How to Do a Cardio Workout for Aerobic Fitness

Group of young people exercising on Pilates reformers

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Cardio is short for cardiovascular, which refers to the heart. Cardiovascular exercise is exercise that raises your heart rate and keeps it elevated for a period of time. Another name for it is aerobic exercise.

The kinds of exercise that are associated with cardiovascular workouts are things like jogging, fast walking, and swimming where there is no break in the routine. Exercises that emphasize stretch and strength, like Pilates, are generally not considered cardio exercise, though Pilates can be done in a cardio way, and can certainly be combined with cardio workouts to great effect.

The Benefits of Cardio Workouts

There is a hefty list of health benefits associated with doing cardio exercise. Here are some top reasons to include cardio in your workout routine:

  • It strengthens the heart
  • It strengthens the lungs and increases lung capacity
  • It boosts the metabolism, burns calories, and helps you lose weight
  • It helps reduce stress
  • It increases energy
  • It promotes restful sleep

Now that you are convinced of the benefits of cardio exercise, you might be wondering: "How high does my heart rate have to be and how long do I keep it there?" We will take a look at those questions and find out how to establish a target heart rate.

When you are doing cardio exercise, you should be able to talk. If you are too winded to speak comfortably, your heart rate is probably too high and you need to slow down.

How High Should My Heart Rate Be?

To get the most out of a cardio workout, you will first want to figure out what your maximum heart rate (beats per minute) is. To do that, subtract your age from 226 for women or 220 for men.

Now, you don't want to work out at your maximum heart rate. For moderate intensity exercise, you want to work out in your target heart rate zone, which the American Heart Association (AHA) suggests is 50% to 70% of the maximum heart rate for healthy people. You would calculate more toward 50% if you are just getting in shape and more toward 70% if you are in great shape. For vigorous exercise, the AHA suggests 70% to 85% of your maximum heart rate.

Sample HR Calculation

For a 40-year-old woman just getting started in cardio workouts:
226 - 40 (her age) = 186 maximum heart rate (beats per minute)
180 x .50 = 93 heartbeats per minute target heart rate

The number of beats you need in 10 seconds will be your target heart rate divided by 6. In our sample case, 93 divided by 6 is 15.5. She will want to count 15 beats in 10 seconds to be at her target heart rate. You can also find many target heart rate calculators online.

Count Your Heart Beats Per Minute

To figure out how many times your heart is beating in a minute, place two fingers at the back corner of your lower jaw and then slide down an inch or so until you feel your pulse through the carotid artery in your neck. Count the number of beats in 10 seconds and then multiply by 6 to get your beats per minute.

A heart rate monitor can be a very useful tool as you develop your cardio workouts. They save a lot of pulse counting and calculation time.

How Long Should I Keep My Heart Rate Up?

How long your cardio sessions should be will depend on your level of fitness and your goals. The American Heart Association, in conjunction with the American College of Sports Medicine, recommends a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity five days per week, or at least 20 minutes of vigorous activity 3 days per week. These are minimums, but you may still need to work up to these levels as you increase your aerobic fitness. The important thing is to begin a program.

Note that these are general guidelines for maximum and target heart rates for healthy adults. If you are overweight or have a health condition, consult with your healthcare professional before beginning a cardio program.

9 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.
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By Marguerite Ogle MS, RYT
Marguerite Ogle is a freelance writer and experienced natural wellness and life coach, who has been teaching Pilates for more than 35 years.