for how your body responds to exercise and how it feels to stick to a workout schedule. Your body needs time to adjust, but so does your mind. 

Include a Warm-Up and Cool Down

Begin each cardio session with a 5–10 minute warm-up. Start with some light cardio to gradually increase your heart rate. Going too hard or fast will only make it feel worse.

Also, end each workout with a cooldown. Do some light cardio and stretch the muscles you've worked to relax and keep your muscles flexible.

Choose the Right Pace and Intensity

Work towards effort that's slightly harder than comfortable (about a Level 5 or 6 on the Perceived Exertion Scale or you can use target heart rate to monitor intensity) and go as long as you comfortably can.

Begin where you are, not where you want to be. You may only be able to exercise for a few minutes at a time, but that will change quickly if you're consistent.

Don't Worry About Distance or Pace

For the first few weeks, focus on showing up for your workouts and building time. You have plenty of time to work on your speed and distance.

Change Your Routine

Every 4–6 weeks, try adding another day of exercise, increasing your pace/intensity, adding a new activity, and/or increasing the amount of time you exercise.

Increase Your Workout Time by a Few Minutes

Each week, ramp it up slowly until you can work continuously for 30 minutes a session. Even if you just increase by one minute per workout, that's enough. It's better to do something gradual than it is to start too hard and then quit.

Tips for Better Cardio Workouts

Here's how to get the most out of your cardio sessions:

  • Get the right gear. Make sure you have quality shoes for your chosen activity.
  • Start slowly. Doing too much too soon can lead to injuries and misery. Do what you're comfortable with and slowly push your limits each workout.
  • Try new activities. Once you get used to working out, change things up. Doing the same thing can lead to plateaus, boredom, and injuries.
  • Be ready for exercise by feeding your body regularly throughout the day and by staying hydrated.
  • Take extra recovery days if you feel sore or tired. Every week is different. Sometimes you'll have more energy than others. Do what you need to do for your body.

How Hard Should You Work Out?

When doing cardio, you should learn how to monitor your intensity to make sure you're working effectively. You can do this in a variety of ways:

  • Target heart rate (THR) zone: After calculating your THR, you can use a heart rate monitor to track your heart rate and make sure you're staying in the most effective heart rate training zone.
  • Perceived exertion: You can also just monitor how you feel throughout your workout, ranking it on a scale of 1 to 10. A moderate workout should put you at about a level 5 or 6, a level that feels like exercise but isn't out of your comfort zone.
  • The talk test: If you can talk easily while you're exercising, you can probably push harder. If you can talk in short sentences, you're right at a moderate pace.

If you're breathless, you're well out of your comfort zone. That's fine if you're doing interval training, but you don't want to spend your whole workout at that level.

Variety will keep your body and your mind challenged, so after the initial conditioning period (about six weeks of consistent workouts), vary your workout intensity and time.

Each week, do a long, slow workout (45–60 minutes at the lower end of your THR) and one short one (20–30 minutes at the higher end of your THR). Your other workouts can be between 30–45 minutes, in the middle of your THR.

A Word From Verywell

However, you start, keep it simple. You don't have to run for an hour to get a good cardio workout. Pushing too hard can make you miserable and no one likes that.

Give yourself permission to do what your body and your mind are ready for. Remember, you have to start where you are, not where you want to be.

1 Source
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. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physical activity and health.

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."