Editor’s Note: Join Dana Santas for a seven-part series to learn how to reboot your workout routine — and stick with it. Here’s Part IV.
So far in this series, we’ve set the foundation for establishing a sustainable exercise habit, mastered how to move properly and learned how to use free weights to increase strength and boost our metabolism.
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.
What is cardio?
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.
Brisk walking: 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.
Running: Everyone knows running burns calories, but there’s also a common perception that running causes muscle loss. That’s only partially true; it depends on how long, far and often you run. Running several times per week at a moderate pace and distance can actually increase muscle mass and bone density. Runners who average a total of 12 to 19 miles per week over several runs experienced muscle mass and bone density increases, according to the US Sports Academy. Unfortunately, runners who exceed that threshold can suffer bone and muscle deficits as well as blood cortisol (stress hormone) increases.
So, if you enjoy running, stay within the parameters outlined above to reap the health benefits!
Swimming: Swimming is one of the best total-body, non-impact cardio exercises available without a machine. When I say “total-body,” I mean every muscle fiber from your core through your limbs. And by “non-impact,” I mean no direct stress on your joints or bones. Even better, it also burns the same amount of calories as running without the diminishing returns! This is why it’s considered a preferred exercise for many rehabbing professional athletes as part of their return-to-play protocol.
If you have access to a pool and enjoy swimming, dive in, do some laps and practice treading water for half an hour or more.
Equipment-based: There are numerous equipment options for cardiovascular exercise. The ones that generally come to people’s minds first are the treadmill, elliptical and stair climber. Personally, I’m partial to the rower because of its total-body focus, incorporating a pulling movement.
As we covered in Part II, it’s important to incorporate fundamental movements into our workouts. Because there aren’t as many pulling exercises in weight training as there are pushing movements, I like having a cardio option that includes pulling, which strengthens my back and opens up my chest.
Just like the other forms of cardio, when you exercise with any of these machines, the goal is 30 minutes of moderate exercise a few times per week that causes you to break a sweat while quickening your breathing and heart rate.
Aerobic-based group fitness classes: Social distancing may have made in-person group fitness classes more difficult, but there are myriad options online. Kickboxing, belly dancing, jazzercise — anything that gets your heart pumping and skin glistening for half an hour will fulfill your cardio goal.
What about biking? Because biking — both indoor and outdoor — is such a popular form of exercise, I’m giving it special attention with its own article next week. Whether you’re a cycling enthusiast or wannabe cyclist, you’ll want to check that one out.
Don’t forget to warm up and cool down
Regardless of what form of cardio you choose, always take a few minutes to warm up your body — never jump into cardio cold! For ideas on how to effectively warm up by moving your body through all planes of motion in only a minute, check out my minute-long mobility flows.
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Likewise, after cardio, spend a few minutes stretching out areas that feel tight while focusing on long, deep breaths to bring your respiration and heart rate down. As you wind down, take a moment to recall how you first felt when you started easing your way back into a routine.
Haven’t you been feeling stronger and more energized lately? Your reboot is well underway.
Dana Santas, known as the “Mobility Maker,” is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach in professional sports, and is the author of the book “Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief.”