Now, we'll get our bodies moving faster with cardiovascular exercise.
For many people, the idea of cardiovascular exercise, otherwise known as "cardio" or aerobic activity, brings to mind sweat-drenched people in a group fitness class or running on treadmills. While those visions are accurate examples, cardio actually encompasses a lot more exercise options, which we'll cover below.
First, let's gain a basic understanding of what cardio is and why it's important as part of a well-rounded workout routine.
Cardio is generally considered any exercise that does all of the following:
• employs large muscle groups, like your legs, in compound (multi-joint) movements
• increases demand on respiratory system, increasing breathing rate
• raises and sustains heightened heart rate throughout exercise
Why is cardio important?
Just like the commonly conjured images mentioned above, there tends to be an automatic assumption that cardio is strictly a "weight-loss" exercise. Although cardio is definitely a calorie burner, unlike strength training, it doesn't have the same lasting metabolic impact.
Cardio only burns calories during the exercise and for a short time afterward, as opposed to strength training's ability to build muscle that increases the body's overall energy needs over the long term. That's why it's important to include both cardio and strength training in your workout program — especially if weight loss is a goal.
Now that we've busted the misconception that cardio is exclusively for weight loss, let's look at some of its other amazing benefits to your overall health.
Cardio has the ability to improve lung capacity, increase oxygenation, decrease blood pressure and lower resting heart rate, helping your lungs and heart work more efficiently. Subsequently, regular aerobic exercise not only increases your overall endurance to make you feel more energized and less tired throughout the day, but also decreases your risk of many respiratory, cardiovascular and heart-related health issues.
Additionally, studies have shown a correlation between better sleep quality
with regular cardiovascular exercise. And, as we referenced in Part I
, exercising — including cardio — boosts your mood through the release of feel-good hormones and endorphins.
Adding cardio to your workout
To realize all the benefits of regular cardio, you need to engage in 30 or more minutes of aerobic exercise at least three times per week. Again, this should be in conjunction with weight training. I recommend alternating to avoid burning yourself out.
If you're a beginner, start slowly. Initially, you might only be able to do five or 10 minutes at a time. Gradually add five minutes to each session. When I first started using a rower, it took me at least a month of shorter sessions to build up to 30 minutes.
Because cardio makes you sweat, it's important to stay hydrated. You might want to consider an enriched drink to help replace the electrolytes and salt you lose when sweating. I'm not a proponent of sugary sports drinks with artificial colors and flavors; instead, consider one of the many electrolyte-enriched water brands available as healthier alternatives.
Important note: As with any new exercise program, consult with a physician before starting. Cardiovascular exercise should quicken your breathing and heart rates to a challenging but manageable level. Stop whenever necessary to grab a drink, towel off and catch your breath. If you experience any pain or cautionary symptoms, stop immediately and seek medical attention.
Choosing cardio that works for you
With so many options, there's no reason to force yourself to do cardio you don't enjoy. Select an exercise modality or modalities that you like that fit into your lifestyle.
Remember the walking habit you started after reading Part I
in this series? By kicking up your pace a bit to ensure you break a sweat and increasing your walk to 30 minutes, you can easily count it as cardiovascular exercise. In fact, if fat loss is a goal, brisk walking is one of the most accessible and effective fat-burning exercises.