I’m sure you already know that cardiovascular exercise (also known as “cardio”) is good for you. There’s a reason why regular cardio workouts are recommended for most people, even those who are older or have long-standing health conditions. Besides helping you burn fat and control your body weight, cardio is one of the most effective ways to prevent (or manage) common chronic diseases and improve your overall fitness level.
As an exercise scientist, people often ask me about the best cardio workouts. It’s kind of a trick question, as “the best” cardio workouts really depend on the person. Regardless of the type of cardio you choose, there are some basic tactics that can improve the quality of your workouts. Whether you’re a recreational exerciser or an athlete, here’s how to get the most out of your cardio.
Choose Cardio Exercises You Enjoy
I always recommend choosing cardio exercises you enjoy, as you’ll stick with them. If you cringe at the idea of running, don’t run. While effective, running is not the cutagra of all cardio workouts. Truth be told, you’ll experience significant health benefits regardless of the type of cardio you choose. The choice really comes down to your personal health and fitness goals, preferences and lifestyle.
If you’re trying to lose weight, walking on a treadmill, treading on an elliptical trainer or stair climbing are all excellent for burning calories and shedding excess body fat. These machines also offer various settings, modes, and preprogrammed routines that’ll allow you to constantly switch up your workouts and maximize your results. But cardio machines aren’t your only option.
There are tons of cardio exercises that don’t require machines. Outdoor walking, biking, hiking, recreational sporting activities and group exercise classes are some of the many options you can choose.
Vary Your Intensity and Implement Progressions
No matter which cardio you choose, monitoring your intensity and implementing progressions during workouts is an excellent strategy for long-term weight management and continuous improvements in your health and fitness levels. Intensity itself can involve increasing your physical effort (how hard you work) and/or the length (duration) of your workouts.
In general, you can perform high-intensity exercises (running) for a short duration while exercises that are less intense (walking) are better performed for a longer duration.
Implementing progressions essentially means gradually amping up your workouts. The amount of work you perform should always exceed the normal demands you place on your body. For instance, if you’re trying to lose weight, 30 minutes of leisure walking (2.0-2.5 mph) outdoors won’t cut it because that’s the pace you likely walk in general. If your body is used to walking at this pace, you won’t burn a lot of calories there.
Now, if you walk at a more moderate pace (3.0-3.5 mph) or even at a 1-2% incline when using a treadmill, you’re adequately “progressing” and will, over time, burn the calories necessary for achieving your weight loss goals.
Exercise Often and Add Variety
Regardless of the intensity, time or type of cardio you should do it regularly and switch it up often. Infrequent bouts of cardio will do you more harm than good. Yes, really! Infrequent exercise is actually a leading cause of sudden heart attack, especially if it is intense. Whether you’re trying to lose weight, maintain a weight loss, or improve your heart health, it’s important to perform at least 3-4 cardio workouts each week.
And while it’s great to have a cardio exercise routine, it’s not good to have routiness in your cardio exercise. Engage in a variety of activities to reduce boredom. If you regularly walk on a treadmill, try some new activities like biking, rollerblading or swimming. You can also break away from ‘traditional’ exercise on occasion. Go for a 4-mile hike or play a game of tennis. Such activities are equally as effective as structured exercise.
Adding variety will also increase your workout motivation and progress. Unbeknownst to many, muscles have memory cells that may become unresponsive if they’re not occasionally shocked with a change in routine.
Give Yourself Time to Recover
Recovery is the most important yet overlooked component of a good cardio routine. After a hard day of exercise, give yourself an easier training day or rest day to help permit adequate recovery. If you engage in a highly intense bout of running or cycling on Monday, follow that up with a low-to-moderate-intensity elliptical workout or weight training session on Tuesday.
If you choose to have a full rest day instead, opt for ‘active’ rest as opposed to simply doing nothing at all. You can rest actively by going for a leisure bike ride, performing some housework or even going out dancing. Your options are endless!
There’s no denying that cardio is an absolute must for weight management, fitness and overall good health. These strategies will most certainly help you improve your cardio workouts for maximum effectiveness. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the importance of regular strength training and sensible eating as well. Check out our recipes to get a jumpstart on your nutrition.