Love it or hate it, cardiovascular activity ("cardio") is an important factor in maintaining or improving our overall health. So if you're taking steps to improve your health this year, incorporating some cardio sessions into your week is a must. Read on for my top 5 recommendations on how to pick the best cardio workout for you - without having to start running (unless you want to!).
So What's The Big Deal About Cardio?
The primary goal of cardio exercise is to increase the heart rate. This can be done through a sustained intensity for a certain period of time (also known as steady state cardio), or it can be done with varied intensities (also known as interval training). Regardless of which style you choose, consistent cardio activities lead to:
Increased cardiac output and increased blood volume (our heart beats more efficiently) (1)
Slower breathing rate (our lungs work more efficiently) (2)
More blood flow to our muscles, which leads to an increase in energy (3)
More efficient muscles (4)
Increased glucose uptake (our body handles sugar more efficiently) (5)
Decreased risk in developing heart disease and some cancers (6)
Decreased blood pressure and improved cholesterol levels (7)
Decreased risk in developing osteoporosis* (our bone density increases/rate of bone loss slows with impact based cardio exercises) (8)
Decreased depression and anxiety symptoms (9)
Since our main goal for cardio is to elevate the heart rate, literally any physical activity that does this can count as cardio. So choose your activity accordingly! Knees don't love jogging? Don't do it. Despise the stair climber at the gym? Honestly, same. Don't do it. Come up with some activities that you love (or at least tolerate), and start moving!
#1: Drop that "Go Hard or Go Home" Mentality.
If I asked you which option you thought was a better workout between walking or running, your first instinct might be running. But, the benefits of cardio are cumulative - we need to be consistent in our efforts in order to see those health improvements listed above (10). And so, while higher impact activities certainly count as cardio and might work well for you, there's a case to be made for choosing lower intensity options at least some of the time.
Performing a higher impact cardio exercise and experiencing pain, or overdoing the intensity, might result in having to stop a session early or having to take a few days (or longer) off to recover, and it would definitely decrease the enjoyment factor (leading to a higher likelihood of avoiding cardio in the future). Conversely, performing a lower impact variation might mean you could continue for the duration of your planned activity, would minimize that need for days to recover, and while I can't promise it would be any more entertaining, I am sure doing cardio while not *also* being in pain would be the preferred option.
#2: Choose Cardio Based On Goals and Stickability.
The style of cardio you choose really comes down to preference and training goals. If you're training for a cardio based event, such as a longer distance race, you'll want the majority of your cardio to mimic your event. But, if you're training to improve your health, choose any type of cardio you find enjoyable (or perhaps more realistically, tolerable) to set yourself up for success.
Steady State Cardio
Steady state cardio involves sustaining a moderate intensity effort of cardio activity for a longer period of time. Essentially, you'll start an activity that will elevate your heart rate (such as cycling), and then try to maintain that heart rate elevation for the duration of your workout. Often, the exercise that you would choose for steady state would involve cardio equipment (such as a treadmill, elliptical, or stationary bike), or it would be done outside (such as a run or a hike). Steady state cardio is a great way to incorporate a social visit with exercise, such as going for a brisk walk with a friend. This style of cardio increases slow twitch muscle fibers, which has been linked to cardiovascular health (11). Steady state cardio also tends to be less stressful physiologically (12), so if you've been feeling extra stressed lately, you may want to choose this option.
If you've googled "at home workouts" at all over the last two years, you've probably come across the concept of Interval Training, or HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training). Interval training is a great option for at home workouts, because you can do it with or without equipment, and in small spaces (without having to march or jog on the spot for an entire episode of whatever show you're watching on Netflix). With interval training, you alternate between high intensity exercise and low intensity/active rest periods. Most intervals vary from 20 seconds to a few minutes, depending on the intensity. For those that get bored easily (like myself), interval training may be the preferred option, because you only have to do something for a short period of time before you're on to the next interval. Interval training is a very efficient way to train, with studies showing similar health outcomes between HIIT and steady state, despite the HIIT participants only doing 20% of the workout duration (13). This makes it an excellent choice for people with busy schedules, and it's the one of the main reasons we do interval training here at Strong Soul. Lastly, and perhaps the biggest case for trying out some interval training, it has also been shown to be more effective than steady state cardio at reducing blood pressure, lowering cholesterol levels (decreasing overall levels, decreasing LDL, and increasing HDL), and improving left ventricular and overall heart function (14).
Studies show similar health outcomes between HIIT and steady state cardio workouts, despite the HIIT participants only doing 20% of the workout duration.
#3: Try Short Cardio "Snacks" Rather Than Long Cardio Sessions
Generally, most health experts agree that we should aim for 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity accumulated each week (15), but lets break down what that means.
Physical activity can be broken up into whatever feels most manageable to you. That might look like 25 to 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week, or 50 minute workouts three days of week, or anything in between. I recommend starting with a smaller amount of physical activity most days of the week, as the consistency can help build a habit. You can even break up your time throughout the day and do something active for 10 minutes at a time (16). The key is to figure out the routine that is going to maximize your chances of regularly meeting this goal.
"... Of Moderate to Vigorous Activity"
What qualifies as moderate to vigorous activity? Anything that fulfills the goal of elevating that heart rate! Walking, gardening, shoveling (ugh), dancing, playing outside, sports and recreation activities, a Strong Soul workout, it all counts. Aim to participate for at least 10 minutes of whatever you're doing.
#4: Choose the Right Intensity (For You).
When I first started regular exercise, it was recommended to get your heart rate up to a specific number based on the calculation of 220 - your age (17). The problem here is that this calculation doesn't take into consideration your current level of fitness or your resting heart rate, and it often drastically underestimates where your heart rate should be. There is a more accurate/complicated calculation you can do, but personally, I find rating your intensity on a scale of 1 to 10 to work just as well.
I recommend my clients aim to work between a 5 and 7 out of 10 for steady state cardio (remember, you are choosing an intensity and then trying to sustain that for the entire duration of your session). For HIIT training, the intensities depend on the duration of the intervals and your exercise selection. Generally, you'd aim for between 7 and 9 out of 10 for work intervals, and 2 to 4 for rest intervals.
#5: Cut Yourself Some Slack.
If completing the recommended amount of activity per week seems overwhelming, remember that you don't have to go from 0 to 50 (or should I say 150?) all in one go. You can slowly build up to 150 minutes over a few weeks. Since the health benefits of cardio are cumulative, remember that anything amount you do is going to be health promoting. Regardless of the exercise, your heart and lungs are just going to continue working to meet the demands of what you’re doing. And remember, the best cardio activity is the one you participate in. So pick something you love, and get that heart pumping!
Photo By Kate Warren Photography
(1-3,6,17) Andrews, R. All About Cardio. Precision Nutrition. www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-cardio
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(8) National Institutes of Health. (2018, October). Exercise For Your Bone Health.
(9) Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary care companion to
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(10,16) Myers, J. (2003). Exercise and Cardiovascular Health. Circulation, 107(1), e2-e5.
(11,12) McCall, P. (2015, July 30). Steady State vs. Interval Training: Which One is Best for Your Clients?
(15) Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology. (2020, October 15). Make Your Whole Day Matter. 24-Hour
Movement Guidelines. www.csepguidelines.ca