By now, you probably know that cardio training is something you should be doing on the regular. FWIW, the American Heart Association recommends getting in at least 150 minutes a week of moderate cardio exercise (or 75 minutes of more vigorous cardio). But if you find yourself wondering: What is cardio, exactly? As in, which workouts will get your blood pumping enough to count toward your goals, you’ve come to the right place.
Here’s the short answer: Cardio—short for cardiorespiratory training—refers to any exercise that creates such an energy demand on your system that it elevates your heart rate and gets your blood pumping faster.
The result? “Cardio makes your body, specifically your heart, able to deliver more oxygen to your muscles,” says Austin Martin, an exercise physiologist. Your bod’s capacity to consume oxygen is called its VO2 Max, and cardio training can increase this number and your overall cardio fitness level.
Danielle Keita-Taguchi, a certified trainer, says that a good way to figure out your cardio fitness baseline is by comparing your resting heart rate to the average resting heart rate for adults, which is 60 to 100 beats per minute.
How to find your resting heart rate: First, find your pulse, then count how many times your heart beats in 15 second, and multiply that number by four, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The lower your resting heart rate, the higher your cardio fitness level is—FYI, athletes can have resting heart rates that dip into 40 bpm territory. Your resting heart rate depends on a lot of factors like your age, medical history, and physical activity level. “A nurse, who is running around a hospital for a 12 hour shift, is burning way more energy than someone who has a desk job,” Keita-Taguchi explains. “She likely needs less weekly cardio than the person who is mostly sedentary.”
To learn more about what qualifies as cardio and just how it helps your body stay healthy read on.
What are the benefits of cardio?
In terms of long-term benefits, Martin says that cardiovascular exercise reduces your overall risk of death and disease. “It makes you effectively younger,” he says. “Many people who have exercised [throughout] their lifetime will have a physiologic age way less than their actual age.” In fact, one study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that marathon training, which requires you to regularly run, can reduce four years’ worth of blood pressure and stiffness to your arteries.
It’s especially beneficial to people on a weight loss journey. “It’s a great way to supplement strength training to help reduce body fat,” says Keita-Taguchi. When you combine cardio training with strength training, you create an opportunity for your body to burn calories and an elevated rate even after you’re done exercising as your body works to recover and repair its muscles. This fitness phenomenon is formally known as EPOC.
Not only does cardio have physical benefits, but it can also have an effect on your mental health. There are studies linking cardio training specifically to a lower risk of depression. A study published in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal found that even modest levels of exercise can contribute to the improvement of symptoms in people with depression.
Aside from improving your mental health, cardiovascular training also has a positive effect on cognitive function, since it increases overall blood flow to the brain, says Keita-Taguchi. Aerobic exercise improves the brain’s ability to reason, plan, and problem solve, according to a study by Columbia University”s Irving Medical Center.
What are the best types of cardio exercises?
While cardio may instantly make you think of running, Keita-Taguchi says that really any exercise which stimulates an increased heart rate can really be considered cardio, though your workouts should fall in line with your goals.
If you’re looking for moderate cardio, stick to workouts that feel like a six or seven out of 10 in terms of effort, if 10 is your all out max. Anything that feels like an eight or above is considered vigorous exercise.
Swimming: This is perfect for people who don’t want to put too much pressure on their joints. “Swimming is great because it’s low-impact and builds great cardiorespiratory health. If you have knee issues or jumping is not for you, swimming can be a great alternative,” says Keita-TaGuchi.
Hiking: Not only does hiking promote physical activity, but spending time in nature is restorative for mental and emotional health, too. It actually quiets the part of the brain associated with overthinking, according to research published by PNAS.
Running: Steady-state jogging is arguably the form of exercises most people think of when it comes to cardio. If you’re looking for ways to become a runner, here’s where to start.
Bodyweight HIIT Exercises: Working