Cardio 101 - Everything You Need to Know About Cardio

Cardio Basics

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The word 'cardio' is probably one of the first words you hear when you embark on an exercise program.  As in, you have to do a whole bunch of it.  And that's kind of true.  If you want to lose weight, you may have to do up to 300 minutes of cardio a week and that doesn't even include strength training.

So, you know you need cardio, but the real question is why you need cardio?  Getting a deeper understanding of cardio exercise may be what you need to get motivated to do it a little more often.

Why Cardio is So Good For You

Before we talk about how much cardio you should do, you should at least know what it is and why it's so good for you.

For the record, cardio exercise simply means that you're doing a rhythmic activity that raises your heart rate into your Target Heart Rate Zone, the zone where you'll burn fat and calories.

The Benefits of Cardio

  • It helps you burn fat and calories for weight loss
  • It makes your heart strong so that it doesn't have to work as hard to pump blood
  • It increases your lung capacity
  • It helps reduce risk of heart attack, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes
  • It makes you feel good
  • It helps you sleep better
  • It helps reduce stress
  • It improves your sex life

I could go on and usually I do, but I think you get the point.  Even just a few minutes of cardio can have health benefits - I'm not kidding!  A 5 minute walk outside can boost your mood and help lower blood pressure, so even a little goes a long way.

You know you need cardio, so let's get to the nitty gritty with our next section, which is all about how you choose your cardio exercise.

Your first step is to what kind of activities you'd like to do. The trick is to think about what's accessible to you, what fits your personality and what you'd feel comfortable fitting into your life. If you like to go outdoors, running, cycling, or walking are all good choices.

If you prefer going to the gym, you have access to many more options in the form of machines like  stationary bikes, elliptical trainers, treadmills, rowing machines, stairmasters and more.

For Home Exercisers

For the home exerciser, you can, of course, buy your own treadmill or elliptical trainer, but there are other great options like:

  • Exercise Videos
  • Online Exercises and Workouts
  • Fitness Apps
  • A variety of Home Cardio Exercises you can do like jumping rope, jumping jacks, jogging in place, burpees and more.

Getting Started

You have so many choices but, the trouble is, you may not even know what you like yet.  You may have to try several different activities before you find one that works for you.  This is the experiment we all have to take part in and it can be hit or miss so don't be afraid to try something and, if it doesn't work, move on to something else. Just about any activity will work, as long as it involves a movement that gets your heart rate into your Target Heart Rate Zone.

Some Important Tips for Choosing Your Cardio

  • There is no 'best' cardio exercise. Just because your friend says running is the BEST doesn't mean you have to do it, especially if running makes you feel like your entire body is falling apart.  Anything that gets your heart rate up fits the bill
  • It's not what you do, but how hard you work. Any exercise can be challenging if you make it that way
  • Do something you enjoy or at least something you can tolerate. If you hate gym workouts, don't force yourself onto a treadmill. If you like socializing, consider sports, group fitness, working out with a friend or a walking club.
  • Choose something you can see yourself doing at least 3 days a week.
  • Be flexible and don't be afraid to branch out once you get comfortable with exercise

After you choose what to do, the most important element of your workout will now be how long you do it. You should work on duration before you work on anything else--it takes time to build up the endurance for continuous exercise.

You know you probably need anywhere from 20-60 minutes of cardio to lose weight and get fit, depending on the types of workouts you do, but you don't want to start with an hour of exercise - That's just too much for anyone if you haven't exercised for awhile...or ever.

How to Start if You're a Beginner

Start with an accessible exercise, like walking or a treadmill, and start with about 10-20 minutes of brisk walking at a moderate intensity.  That means you're just out of your comfort zone, at around a Level 5 or 6 on this Perceived Exertion Scale.

Beginner Workout Options

Important Tips for How Long You Should Workout

  • You don't have to do it all at once.  You can absolutely split your workouts into smaller workouts throughout the day.  Try three 10-minute walks as a good start.
  • Add small bursts of cardio throughout the day by climbing stairs or speed walking.
  • Do all those things you know you should be doing: take the stairs, walk more, stop driving around looking for that front row parking space, etc.
  • Make the time. People who workout don't have more time than people who don't. They've just practiced making exercise a priority. Scheduling your workouts and treating them like any other appointment you wouldn't miss may help you stick to your program.
  • Pay someone to make you exercise. Finding a good personal trainer can make a difference when it comes to motivation and reaching your goals.
  • Do something...anything. If you think 5 minutes isn't enough time to workout, you couldn't be more wrong. Whether it's 5 minutes, 10 minutes or 60 minutes, every single minute counts.
  • Consider your intensity.  The harder you work, the shorter your workouts should be.  So, if you're doing Tabata Training or some other kind of High Intensity Interval Training, your workout may only be 10-20 minutes long.  If you're doing a slower, steady state workout, you can workout longer, maybe 30-60 minutes.

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

When I hear the question, "How often should I do cardio?" I frequently pretend sudden deafness.  The reason is that the answer is probably something like, "More than you think you should and, for sure, more than you really want to or have the time for."

Now that answer can vary depending on your goals.  If you want to be healthy and aren't worried about losing weight, getting in 20-30 minutes of moderate activity every day can do you some good.

  But, for weight loss, it's a whole other story.

And it's just just about frequency - It's about intensity as well.  If you only do moderate workouts, you can probably workout every day.  But, if you do high intensity interval training, you may need more rest days thrown in there.  And, honestly, it's better to have a mixture of the two so that you're working different energy systems and giving your body something different to do so you don't burn out.

The Basic Guidelines

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

  • For health, try moderately intense cardio 30 minutes a day, five days a week, or vigorously intense cardio 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week - You can also do a mixture
  • To maintain weight and/or avoid regaining weight - You need about 150-250 minutes (20-35 minutes daily) or try burning 1200 to 2000 kcal a week
  • For weight loss, things clime to 200-300 minutes each week of a mix of moderate and high intensity exercise

    The Reality

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

    10 Minute Timesaver Workout Ideas

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

    Once you've gotten used to exercise (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:

    • How hard you work is directly related to how many calories you burn
    • Raising intensity is the best way to burn more calories when you're short on time.
    • It's an easy part of your workout to change--all you do is work harder
    • It's easy to monitor with a heart rate monitor or perceived exertion scale

    So how hard should you work?

    That depends on several factors including your fitness level and your 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:

    • Low Intensity Cardio: This type of exercise is considered to be below about 50-55% of your MHR, or about a level 3 to 5 on this 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.

    Learn more about how to monitor your intensity and how much exercise you really need.

    Keep in mind that your target heart rate calculation isn't 100% accurate so you might want to use a combination of perceived exertion and your heart rate to find a range that works for you.

    Need more guidance?  Try this Cardio Workout Program or sign up for my 4 Week Jumpstart Workout Program.

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