As your virtual personal fitness trainer, my two highest priorities are to help you strengthen your heart and achieve a healthy weight. Cardiovascular exercise accomplishes both. So, let’s have an important discussion about making “cardio” part of your life.
Your Cardiovascular Exercise Plan
Cardiovascular exercise is rhythmic, continuous activity that elevates your heart rate. Your heart is the most important muscle in your body, so this should be the foundation of your exercise routine.
As a result of doing regular cardio, your heart muscle gets stronger and more efficient. You’ll also burn lots of calories, so it helps you lose weight and maintain a healthy weight.
Cardiovascular fitness has many health benefits. Those who are physically active live longer, healthier lives. Research shows that moderate physical activity—such as 30 minutes a day of brisk walking—significantly contributes to longevity.
For your wellness and mental happiness, it’s important that you commit to doing daily cardio exercise. Your body will even release endorphins, natural painkillers that promote an increased sense of well-being.
Burning Fat with Cardiovascular Exercise
The fat you have on your body is simply stored energy. If you want to lose the fat, you have to use it as fuel by doing cardio, which elevates your heart rate and burns fat.
Generally, the most effective exercises for burning fat are those that involve moving and lifting your body. This gets your heart rate its highest and burns the maximum fat calories. For example, you expend more calories running than biking because you’re on your feet instead of seated.
Choose the Most Effective Exercises
Choose the cardiovascular exercises that are appropriate for your fitness level. If you’re just starting out, choose from the beginning-level exercises shown below. Start slowly for a few minutes a day and allow yourself some time to adapt before advancing. When your exercise begins to feel easy, you can move to the intermediate level.
Here are my favorite cardio exercises for each fitness level. Be sure to pick exercises you enjoy, because I want you to stay with the plan!
Beginner-Level Cardio Exercises
- Casual walking outside or on a treadmill with a flat, level surface
- Seated stationary bike indoors
- Seated rowing machine
- Elliptical machine
- Water aerobics
- Arm bike (like a bicycle but using your arms)
Intermediate-Level Cardio Exercises
- Walking on a treadmill with an incline
- Brisk walking outdoors with hills
- Biking outdoors with hills
- Active dancing to fast music
- Casual gardening (planting, weeding)
- Swimming laps
- Vertical climbing machine
- Step aerobics classes
- Dance-related classes (like zumba)
- Hiking outdoors
- Stair-climbing machine
Advanced-Level Cardio Exercises
- Jumping rope
- Racquetball or squash
- Rigorous gardening (digging, lifting, carrying)
- Active stair climbing or stadium steps
- Backpacking on rugged terrain
- Ultimate frisbee
- Kickboxing class
- Basketball (team play)
Find the Most Effective Intensity Level
The “Talk Test”
There are several ways to monitor the appropriate intensity level for cardio exercises. The easiest method—and the one I recommend—is the “talk test.” When you’re exercising at the right intensity level, it should feel slightly uncomfortable to talk. If you can recite the Declaration of Independence with ease, speed up your pace or choose a more advanced activity. Conversely, if you’re out of breath and can’t utter your name, slow down your pace or find an easier activity.
Monitoring Your Heart Rate
A more complicated method of monitoring your intensity level is to record your heart rate. If you’re just starting an exercise plan, aim for 55% of your maximum heart rate. For general fitness at an intermediate fitness level, aim to get your heart rate to between 70% and 80% of its maximum. If you’re extremely fit, you can go up to 90%.
So what’s your maximum heart rate? The simple formula is 220 minus your age equals your maximum heart rate.
To give an example, if you’re 50 years old, your maximum heart rate is 170 beats per minute (220 minus your age). And if you’re at an intermediate fitness level, you’re aiming for 70% to 80% of 170, which is 119 to 136 beats per minute.
The downside to using your heart rate to monitor your cardio intensity level is that it’s difficult to get an accurate reading while exercising, requires some math skills and a calculator, and may even be inaccurate because some medications affect your heart rate.
For these reasons, I recommend the “talk test.”
While doing cardiovascular exercises, if you feel any of these symptoms, stop and contact your doctor:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Pale or clammy skin
- Severe fatigue
How Much Cardio Should You Do?
The Centers for Disease Control recommends this amount of cardio:
- Adults should get 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity on most days of the week.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends this amount of cardio:
- For beginners, start with 3 sessions of cardio per week, 20 minutes each session.
- As you advance, you should do 5 sessions per week, 60 minutes each session.
Note: I recommend that you consult with your doctor before beginning this or any exercise plan. Prior to beginning any exercise program, including the activities described in this article, individuals should seek medical evaluation and clearance to engage in activity. Not all exercise programs are suitable for everyone, and some programs may result in injury. Activities should be carried out at a pace that is comfortable for the user. Users should discontinue participation in any exercise activity that causes pain or discomfort. In such event, medical consultation should be immediately obtained.