Weight training may be getting a lot of love these days but, for a healthy heart and cardiovascular system, cardiovascular exercise isn’t optional. The good news is that there are so many ways to include cardio in your fitness routine. Read on to find out more about the benefits of cardio and how to get started with your new favorite heart-pumping exercise.
The Benefits of Cardio Workouts
The basic point of cardiovascular exercise is to keep your ticker in good shape (so, yes, even naturally thin people should engage in regular cardio!) but the side effects are just as important to your health. “There are so many know benefits of cardiovascular exercises,” says Traci Bartee, owner of Fly Fitness in Kirkland, WA, “one that a lot of people don’t know about is that it is scientifically proven to help relieve depression and anxiety. It’s a natural anti-depressant!”
In addition to boosting your mood, cardio will boost your health in so many other ways. Diana Haggerty, owner of FemmePower Fitness in Austin, TX, shares a few of these ways:
- An increase in red blood cell count for more efficient oxygen delivery
- Strengthened muscles that aid in breathing leading to better lung function
- Reduced stress
- Improvement in overall well-being
Weight Loss and Fat Burning Potential
Weight and fat loss is the bread and butter of cardiovascular exercise since it “requires fat as the fuel source” says Haggerty, “So if body fat loss is your goal, cardio has to be on the menu.”
Bartee says that if weight or fat loss is your goal, “performing HIIT Training (alternating bursts of intense activity with intervals of lighter activity) is the way to go” because she says “This type of training burns more calories than continuous cardio does.”
Toning and Muscle Building Potential
Cardiovascular exercise does build strength in the muscles utilized for your exercise of choice (think, legs and core for running and full-body for swimming, for example) but you’ll need to include strength training for actual muscle building. As far as toning, you need a combination of strength training and cardiovascular exercise to reveal muscle tone so cardio plays more of a role than most people think.
To focus on that fat burn and avoid burning as much muscle, Bartee again recommends HIIT and Haggerty says “Cardio and strength training don’t have to be mutually exclusive.” She says if you’re just getting started with cardio (or trying to increase your cardio time), one easy way is to sneak in cardio bursts during weight training. She admits that there are training methods that work faster than others but “if you’re just starting out, any amount of activity is going to improve your all around fitness level.”
Instructional Videos and Training at Home
If you have a little space at home, you can certainly pop in a DVD or check out one of many online videos that offer cardio workouts. Most of these will include either aerobics, dance and/or a lot of jumping so turn on a fan and wear shoes. If you have a ‘shoes off’ policy indoors, buy a pair of supportive cross-trainers for indoor use only.
Cardio Machine Options
Beginners are likely to picture cardio in one of two ways: by wearing their body down, running mile after mile or by logging endless boring minutes on a machine at the gym. Luckily, these aren’t really the only two options and exercise machines aren’t just there to bore you. Best of all, they’re available year-round when most parts of the country and world might not permit comfortable and safe outdoor workouts and you’re not tied to a group fitness schedules to get in some exercise. Give everything a chance and Bartee and Haggerty both recommend splitting up your time, among several machines to keep your heart rate high and your boredom level low.
One of the biggest barriers to outdoor exercise is a hatred for running. So many people think that if they dislike running, their stuck on a machine at the gym. While there’s nothing wrong with utilizing the elliptical, treadmill, rowing machine or step mill, you can still enjoy the fresh air without even jogging a step.
“If you’re looking to get outside, power walking is awesome,” says Bartee, “Don’t shy away from the hills! Pick a long hill, power walk to the top, and rest before you go back down and climb again!”
If you do love running, go for it! Haggerty says a lot of people choose running for the ease of it and like how they don’t need any special equipment or a membership. Also, if you want to love running, go for it! “Easing into it, taking breaks, and following an endurance protocol that gets you from walking to running gradually are all ways to help ease the discomfort some can feel when starting a run program,” she says, “I would suggest analyzing why you hate it. And if running itself is really the problem, finding an acceptable alternative.” When it comes to cardio, she says, “Doing it is mandatory. Doing it any one particular way is not.”
Group Fitness Class Options
Several classes include cardiovascular work and this can certainly replace your time on a machine or huffing and puffing outside, if you prefer. In fact, some people get all of their cardio in classes. “I stepped on an elliptical machine in college, and promptly stepped off. I thought it was horrible!” Says Haggerty, “It wasn’t until about 6 years later that I went to my first step aerobics class that I fell in love with cardiovascular exercise. I have been engaging in daily cardio ever since, including my most favorite, Brazilian Samba.”
If you are looking for steady-state cardio-only classes, look into dance, kickboxing, step aerobics and cycling and for more HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) style workouts, check out circuit training, CrossFit and, again, cycling since most classes will include both intervals and more steady cardiovascular work.
Bring water and dress comfortably for any of these classes and don’t be afraid to be a beginner if it’s something new! Instructors should always be available for a few minutes before and after class and, over time, you’ll get the hang of any class style – yes, even choreographed classes!
- Mix it Up: “Instead of using the same machine at the gym for your whole workout, do 10 minutes on the treadmill, 10 minutes of the elliptical and 10 minutes of the bike,” says Bartee, “Or better yet, do 5-10 minutes on a machine get off to do a set or two of strength exercises and then jump back onto the machine for 5-10 minutes. Since you’re only doing short periods of cardio, you can push yourself at bit more.”
- Don’t Give Up: “Start slow, and don’t stop,” says Haggerty, “Whether you’re new to exercise or have been sticking to resistance training for a while, it can seem to only take a little activity to get you winded. Cardiovascular endurance improves with time, and practice makes progress. Be patient with yourself and focus on your own journey.”
- Let the Music Move You: Even the most exciting working can be boring and lack motivation if you’re in complete silence or slave to the overhead gym music. Bartee says one of the most important things you can do as a beginner is to prepare playlists. Gather your favorites, especially upbeat songs that motivate you to push through a hard workout. If you’re not a music lover? Haggerty suggests listening to podcasts or audiobooks.
- Walk, don’t Run: Not sure where to start? Just simply walk says Haggerty. “If you’re brand new or just returning to movement, are overweight, or are recovering from injury, this is the best place to start,” she says, “We’re designed to do it, and while it’s not the most productive in regard to calorie burn, it will help to build the foundations to increase endurance and avoid injury.”
- Get a Fitness Tracker: Again, you can simply start with walking but if you’re goal-oriented, Bartee recommends getting a FitBit or another fitness tracking band or device and setting incremental step goals to keep motivating yourself to go for more.
- Do What you Like: Remember that you have options and you’re more likely to stick with something you enjoy. “Anything that gets your heart pumping and requires coordination of breath and movement will do the job, so try an array of things,” says Haggerty, “Pick your favorites, and don’t worry about the rest. Taking the time to find the thing that’s going to fit into your lifestyle (and may even be fun) is absolutely worth it.”
Clothes and Proper Attire
No matter what machine, class or workout becomes your favorite way to work your heart, your skin will appreciate some athletic apparel with wicking fabric. If you get into cycling, make sure you have a pair of leggings or shorts so your pant legs don’t get stuck in the bike chain and pedals and if you workout outdoors, dress in layers. As you discover your favorite forms of cardio, you’ll also be able to determine what gear is worth the investment to improve your experience and/or performance.