Cardio exercise can complement strength training for a well-rounded fitness routine. But how does it support our health? And what are the best cardio exercises? They’re questions worth asking before your next run or Peloton ride—and we’ve got the answers.
What Is Cardio?
Short for cardiovascular (or cardiorespiratory) activity, “cardio is any form of physical activity involving large muscle groups that require the heart and lungs to work harder to meet increased oxygen demands,” says Peter Ronai, clinical professor of exercise science at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, and fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).
Brisk walking, jogging, swimming, bicycling, elliptical training, rowing, and other physical activities that challenge your heart and lungs by mobilizing large groups of muscles—think circuit training or high intensity interval training—qualify.
How Much Cardio Do You Need Every Week?
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends adults get at least 150 minutes (hello Paceline Streak!) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (cardio) each week. Alternatively, you can opt to clock at least 75 minutes of vigorous activity—or even a combination of the two.
Regardless of which route you take, the Association notes that it’s preferable to spread that activity throughout the week. And to help you distinguish between intensity levels, the CDC recommends using the talk test: If you can talk but not sing while you’re on the move, that’s a moderate intensity. If there’s no way you can utter more than a few words without pausing to take a breath, you can consider your activity level vigorous. Read on to learn all about the benefits of cardio exercise.
6 Benefits of Cardio Exercise
1. It benefits your heart
One of the most common heart health tips you might encounter is doing cardio exercise. Frequent, consistent demands on the heart—like a daily 30-minute jog—make the heart muscles stronger and more efficient, Ronai explains. Regular cardio can also help lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, according to Cleveland Clinic.
2. It could help with stress management
Take note: There’s a link between exercise and stress. Pretty much any exercise can serve as a stress coping mechanism, and aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce stress hormones, The Minutes has reported. Just remember that since exercise is a physical stressor, you might want to opt for a low-intensity cardio workout if you’re already feeling overwhelmed.
3. It might boost your mood
Aerobic activity can increase the production of endorphins, or “feel-good neurotransmitters,” according to Mayo Clinic. (Think: runner’s high!) And per the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, research has shown that regular cardio exercise may stabilize mood and lessen tension.
4. It can benefit your sleep
Moderate aerobic exercise boosts the amount of slow wave sleep you get, according to Johns Hopkins—and that’s significant since slow wave sleep is crucial for waking up feeling refreshed (and may play a role in memory and immune function), per Sleep Foundation.
5. It may reduce inflammation
Chronic inflammation is associated with heart disease, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes, among other conditions. But take note: A meta-analysis published in 2019 found that aerobic exercise significantly reduced certain inflammatory markers in healthy middle-aged and older adults.
6. It can support weight management
Especially when combined with dietary changes, frequent and consistent cardio sessions increase the overall calories you burn to help with weight loss and management, says Ronai. In fact, in a study published in the medical journal Obesity, when 141 overweight and obese adults primarily walked and jogged on treadmills five days a week for 10 months without controlled calorie restrictions, researchers observed significant weight loss.
Remember: There’s an aerobic activity out there for everyone. Finding a cardiovascular exercise you enjoy is the first step to reaping all the health benefits—so get to it! And if you’re looking for cardio training exercises to do at home, look no further.