A Guide to Mastering the Cardio Workout

Do you run? Are you all about training for that next half marathon? Are you a swimmer? Or do you love the adrenaline of spin class as you climb your next virtual hill? Maybe you’re looking to lose those last 10 pounds, or want to prevent yourself from getting winded when walking up a flight of stairs.

Cardio workouts have long been a staple of exercise routines. What exactly is cardio exercise? Why should you up your cardio game? And how can you master the cardio workout? Keep reading to learn more. 

What Is a Cardio Workout?

a female runner bent down looking at her watch

Cardio workouts are all about increasing your heart rate. The human body is a well-oiled machine; it was designed to move. The heart, just like any other muscle in the body, needs exercise. But unlike quads and lats, you can’t just go to the gym and hit the “heart machine.”

Enter the cardio workout. The goal is to keep your heart rate at about 50% of its maximum. How? By engaging large muscles over a prolonged period of time. An increase in cardio exercise works your heart harder than average daily activities, much like how lifting heavy weights strengthens bicep muscles more effectively than carrying bags and umbrellas.

What exactly is your target heart rate for cardio workouts? According to the Mayo Clinic, your maximum heart rate is calculated by subtracting your age from 220. For example, a 30-year-old’s maximum heart rate would be:

220 – 30 = 190 beats per minute

Once you have your maximum heart rate, you can determine your target heart rate for cardio exercise as 50% to 85% of your maximum, as recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA). So, a 30-year-old would be targeting a heart rate of:

190 x 50% = 95

190 x 85% = 162

Target heart rate: between 95 and 162 beats per minute

If you’d rather avoid the calculations, use this helpful target heart rate table.

For what it’s worth, the AHA recommends the following targets for cardio exercise:

  • 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity (50% to 70% of your maximum heart rate)
  • 75 minutes per week of vigorous intensity (70% to 85% of your maximum heart rate)

If you’d rather rely on your senses to judge your heart rate targets, that can work too. Moderate cardio exercise quickens your breath and gets you sweating after about 10 minutes – you would be able to talk about your feelings in this state, but would have trouble singing them out. Vigorous exercise will have you breathing deeply and rapidly, sweating after just a few minutes, and unable to carry a conversation.

Health Benefits of Mastering the Cardio Workout

That all sounds like a lot of work. Why bother upping your cardio game?

In simple terms, you can’t afford not to. Cardio exercise could mean the difference between life and premature death. A bit morbid, sure. But science tells us that “sedentary behavior and physical inactivity are among the leading modifiable risk factors worldwide for cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality.” That modifiable qualifier means there’s something you can do to prevent this fatal outcome, and cardio exercise is just what the doctor ordered.

We’re preaching to the converted. But to remind ourselves why mastering the cardio workout is worth the effort, here’s a list of all the wonderful things you can achieve by breaking a sweat.

  • Weight loss: Whether you’re just starting on your weight loss journey or finishing up with the last few pounds, cardio workouts are part and parcel of a good weight loss program.
  • Cardiorespiratory fitness: This will net you a stronger heart and longer life.
  • Blood pressure and metabolism: As you strengthen your heart, it performs its job more efficiently, decreasing your blood pressure in the process. Increased insulin sensitivity means you can afford that post-workout treat or weekend cheat day.
  • Mental health: Aerobic exercise doesn’t just improve the body – it also improves the mind! Although it sounds rather cliche, studies have proven that cardio exercise can indeed be an effective antidepressant intervention.
  • Memory: No kidding! Jump on the treadmill to increase your free recall scores.

Best Exercises to Meet Your Cardio Goals

Trying to figure out which cardio exercise is best for you? That might be like trying to find out which car is best – your perfect car depends on your needs. Similarly, while the overarching goal of a cardio workout is to increase your heart rate for a prolonged period of time, your best workout depends on your objectives. Take a look at the list below to find out which workout best suits your goals.

Treadmill

What is it good for?

An oldie but a goodie, the treadmill is the definitive cardio workout. Treadmills are ubiquitous too, gracing public and home gyms the world over. And for good reason! Logging miles on the treadmill is a great way to burn calories. The give of the treadmill belt makes it a better option than hitting the pavement, reducing wear and tear on your joints.

How can you master it?

  • Start by warming up. Set the treadmill to a comfortable walking speed, increasing it to a light jog to get your limbs loose. Your body will thank you the next day.
  • Use a slight incline to better simulate real-world running (1% to 2% should do the trick). Then, feel free to mix it up throughout your run. A bit of incline followed by some flat stretches will help you develop both strength and stamina.
  • Keep your arms at a 90-degree angle. This will allow you to maintain proper posture: head up, shoulders level, back straight. It’s tempting to grab onto those handrails, but resist the urge! Pretend that you’re running outdoors. The handrails are there for safety, not to be your crutches.
  • Use the heart rate monitor to make sure you’re in that 50% to 85% max heart rate zone.
  • Sprinkle in some sprinting intervals. Sprinting can help you show off those gains you’ve been making. According to one physical trainer, “If your destination is Six Pack City, then go full-steam ahead with your sprints.”

Swimming

What is it good for?

The lowest of low-impact exercises, swimming is the best way to fit in a cardio workout without putting stress on your bones, joints, and muscles in the process. Water also provides resistance, meaning that you can combine cardio with strength training. Let’s not be superficial; it’s not all about getting that swimmer’s body. It also soothes the soul, with some studies suggesting that being near water makes us happier and more empathetic, and reduces stress.

How can you master it?

  • Try using full-body strokes like the butterfly and breaststroke to engage your core.
  • Change up your strokes so that you work all muscle groups.
  • Go for distance. Longer swims allow you to stay in that target 50% to 85% heart rate zone longer.
  • Have you heard of aqua jogging? It’s exactly what it sounds like. Finish up your swim by heading to a water depth just below your neck and run. Keep your back straight, arms bent at the elbow, and hands held into fists as you punch your way through the water.

Cycling

A group of people on exercise bikes

What is it good for?

Whether you do it solo or as part of a spin class, cycling can be a great option for adding some more cardio to your routine. Cyclical movements are easier on your joints than running, making it a rehab favorite. Many spin classes also incorporate resistance bands and weights, combining weight training and cardio.

How can you master it?

  • If your gym offers heated bike rooms, use ‘em! Warming things up can result in burning more than 1,000 calories per hour.
  • Increase your resistance by 10% to see a proportional increase in calories burned.
  • Don’t stop between songs. Keep those pedals moving to ensure your heart rate stays in the target zone.

Rowing

What is it good for?

If you’re looking to engage more muscle groups than other cardio exercises, this is just the ticket! Quads, hamstrings, abs, triceps, biceps – rowing is truly a full-body workout. And when it comes to burning calories, it’s no slouch. Rowers can burn as much as 800 calories per hour.

How can you master it?

  • Breaking up high-intensity activity with one-minute or 30-second breaks helps maximize calorie burn and time spent working out.
  • Check out this video to ensure that your form is on point.

Home Cardio? You Bet!

Don’t worry. You don’t need to hit the gym or buy expensive equipment to get some more cardio into your life.

Do you have a jump rope handy? It’s cheap, easy, and burns more calories than you can shake a stick at! Is there a staircase in your area? Start pumping those legs to get some cardio. Even vigorous household chores like mopping and vacuuming can get your heart rate up.

The “excuse ship” has sailed. You’ve got this!

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