How to Set up a Cardio Program

Getting Started

Womens feet running on treadmill at gym

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If you're starting an exercise program, one of the first things you'll want to do is set up your cardio workouts. You need cardio, not just for losing weight, but for improving your overall quality of life. It makes you healthy, boosts your mood and gives you more energy.

The main points to keep in mind:

  • Make Sure You Like What You're Doing: Any exercise is going to feel hard when you get started, so make sure you choose something you're comfortable with. You don't have to love it right now, but you do want something accessible and something you feel confident you can master.
  • Focus on Creating an Exercise Habit: It's less important what you do, how long you do it or how hard you work. What's most important is showing up for your scheduled workouts.

Most people have more success with exercise when they stop focusing on weight loss and focus more on how to start exercising and stay committed to it.

Setting up Your Program

  1. Choose a Cardio Activity: As I mentioned above, make sure it's something you actually like or, if like is too strong of a word, at least feel comfortable doing. This can be anything that involves some kind of continuous, rhythmic movement that gets your heart rate up.
    1. Home cardio exercises and workouts
    2. Walking
    3. Running
    4. Cycling
    5. Home workout videos or online fitness videos
    6. Cardio machines such as a treadmill, stationary bike, rowing machine or elliptical trainer
    7. Exergames
    8. Sports: basketball, handball, tennis, etc.
    9. Hate cardio? Anything that gets you moving can count: Walking around your house, dancing in your basement, strolling the mall, etc.
  2. Choose the Days You'll Exercise: General guidelines suggest moderate cardio for 30-60 minutes most days of the week, but start with a) What you actually have time for and b) What you can actually handle. If you're not sure, start with a basic program that's 3-4 days a week.
  3. Figure out How Much Time You'll Exercise: Again, this is based on how much time you actually have (not how much time you think you should have) and what you can handle. One reason we fail to stick to exercise is that we don't work with our schedules as they actually are. If you really only have 10 minutes a day, then that's what you use for your workouts.
  4. Schedule Your Workouts: Put them in your calendar just as you would any appointment. Treat it like something you would never miss - A doctor's appointment, a massage, etc.
  5. Prepare Beforehand: Your workout time doesn't start with the actual workout, but well beforehand. You should have everything you need - Clothes, shoes, water, snack, heart rate monitor, MP3 player, etc. ready and waiting before your workout. If it's not, you'll have one more reason to skip your workout.
  6. Learn How to Monitor Your Intensity: Strive to work at a moderate intensity, in the low-middle end of your target heart rate zone. Don't worry too much about working hard during the first few weeks, but do try to work at a level that feels like actual exercise.
  7. Start Where You Are: If you can't do 30 minutes, do 5 or 10 or whatever you can do and progress by adding a few minutes to each workout until you can go continuously for 30 minutes.
  8. Check in With Yourself Each Week: Make notes of any difficulties you're having and deal with them right away. If you're finding it hard to fit in workouts, think of ways to do short bouts of exercise throughout the day.

Overtraining is a common problem with new exercisers. We want so badly to do the amount of exercise we need to lose weight that we forget our bodies aren't always ready for that amount.

Pay attention to these warning signs of overdoing it:

  • You wake up in the morning, look at your running shoes and break out in hives at the thought of exercising
  • Everything hurts. You want to stay in bed and die
  • Your resting heart rate is higher than usual
  • Your workouts stink
  • You feel tired all the time
  • You can't keep up with your usual routine
  • You can't sleep
  • Everything suddenly seems to suck

What to Do If You're Overtraining

  • Back off of your workouts. At the very least, cut down on the time and/or intensity or give yourself a few days off completely.
  • Ease back into it, but keep things a little lighter than before. Pay attention to how your body feels before, during and after your workouts. If you feel drained for the rest of the day, that may be a sign you need to lighten up on the intensity.
  • Try something different. Right about now, you'd probably enjoy something that feels good. Try yoga or just simple stretching as a way to relax, reduce the stress on your body and heal.
  • Realize that rest is just as important as recovery.
  • Make sure you're eating enough calories to sustain your workouts
  • Go easy on yourself. It takes time and practice to build endurance for cardio workouts. Listen to your body and pay attention to what it needs.
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