Cardio Workouts: The Benefits, Different Types, And How To Get Started

Four fitness experts make a case for cardio, explaining what defines a cardio workout, the benefits, and different types.

July 15, 2018
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We’ve probably all heard that cardio is good for you, and in turn envisioned long, torturous sessions on the treadmill (also known as the dreadmill).

In short, yes, cardio is good (read: really good) for you—and it’s so much more than just monotonous workouts on a single machine! That said, not all cardio is created equal. Some types are more effective at burning fat, some are great for building strength, and others can boost your overall fitness in a low-impact way.

These nuances are why it’s important to a) fully understand what defines cardio and b) consider your fitness goals when deciding which type of cardio is right for you. We asked four health and fitness experts to help break down the details for us. We’ll also share a cardio workout you can do at the gym and a cardio workout you can do at home—no equipment necessary.

What is a cardio workout?

In very general terms, a cardio workout is anything that challenges the heart and lungs, says Michael Jonesco, DO, assistant professor of internal and sports medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. In other words, any movement that brings your heart rate above baseline level and increases your body’s demand for oxygen qualifies as cardio.

Typically (but not always), cardio involves movement that is repetitive and ranges in intensity from mild to moderate to high. Walking can be cardio. So can jogging, dancing, jumping rope, and biking.

But cardio doesn’t always require gym clothes or machinery. “You can do cardio by walking up and down the stairs in your office or walking around the grocery store,” explains Jonesco.

Essentially, any physical activity—as long as it leaves you huffing and puffing (even slightly) and in need of more oxygen—is cardio.

What are the benefits of cardio workouts?

The health benefits of cardio are legit—and numerous—says Jonesco, including improved respiration and lung functioning, increased cardiovascular functioning (“the heart becomes more capable of pumping more blood with less squeeze,” Jonesco explains), improved circulation, increased total number of red blood cells (which boost the delivery of oxygen to the rest of your body), reduced risk of heart disease, reduced blood pressure, reduced risk of diabetes, weight loss and weight maintenance, muscle strengthening, and improved muscle recovery (i.e. how quickly your muscles recover after being stressed).

Still with us? Good—because that’s not all.

There are also serious mental health benefits, including improved cognitive functioning, improved mood, reduced stress, and reduced risk of depression, adds Jonesco.

On top of all that, doing cardio on the reg will improve your ability to move through daily life more easily and efficiently, says Sergio Rojas, an Iowa-based certified strength and conditioning specialist, functional movement specialist, and USANA associate. By building a stronger cardiovascular system, you won’t get tired doing everyday things like lifting heavy items or walking up the stairs, Rojas explains. Basically, more cardio equals an easier, more enjoyable day-to-day life.

What are the different types of cardio workouts?

There are many different types of cardio, Jonesco explains. You can break it down by the specific type of exercise—for example swimming, running, bodyweight exercises, and so on—but it’s probably more helpful to think of it in terms of intensity level. Low to moderate cardio is any type of movement that elevates your heart rate to between 50 to 75 percent of your max heart rate, and high intensity cardio is anything that brings you to 75 percent and above max heart rate. (Calculate your max heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. For example, a 40-year-old’s max heart rate would be 180.)

Another way to think about it (without busting out a heart rate monitor): Low to moderate intensity cardio involves anything that elevates your heart rate without leaving you completely breathless, says Stephanie Mansour, Chicago-based certified personal trainer and weight-loss coach. Activities like walking, light jogging, and moderate biking fall into this category.

High-intensity cardio, which involves more physically demanding bursts of movement, will leave you noticeably out of breath. The fitness method known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a popular form of high-intensity cardio (more on HIIT below).

Although lower intensity cardio burns fat less efficiently than higher intensity cardio, it does burn fat more directly, says Jonesco, which means you can see weight loss and maintenance benefits from lower intensity cardio. This type of workout also tends to be lower impact—that is, easier on your joints—which means you’re less likely to injure yourself.

“If you want to reduce stress, feel better, and lubricate your joints, do this type of cardio,” says Mansour.

On the other hand, high-intensity cardio workouts are “really good for weight loss” and changing your body composition, says Mansour. That’s because they burn more calories in a shorter amount of time and are more likely to increase your muscle mass, which boosts your resting metabolic rate (AKA your metabolism), an important factor in weight loss and maintenance. Another plus: If your workout is weight-bearing (which is the case with many higher intensity cardio workouts), it can increase your bone density and lower your risk of developing osteoporosis later in life, says Jonesco.

Lastly, there are strength training workouts with cardio components. These types of workouts—think a weightlifting circuit with jump rope and jogging thrown in—are also great for changing your body composition (i.e. reducing fat and building muscle), says Mansour.

How much cardio should I do?

How many minutes of cardio you should do per week depends on the intensity of your cardio workouts.

If you are doing more vigorous (i.e. high intensity) cardio, you can get these benefits by doing just 75 minutes a week, says Jonesco. If you are doing more mild to moderate cardio, around 150 minutes a week is ideal.

“Cardio fitness is a marathon, not a sprint. Too much too soon can result in injuries and mental burnout.”

—Michael Jonesco

Just know this: With low to moderate cardio exercise, you’ll need to keep at it for about 15 to 20 minutes at a time before you’d significantly increase your demand for oxygen, says Jonesco. When it comes to higher intensity work, you can see benefits in 5 to 10 minutes.

What’s the best type of cardio for me?

Jonesco says that the first step is to find what you enjoy doing. That way, you are more likely to stick with it—and you’ll have fun doing it!

“Cardio fitness is a marathon, not a sprint,” Jonesco adds. “Too much too soon can result in injuries and mental burnout.”

So take it slow in the beginning. Jonesco also says if you are very new to physical activity, overweight, and/or have a chronic comorbidity, like diabetes, it’s smart and safe to start with low to moderate intensity cardio.

He recommends starting gradually.  Although 150 minutes of cardio a week is a great target amount, you don’t need to achieve that in week one. “You can begin with 50 minutes knowing that each week you want to increase it 10 to 15 minutes as your body tolerates it.”

If you’re a step beyond beginner status and considering HIIT, Jonesco says that when it comes to burning body fat and working major muscles in both your lower and upper body, HIIT is very efficient. But that doesn’t mean it should be your only form of exercise. “I recommend it one to two times a week, tops,” says Jonesco. “It’s a great workout, especially if you don’t have much time, but it’s not a starting zone.” Another caveat: “For most of us, as we age, it may be too high impact for our bodies to tolerate,” Jonesco adds.

Amanda Shannon Verrengia, Pittsburgh-based certified personal trainer and run coach, says that running a lot and incorporating HIIT routines twice a week are her go-to cardio workouts. In general, you’ll be best served with a combination plan like hers that incorporates different types of cardio, she explains, because this variety challenges your body and heart rate in different ways. Ultimately, this variety ups your fitness faster than just doing the same type of exercise—like running, for example—over and over.

That said, Verrengia advises working within your own level of fitness. “People can get overzealous, especially with HIIT,” she explains. Pushing yourself too much, too soon could cause you to sacrifice good form for the sake of hitting an arbitrary number of repetitions or a certain number of minutes. Poor form at high intensity equals greater risk of injury. That’s why it’s important to learn how to do exercises correctly and safely before amping up the intensity and speed.

Remember to always, always take a rest day, says Verrengia. “You shouldn’t work your body seven days a week.”  She recommends working out five to six days a week, with two to three days of high-intensity work and two to three days of moderate intensity work.

What should I know before starting a cardio routine?

When it comes to incorporating more cardio in your routine, “start wherever you’re at,” advises Rojas. Yes, it’s great if you can meet the recommended amount of 30 minutes a day, five days a week, but if you’re brand new to cardio and juggling an already-packed schedule, try for 10 one-minute movements throughout the day, Rojas suggests. Small, repeated bursts of movement—like a quick jump rope session or a short jog from your office to the car—can spur long-term changes that equal big results.

“You just have to find the type of movement that you enjoy,” says Rojas. The beauty of cardio is that there are so many types of movements to choose from, so with some experimentation and creativity, you can find several (or many) types of cardio that work for you.

“The more variety the better,” says Rojas of his recommended approach to cardio. “If you have asymmetries in the body, repetitive movement will create more imbalances.” That’s why it’s important to do multiple types of cardio at varying intensities.

If you’re just beginning a cardio routine, you’ll likely feel fatigued and perhaps a bit sore at first. That’s perfectly normal, says Jonesco. But it’s not normal to feel sore for more than two to three days or to feel an isolated soreness in your joints, ligaments, or tendons. These are red flags that indicate you likely pushed yourself too hard, says Rojas, and you should back off accordingly and see a doctor if you suspect an injury.

A Great Cardio Workout For the Gym

You can get in a great cardio workout at your gym—no fancy machinery required—in just 15 to 20 minutes. This particular workout, recommended by Rojas, is low to moderate intensity cardio. You can do this type of cardio three to four days a week.

The workout is a circuit combining standard gym machines and an on-the-ground exercise. Here are the components.

  • Treadmill/Elliptical: Depending on your fitness level, you’ll be walking, jogging, or running on the treadmill or elliptical. The elliptical is lower impact on your joints than the treadmill, so if you have any previous or current knee issues, opt for this machine. Your effort level should be between 4 and 6 on a scale of 1 to 10, so pick your speed/incline accordingly.
  • Bike: You can use either a recumbent bike, which is lower to the ground and has a full chair supporting your back, or a stationary exercise bike, which looks like the type of bike you’d ride outside, but is fixed in place. Your effort level should be between 4 and 6 on a scale of 1 to 10, so pick your speed/incline accordingly.
  • Side Skaters: This on-the-ground exercise involves side-to-side movements (AKA movements in the lateral plane of motion), explains Rojas. Start standing up with your feet hip-distance apart. Bend your knees and press your hips back slightly. Jump about one foot to the left, landing on your left leg and bringing your right leg behind your left ankle, letting it hover a few inches above the ground. Your knees should be slightly bent, your butt and core should be squeezed and your hips should be pushed back several inches. Pause for a moment and then jump to the right with your right leg, bringing your left leg back behind you. This is one rep.

For a full workout, perform these moves in a circuit. You’ll do the following sequence twice.

  • Treadmill for 2 minutes
  • Bike for 2 minutes
  • Treadmill for 2 minutes
  • Side skaters for 2 minutes
  • Treadmill at incline (greater than 1.0) for 2 minutes

Rest for 1 minute and repeat again.

A Great Cardio Workout To Try At Home—No Equipment Required

If you’re strapped for time or don’t have a gym membership, you can still get in a great cardio workout at home using minimal space, your bodyweight, and common household items as stand-ins for weight room equipment. This particular workout, recommended by Mansour, combines HIIT, strength training, and cardio for a heart-pumping, fat-burning, and muscle-building sweat sesh.

“I love this workout because it’s efficient cardio that works your muscles without completely fatiguing you,” Mansour says. Because this workout is high intensity, you should do it no more than one to two times a week in combination with other workouts of lower impact and lower to moderate intensity (like the gym workout above).

Here are the exercises you’ll do in the circuit.

  • Running/Jogging in Place: You’ll alternate between a slow and fast pace. The intention here is to warm up your muscles and elevate your heart rate. If you have knee pain, Mansour recommends alternate between walking and speed walking. Although your legs will be the major movers, don’t forget your arms. Pump them in big swings as you walk, jog, or run to get your ticker beating even faster.
  • Squats: This lower-body exercise is great for building stronger glutes (AKA butt muscles), quads, hamstrings, and calves. Start in a standing position with your feet several inches wider than hip-distance apart. Squeeze your butt, bend your knees and push your hips back and down as if you were going to lower yourself into a chair. Make sure your knees don’t extend beyond your toes. Pause for a moment at the bottom of the movement, and then press through your heels to push yourself back up to standing. This is one squat. If you feel wobbly during the movement, stand next to a chair or other piece of furniture and lightly rest one hand on top for balance. If you have a history of knee pain or are worried about your knees for any reason, Mansour advises squatting just halfway to reduce the pressure on your joints.

  • Bicep Curls: This upper-body move will strengthen your biceps. You can use 3- to 5-pound dumbbells or a number of weighted household items like water bottles, gallons of milk, jugs of laundry detergent, or even grocery bags filled with items. You’ll need two identical (or similar) weights—one for each hand. Start in a standing position with your feet hip-distance apart and your arms by your side. Grab the weights comfortably in each hand and, keeping your elbows hugged into the side of your body, slowly curl the weights up to your shoulders, pause for a moment at the top and then slowly lower them back down until your arms are straight by your sides again. This is one rep.
  • Lunges: This move targets the same muscles as a squat. You’ll start standing up with your feet hip-distance apart. Step your right foot forward about two feet and bend both knees to lower yourself down until your back knee is hovering just a few inches above the ground. Your right knee should be directly above your right ankle, and as with the squat, your knee should not extend beyond the toes of your right foot. Pause for a moment at the bottom of the movement, then press down through the heel of your right foot to push yourself back up to standing. This is one rep. If you have trouble balancing, lightly rest one hand on the top of a chair or other piece of furniture.
  • Side Extensions: The second upper-body move in this sequence, side extensions, targets your shoulders and deltoids (the muscles on the uppermost part of your arms and the top each shoulder). Grab your weights again (one in each hand) and start by standing up straight, feet hip-distance apart with your arms down by your sides and your palms facing your body. Extend your arms straight out to the sides and slowly lift them up as high as your shoulders. Pause for a moment at the top of the movement, then slowly lower your arms back down until they are straight by your sides again. This is one rep. As you perform the lifts, keep a soft bend in your knees and squeeze your core muscles. If the movements hurt your neck and/or your shoulders get locked, reduce the distance of your lift by half.

For a full workout, perform these moves in a circuit. You’ll repeat the following sequence three times.

  • 3 minutes of running/jogging in place or jumping jacks, slowly for 30 seconds, followed by 30 seconds moving as fast as you can, repeated 3 times
  • 30-second rest
  • 10 squats
  • 30-second rest
  • 10 bicep curls
  • 30-second rest
  • 20 lunges (10 on each leg)
  • 30-second rest
  • 10 side extensions
  • 30-second rest

The Bottom Line

With its impressively long list of physical and mental health benefits, cardio should play a role—a significant role—in your exercise routine. Unless you have certain injuries and/or other prohibiting health conditions, you should mix it up with varying types of cardio at varying intensities to reap the benefits that cardio workouts have to offer. The best part: You don’t need tons of time, space, equipment, or expertise to get a quality cardio workout—you just need a positive attitude and a willingness to get a little (or a lot) sweaty.

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