What Is Cardio Training?
“People tend to think of cardio in terms of steady state exercise, like jogging,” says Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S. and Openfit’s senior manager of fitness and nutrition content. “But really, cardio is anything that A) raises your heart and breathing rates, and B) improves the function of your heart, lungs, and circulatory system.”
To bring more clarity to this type of exercise, let’s tackle a few common cardio training misconceptions one at a time:
Myth: Cardio is any exercise that increases the heart rate
Not quite. Just about any physical activity you do can increase your heart rate, from lifting weights to strolling between your desk and the bathroom to rolling out of bed in the morning. For an activity to qualify as a cardio workout, it has to meet both criteria mentioned above. In short, it has to raise your heart and breathing rates, and challenge your cardiovascular system, just like a biceps exercise has to challenge your biceps and an abdominal exercise has to challenge your abs.
While leisurely activities like walking and easy bike riding have benefits of their own, and are cardiovascular in nature, they aren’t cardio exercises (unless you are very de-conditioned). That’s because they don’t challenge the heart and lungs enough to improve their function.
Myth: Cardio is the same thing as ‘aerobic exercise’
Aerobic exercise is one form of cardio training — but it’s not the only one.
Think of your body as a hybrid vehicle with two engines: one is aerobic — meaning it requires oxygen to run, while the other is anaerobic — meaning it doesn’t need oxygen. Both engines are always active, but depending on the duration and intensity of your workout, one will work harder than the other.
The aerobic system is best for long and relatively easy activities — the stuff you spend most of your day doing: working at a desk, eating, walking — and for lower-intensity forms of exercise, like jogging. You can emphasize the aerobic system with continuous low-intensity activity lasting 20 minutes or more.
The anaerobic engine is for fast and intense activities, like squatting a barbell or sprinting all-out for 30 seconds. It’s also emphasized during repeated bursts of intense activity, such as cardio workouts involving high intensity interval training (HIIT).
Mountains of research in the last two decades (including this study) show that both aerobic and anaerobic workouts can improve cardiovascular function — and so both approaches qualify as “cardio” exercise.
Myth: You have to track your heart rate to get a good cardio workout
Since cardiovascular exercise is directly related to how hard your heart is working, that must mean you need to know your heart rate with some fancy heart rate monitor, right?
Not exactly. While trainers have traditionally used the “age adjusted heart rate” formula (check it out here) to track intensity during cardio workouts, it’s been called into question in recent years: a 2010 study, for example, found that the age-based formula might not be accurate for many women. Other studies on different age populations have come to a similar conclusion.
Thankfully, there may be more accurate and practical way to monitor how hard your heart is working. Just use the talk test: if you find it difficult to speak, even in short sentences, then that likely means you’re in the right range for the activity to qualify as cardio exercise.
Myth: You have to run, bike, or swim, or else it’s not cardio training.
When it comes to cardio training, it’s not what you do — it’s how you do it.
“The umbrella of cardio encompasses much more than a long run,” Thieme says. “It also includes HIIT workouts, dancing, and some types of strength training (like circuit training). Even vigorous household activities count (like raking leaves, moving furniture, or carrying groceries up stairs) if you do them with enough commitment and intensity.” To determine if your chosen activity counts, just try out the talk test mentioned above.
Cardio Exercise Examples
Examples of Cardio Exercises
Sure, standard workouts like running, cycling, and stair climbing can be great cardio exercises, but so can kickboxing, shooting hoops, and shoveling snow. Your cardio training options are almost limitless. You just need to keep the intensity high enough to challenge your heart and lungs.
Cardio training can be a steady-state exercise that’s done at low to moderate intensity, like jogging or an easy bike ride. Cardio training can also be intervals of high intensity exercise, like HIIT, where you go all out for 20-120 second bursts, and then rest just long enough to allow you to perform the next round with equal intensity (like tabata).
Just keep in mind that whatever cardio activity you choose should involve large muscle groups in the legs and trunk, since smaller muscle groups like the biceps and calves don’t create an oxygen demand large enough to tax the cardiovascular system on their own.