Cardio exercise, the act of raising your heart rate higher than its usual pace, is the cornerstone to any fitness plan. But what, exactly, do you need to do for a healthy cardio routine? I get asked this question all the time and want to share my answers with you. The following is a culmination of the research that I’ve read over the years and my experience from working with my clients every day.
How much cardio do I need?
This question has evolved over the years and research indicates the answer is more than you might think. When I first started in the fitness industry in the ’90s, the bare-bones minimum was 20 minutes 3 times per week to stay heart healthy (i.e., keeping your heart strong to prevent cardiovascular disease). No one talks about those parameters anymore; now it’s move for 30 minutes most days of the week (think 6 or 7 days). The definition of exertion has also broadened though. Now, it’s not just jogging or spinning or other “high-speed” types of calorie-burning exercises. Basically, anything that causes you to break a sweat is considered “cardio” and is acceptable. So gardening and other lower intensity choices are fine now, where before they were suspect.
So what is cardio exactly?
The short answer, as defined above, is any activity where you break a sweat and are moving continuously. It can be something strenuous like jogging or playing tennis or it can be something milder like a brisk walk. The idea, though, is that you have to have beads of perspiration and be pushing yourself. You should feel uncomfortable, but not like you’re going too hard. If you feel faint or dizzy or short of breath, that’s too hard! On a scale of 1 to 10, you want to feel between a 6 and a 9, but mostly in the 7 or 8 range.
What’s the best cardio for me?
Again, the short answer is ‘the one that you’ll do.’ If you absolutely hate Spinning then going to a Spin class is not your best option. You’ll dread it and come up with a million excuses not to go. If you really don’t have a preferred activity, you’re going to have to experiment a little. Try a group exercise class or a dance class. Try running or biking or volleyball. Try hiking, kayaking, tennis or shooting hoops. There is almost an unlimited number of ways to sweat; just keep trying until you find one (or a few) that you like. For some added inspiration see my post on 25 ways to exercise. You will eventually find something you enjoy and then you’ll be much more likely to exercise regularly.
Should I work out alone or in a group?
Studies have shown over the years that we will blow off exercising for any number of reasons but we won’t stand up a friend for a workout. So, yes, working out with friends can be a great idea, but I have a big but (one ‘t’, not two). If you really prefer to workout alone, then that’s what you should do. There are a lot of different ways to get your cardio in; the one that’s best for you is the one that you should do.
Should I cross-train?
Yes! Keep doing different things to maintain a healthy body and prevent overtraining injuries. If you’re first love is running, throw in one or two non-running workouts during the week to keep your body fresh and injury free. With any exercise, there is “too much of a good thing.” That’s why I suggest everyone try lots of different types of cardio to mix it up. Don’t be afraid to tag along to a friend’s group class just to try something new and add a little variety. If you enjoy yourself then you have a new workout to throw into the mix. If you hate it at least you got to see your friend.
Should I wear a heart rate monitor? Is it worth the money?
In my opinion, yes you should and yes it is. I own a Polar Heart Rate Monitor that I like a lot (not a paid endorsement, but Polar if you’re reading, call me…). You can buy a barebones monitor in the $75 to $90 range or you can get super fancy ones that cost upwards of $150. All you really need to know is when you are in your cardiovascular range and any monitor will tell you so you don’t have to do the math. The fancier monitors come with more programs to track your progress over time, but you can also do that yourself in a notebook or spreadsheet.
Here’s why I like heart rate monitors: they don’t let you cheat. If you’re having an off day, or are distracted, or absorbed in a magazine article instead of paying attention to your workout, the monitor will let you know you’re slacking off. The Rate of Perceived Exertion Chart (mentioned above) works great, but people have a tendency to “exaggerate” how hard they’re working. The heart rate monitor completely eliminates that option.
Should I hire a coach or a trainer?
This is almost always a good idea. Running coaches can analyze your gait and improve your stride. Volleyball coaches can show you how to spike harder while making sure you don’t wind up with rotator cuff strains. This is your body we’re talking about here; do you really want to mess with it? A little instruction can go a long way. There are some effective online coaching systems these days (like Couch to 5K), but nothing will ever truly replace a hands-on experience with a trainer. If you can’t afford one, try a group class or look for a clinic in your chosen sport at a nearby college. With a little hunting, you can find great experts for not too much money.
So tell me, what do you do for fun? How do you schedule exercise into your life? What’s your priority? What makes you move?