Why You Need Cardio Exercise

It's Not Just for Weight Loss Anymore

Woman on rowing machine
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Each week I get questions about cardio--how often we should do it, how hard we should work and why we need it in the first place. Many of us are confused about what to do because there are conflicting opinons about how much cardio we really need. The guidelines published by the American College of Sports Medicine suggest 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise 5 days a week, or vigorous cardio 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week.

For weight loss, you might need even more (up to 60-90 minutes) depending on your diet and other activities. It's tough keeping all these rules straight and, the good news is that you don't have to. Sometimes it's best to forget the rules and get back to basics: Cardio isn't just for weight loss.

Our Bodies Are Made to Move

If you have a sedentary job, think about how your body feels at the end of the day. Do you have tight muscles, an aching back, feel exhausted even though you haven't done anything physical? Maybe your shoulders burn from tension and your head hurts from staring at a computer screen for too long. Now, think about how your body feels after a workout. Your muscles are warm and flexible, the blood is pumping through your body, providing oxygen and energy. You feel energized, confident, proud of yourself and ready to take on the world. It's much different, isn't it? Our bodies are made to move--not sit around all day and yet, that's exactly what we're doing.

Next, take a moment to remember all the benefits of cardio exercise:

  • Weight loss
  • Stronger heart and lungs
  • Increased bone density
  • Reduced stress
  • Reduced risk of heart disease and some types of cancer
  • Temporary relief from depression and anxiety
  • More confidence about how you feel and how you look
  • Better sleep
  • More energy
  • Setting a good example for your kids to stay active as they get older

Notice that weight loss, while a big focus for many people, is only one benefit of cardio. Despite that, weight loss is often our only goal and not just for health, but to look good. While there's nothing wrong with wanting to look good, having that as our only goal can make exercise harder. Why? Because losing weight takes time...what happens if you don't see results on your timetable? Where will your motivation go if the scale doesn't cooperate? Open your mind to other reasons to exercise--you might just find new ways to make exercising easier.

Cardio for Better Quality of Life

Appearance is important. That's why I take a shower every day, make sure my clothes match and check that I don't have anything green stuck in my teeth. But I worry that we've gotten so obsessed with how we look that we no longer care about how we feel. If you look at the benefits listed above, all of them translate into feeling good now and in the future.

Despite that, we still seem more entranced with getting six-pack abs than feeling good, both physically and mentally.

Have we forgotten that being active can make our lives better? Moving around increases blood flow to our muscles, strengthens the heart and lungs and teaches the heart to work more efficiently. Not only that, when you exercise you set a good example for your kids to do the same, which could mean a better future for them.

If all this is true, why isn't that enough to get us moving? Why do so many of us struggle with being active? Part of it might be how we think about ourselves, our bodies and exercise. Read on to learn how to Change the Way You Think.

We all get emotionally attached to certain ideas. A few years ago I would've laughed at the idea of enjoying my workouts. Every workout I did had to be as hard as possible for as long as possible. But over the years I've learned that exercise can actually feel good--no, not lounging-on-the-beach-sipping-margaritas good, but the kind where I feel strong, confident and able to tackle anything. So, if you're only focused on weight loss, how can you change that?

How can you start looking forward to exercise?

  • Keep It simple. If you're confused about what to do, start with the basics--you need at least 20 minutes for the body to get going, so start there. Get out your calendar, find 20 minutes of time on 3 different days and do something--walking, running, going to the gym, vigorous yard work--whatever you want. Make it a habit first and work on your time and intensity later.
  • Be Patient. Part of allowing yourself time to make exercise a habit is being patient...you can't start where you want to be (which may be exercising 5 or 6 days a week), you have to start where you are and that means weight loss may be slow in coming as you get your mind and body conditioned for exercise. Make your weight loss goal long-term, then focus on the daily steps you need to take to get there.
  • Focus on Your Body. If you exercise regularly, when was the last time you left your walkman at home and spent some time focusing on how your body feels? While music is a great motivator, why not set a goal to do one workout a week with no distractions? Leave your heart rate monitor, magazines and walkman at home. Forget about calories, intensity and the rest of it and focus on how your body feels. Try different activities. Go slower or faster and see how your body responds. Take some time to learn about your body and you'll be able to create workouts based on your own rules instead of someone else's.
  • Stop and Smell the Roses. If you never exercise outside, I challenge you to do so. Go out and walk, run or ride your bike. Leave your watch at home and take some time to look around, notice the scenery. If you see an interesting road...take it. Breathe deeply. Sometimes just being outside is a reminder of how wonderful it is to have a healthy, functioning body.
  • Mix It Up. The nice thing about cardio exercise is that you can choose any activity that raises your heart rate. You don't have to do the same workout every session, nor every week. If you've been doing the same workouts, aren't you bored? Changing up your cardio is easy, so do it often and you'll discover more activities you enjoy.
  • Appreciate Your Body. Unfortunately, I didn't learn to appreciate my body until I got an injury. When I was forced to stop exercising, I suddenly missed it. Try to learn to appreciate your body now, while it's in good working order. Just taking a few moments during your workouts to imagine what it would be like if you couldn't do what you wanted can help remind you how amazing your body is--no matter how it looks.

It takes time to change how you think about things. Part of making exercise part of your life might involve opening your mind to different possibilities. Just for a moment, imagine what it would be like to exercise because it feels good--not just because it helps you look good.

Imagine how much more motivating it would be to exercise because you want to, not just because you have to. It really is possible to make exercise an enjoyable part of your life--you just have to work at it!

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