How to Do a Cardio Workout at Home and Make It Worthwhile

woman doing jumping jacks

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When you hear the word "cardio," you probably don't jump with joy at the thought. Rather, most people conjure up images of people trudging away on a treadmill or sweating up a storm on a bike. But cardio can be so much more than the drudgery of spending hours on a piece of cardio equipment.

So regardless of how equipped your home gym is (it's fine if you don't have a home gym at all), it's perfectly possible to fit in an excellent and worthwhile cardio workout at home. Here is what you need to know about cardio workouts at home.

What Is Cardio? 

The word "cardio" simply refers to an exercise that targets and works the cardiovascular system. In other words, it is a workout designed to increase your heart rate and breath rate to challenge your heart and lungs while increasing blood through through your entire body.

When you perform exercises that target this system—whether it be walking, jogging, cycling, dancing, or jumping rope—your muscles begin to require more oxygen to perform the metabolic processes necessary to support the increased movement. As a result, you begin to breathe heavier and more deeply, and your heart begins beating faster and harder to pump your blood through your venous system to deliver this increased oxygen to your working muscles.

Benefits of Cardio

Given that cardio exercise is designed to work your cardiovascular system, it should come as no surprise that the primary benefit of cardio is to improve or maintain your heart and lung health. In fact, higher levels of cardiovascular activity are associated with lower levels of cardiovascular disease and other physiologic adaptations that appear to protect against heart attacks, strokes, and respiratory ailments.

This is hugely important because cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States, with one person dying every 34 seconds due to the disease. Equally as concerning, is the fact that many heart attacks (1 in 5) take place "silently," where the damage is done, but the person experiencing the heart attack doesn't even know it has happened.

By integrating cardio workouts into your routine on a regular basis, you can lower your risk of becoming one of these heartbreaking heart disease statistics. Additionally, cardio workouts can help prevent or reverse type 2 diabetes, boost mental health and confidence, curb symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improve sleep. These workouts also can help you maintain or lose weight as well as benefit your sex life.

Types of Cardio

Taking a walk, riding a bike, or joining a Zumba class may be the types of exercise you think of when you think cardio. But it's important not to limit yourself to the commonly-touted options.

Essentially, cardiovascular workouts include any exercise that engages multiple, large muscle groups to perform sustained activity that increases your heart rate and breath rate. There are so many options when it comes to cardio, that you should rarely get bored. Feel free to mix things up and do the ones you like the most.

Examples of Cardio

Cardio can include:

  • Walking on a treadmill, going for a walk, or walking/marching in place
  • Running on a treadmill, going for a run, or running in place
  • Riding a stationary or regular bicycle
  • Rowing a boat or using a rowing machine
  • Climbing stairs
  • Jumping rope
  • Doing jumping jacks or other similar full-body exercises
  • Dancing on your own, with others, or as part of a class
  • Following an online cardio class
  • Doing a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout or circuit-training workout ... even one that's focused on strength-based exercises
  • Playing active video games
  • Chasing your kids or playing tag
  • Swimming
  • Snowshoeing
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Jumping on a trampoline

How to Do Cardio at Home

In theory, when it comes to logistics, doing cardio at home is relatively straightforward. Choose an activity and simply follow-through.

That said, the reality of sticking to a cardio workout at home is a little more nuanced. To make sure you are completing your cardio routine at home and sticking to your goals, there are some things to consider.

Here are some ideas for making sure you have the correct space and equipment for your home workout as well as tips on how to make sure you do your cardio workouts consistently.

Determine Your Activity and Equipment Needs

There are lots of exercises—jumping jacks, running in place, HIIT workouts, dancing, and walking stairs—that don't require any equipment at all. But others like treadmill walking, jumping rope, and using a mini trampoline that do require equipment. If you do not already have the equipment on-hand, you need to consider your budget, space, and commitment to the workout before you make an investment.

Consider Your Home Workout Space

If you have a room set aside as a home gym, you may not be worried about space constraints for equipment or full-body movements, but if you're cramped on space, it is something you should really consider. For instance, jumping rope may not require much in the way of floor space, but it does require quite a bit of vertical space to account for the turning rope.

While it is completely possible to do a jump rope workout outside with more open vertical space, will you want to follow-through when it is cold or rainy? On the other hand, many machine-based workouts require equipment that take up a lot of floor space. Before buying a treadmill, you should really ask yourself if you have enough room.

Decide if Your Home Workouts Will Be Inside or Outside

Taking your cardio workout outside to your porch or deck is an excellent way to give yourself a little extra room to move around, but weather-related logistics are significant and cannot be ignored. Will you be mentally strong enough to keep your workout going, even when Mother Nature is not at her best? And if not, do you have a contingency plan for switching to an indoor workout, instead?

Think About How to Prioritize Your Home Workout

One of the biggest pitfalls of home-based cardio is the potential for distraction. If you're exercising while your partner or kids are in the house, you need to have a plan in place to reduce interruptions and minimize distractions.

Likewise, the call of the dirty dishes in the sink or the TV in the other room may be enough to draw you away from your exercise commitment. You need to know how you're going to prevent these issues from sidetracking your best intentions.

Schedule Your Workouts on Your Calendar

Schedule your workouts into your calendar and mark yourself as "unavailable" during this time. At the beginning of the week, choose the days, times, and types of workouts you plan to perform and put them on your calendar. Share your calendar with your family so they are all aware in advance that you won't be available for (non-emergency) interruptions during this time.

Plan Workouts in Advance

Plan your workout in advance and set out your tools or supplies before your workout starts. Knowing what you are going to be doing before your workout starts helps reduce some of the "static" that can make starting a workout more challenging.

If you're doing a HIIT workout, know what exercises and equipment you need before you start. Set out your shoes, clothing, and equipment so it is ready to go. That way, when your workout time arrives, all you have to do is change clothes and get started.

Aim to Do Cardio Five Days a Week

Aim to accumulate at least 30 minutes of cardio, five days per week. Exercise recommendations state that healthy adults should perform at least 150 total minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week for health-related purposes.

That breaks down to 30 minutes a day, five days per week. That said, not all of the exercise has to be performed at the same time. If you can work in 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes at lunch, you'll be able to meet the guidelines.

Get a Workout Buddy or Trainer

Enlist a buddy or trainer (even a virtual one). If motivation is hard for you, and you tend to do better with extra accountability, see if you can team up with a trainer or a friend to tackle workouts together.

A trainer can plan and manage your workouts, or a friend can participate, challenge, and encourage you along the way. Both have their benefits, and each can help make home-based workouts more enjoyable and sustainable.

Mix Things Up

Doing the same old walking routine day-in and day-out for months may work for some people, but if you tend to get bored, don't be shy about changing up your routine. Dancing one day, jumping on a mini-trampoline the next, and doing a HIIT workout the day after is good for staving off boredom.

Mixing things up also will challenge different muscle groups in different ways. You may actually find yourself experiencing health-related results faster (and enjoying yourself more) if you keep your day-to-day workout different.

Monitor Your Intensity Level

Whether you elect to wear a heart rate monitor to gauge your intensity level, or you prefer to base your intensity level off your own rating of perceived exertion (RPE), it's important to push yourself hard enough to effectively challenge your cardiovascular system. This means you should be exercising at a moderate- to vigorous-intensity level for each cardio routine.

Try to Be Consistent

Consistently working out is easier said than done, but it's only through consistent exercise that the health-related benefits of cardio truly accumulate. While starting a routine may seem challenging, make a commitment to yourself to follow through for at least three months to build a habit. Once the habit has been built and you start enjoying the benefits, it will be much easier to stay on track, even when life gets challenging.

A Word From Verywell

Implementing cardio into your daily routine, whether it is at home, outside, or at a gym, is an important way to improve and maintain heart health. Plus, not only will you give your cardiovascular system a boost, but you also may find that your energy level and mood improves as well.

If you haven't been exercising in a while, or if you have recently experienced injuries or illnesses that might impact your cardio routine, discuss your plans with a healthcare provider or physical therapist. They can assess your condition, fitness level, and goals and help you determine what is right for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is cardio more important than resistance training?

    Cardio and strength training are both incredibly important parts of a whole-health fitness routine, so it's difficult to say that one is more important than the other because their benefits accrue in different manners. That said, because heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and because cardiovascular exercise is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of many chronic health ailments, it could be argued that cardio plays a more significant role in overall health than strength training.

    However, because both cardio and strength training are included in the national guidelines for exercise, and because it's possible to perform strength exercises in a way that also targets the cardiovascular system (through HIIT and circuit training), there's really no reason why one should be promoted more than the other.

  • How important is it to get your heart rate up with cardio?

    Heart rate plays an important role in cardiovascular exercise. Because the heart is a muscle, when you perform exercise that helps increase your heart rate, you're essentially helping your heart (and the entire cardiovascular system) grow stronger. Failing to exercise at an intensity that sufficiently increases your heart rate won't lead to the physiological adaptations that help improve heart health. As such, when you perform cardio, you should be working at a moderate- to vigorous intensity level.

  • How long do you have to workout for cardio to be effective?

    Here's the thing about cardio—a little is good, and more is generally better. In other words, there's a good return on investment when it comes to making time for cardio. If you invest a little time into the activity, you're going to get a return, but it might be relatively small. If you invest more time, you'll experience a greater return. There is an upper limit (excessive exercise can lead to negative health outcomes), but generally speaking, the more time you can allot for cardiovascular fitness, the better off you'll be.

    That said, "more is better" isn't a cut-and-dry answer. So if you're looking for a goal to shoot for, aim to accumulate the recommended guidelines of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise per week. That breaks down to roughly 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. But to be clear, the 30 minutes of cardio per day does not have to be done in a single stint. Rather, you can accumulate cardio throughout the day to reach your goal.

    Also, if your schedule is busy and getting in 30 minutes a day just isn't feasible, don't let that stop you from doing what you can. Even adding 5 minutes of cardio to your daily routine is better than sitting on the couch for those 5 minutes. Short bouts like that even carry health benefits.

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By Laura Williams
Laura Williams is a fitness expert and advocate with certifications from the American Council on Exercise and the American College of Sports Medicine.