Remember when it was cool to make fun of those poor shlubs who were pounding away on the pavement for miles upon miles?
Or the person who spends an entire trip to the gym spinning their feet in little circles on the elliptical? Ha! That’s a fool if I’ve ever met one.
“Strength training is all you need!” – A younger, stupider me.
I threw in the idea that HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) should be done as a form of cardio, at one point. Even though I rarely did this myself. The lovely phase of, “Do as I say, not as I do,” I suppose.
Even though I wish I could go through the space time continuum to punch an under 30 year-old me square in the junk, the experience of being wrong and woefully uninformed allows me to see the light and better inform the world what cardio is and how it should be done.
In this article you’ll learn:
- Why (traditional) cardio has been demonized
- Benefits of cardio
- Different types of methods to get cardio in
- How to perform cardio and heart rate zones
Haters Gonna Hate
You’ll wither away if you run for more than 5 minutes…
You may have heard the “strength is all you need” clan say cardio is going to eat up all of your muscle. I was once a member of this gang, so I’m at fault here, too.
When I think of cardio eating up muscle I instantly think of Pac-Man. Cardio is Pac-Man running around and eating the tiny dots (muscle) and won’t stop until every damn dot is devoured. Nom nom nom.
These folks worrying about this little Pac-Man situation aren’t completely misguided and you can see why they’d have some concern over their hard earned muscle.
Because cardio doesn’t place enough tension on muscles, the brain isn’t going to tell the body to build or maintain muscle after a leisurely jog around the neighborhood. The cardio does place a stress on the body, which takes resources to recover from. So, we can see how one may make up an A+B=C situation.
Fortunately, by the time Pac-Man grabs all 244 dots (yes, that includes the big, “energizer” dots), there’s another level with plenty more dots to go around (i.e. your body has enough resources to not eat away at muscle).
The folks saying cardio will eat muscle are, more than likely, keeping up with their strength training to a high degree. This is enough to hold onto – or build – muscle while reaping the benefits of cardio training.
It Takes Forever and is Boorring
The idea of cardio taking forever is 100% a fact. I wouldn’t say forever, but there is a minimum amount of time you’d have to hit for it to be truly effective.
The boring part is up to you.
If you have the attention span of a Gen Z’er watching TikTok videos, then it can be boring.
Sometimes you have to do boring things.
You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it.
Nowadays, it’s a skill if you’re able to be bored for any appreciable amount of time.
The boredom can easily be kept at bay if the thought of being in your own thoughts for 20+ minutes sounds like a terrifying experience.
- Get your learn on by listening to an audiobook
- Listen to a podcast
- Read a book (I can’t do this one, but I have seen others do it and I give them a standing round of applause for it)
- Watch a movie
- Binge a TV show
- Talk with a friend (I put this last on the list because I’m an introvert)
You know you’re going to watch a movie or TV show, so you might as well get a health benefit out of the boobtube!
The people who have said they get their cardio in through HIIT claim it only takes 5-15 minutes when you go that hard. Same benefit for a fraction of the time. Who wouldn’t sign up for that deal?
The problem with this argument is the fact they’re not getting the same benefit as they would from doing the longer, boring forms of cardio. Not even close.
And, unless these people have a high level of training experience and have a good base of aerobic capacity (sciencey term for cardio), they’re not actually getting a benefit from HIIT like they think they are.
Cardio isn’t needed to lose weight
Again, 100% accurate. Losing weight, hopefully, it’s mostly weight from fat, comes down to energy balance. If you eat less than what’s required for your body to operate on a day to day basis, you’ll lose weight.
Input has to be less than output. Simple (not easy) as that.
Nutrition can be the only thing looked at and you can lose weight. Since losing weight is the prime driver for many looking at anything health or fitness related, many are going to resort to the bare minimum to achieve their goal.
The other benefits of cardio – which we’ll dive into later – simply aren’t important to them.
Now that we’ve covered why cardio is neglected by a large percentage of the population – especially those already diving into some form of fitness – let’s talk about its benefits.
Benefits of Cardio
The list here will cover points you care more about than others.
Even though some benefits may not interest you at the moment (usually due to the season of life you’re in or the benefit feels like a “future you” problem), I’ll show you how every benefit is applicable to your current goal.
Fat loss and body composition
I’ll reiterate the fact cardio is NOT necessary from a fat loss standpoint. No type of exercise is necessary when you’re trying to lose the love handles.
If actively taking control of your nutrition is the only tool you pull out of your toolbox, you’ll be set.
Even though it’s not necessary when fat loss is your goal, it doesn’t mean it can’t play a powerful role in your efforts.
Like I mentioned above, fat loss is going to come down to input being less than output. Cardio is one tool you can use to increase the output side of the equation.
You’re doing more activity at a slightly higher intensity (not high intensity, but higher than sitting on your butt or walking) > the increase in intensity and activity require the body to burn through more fuel (for the super sciencey folks out there, the fuel is called ATP) so you can accomplish said task > if your body doesn’t have fuel from food at that given moment, it’ll be forced to use its reserves (carbs in muscles and fat stores).
Boom. You’re losing fat.
Again, and I can’t hammer this home hard enough, you can be doing cardio like a rat hopped on cocaine running on a hamster wheel and if your input (how much you eat) is the same or more than your output (how much energy to do your tasks and live each day), you won’t be losing the love handles anytime soon.
I don’t know about you, but doing some cardio to increase output sounds a whole lot better than eating less food.
Plus, you get the other benefits listed below 😀
This one could be the only benefit and you should be doing your damn cardio.
There was once a point I didn’t think twice about my heart health, so I’m cutting you some slack here. Live and learn, right?
Cardio lowers your resting heart rate. Put simply, your heart doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood throughout your body.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say less stress on the heart throughout the day is a good thing for, you know, staying alive.
Cardio is also going to lower your blood pressure. Blood pressure is the amount of force produced with each beat of the heart.
Higher blood pressure puts a greater stress on the arteries. Something we do not want.
In addition to the heart rate and blood pressure improvements, your cardio efforts will yield better capillarization. I know. Big word. Took me two tries to spell it right.
Capillarization is your body’s ability to get blood and other important things to working muscles.
Think of it as the body’s infrastructure.
You need to get important materials to your house in the woods, but there aren’t any roads built. They can get there. It won’t be the smoothest ride, though.
Increased capillarization is like adding paved roads to your house so everything you need can be delivered in Amazon like efficiency.
Increased parasympathetic tone
I’m sure you’ve heard of fight or flight and rest and digest.
This is referring to two parts of your autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.
Rest and digest refers to the parasympathetic side of things and fight or flight pairs with sympathetic.
An increase in the sympathetic system looks like:
- Increased blood flow to extremities
- Increased blood pressure
- Stress hormones elevate
- Heart rate increases
- Anxiety increases
Basically, as the name implies, your brain is telling your body it better be ready to fight a lion (or scream at someone in traffic) or haul ass away from danger.
Sympathetic is associated with threat. Like the freaking jungle cat coming at you.
On the flip side, an increase in the parasympathetic system looks like:
- Lower heart rate
- Improved digestion
- Higher sleep quality
- Lower blood pressure
- Less muscular tension
- Lower feelings of stress and anxiety
As you can see, an uptick in parasympathetic tone is more like a hippy hanging out on the beach listening to Bob Marley.
Both of the systems are important and have their place. The problem lies when the switch for the sympathetic system is stuck in the on position.
Probably caused by your toddler playing with the switch while you’re cooking dinner and they have some sort of maple syrup like stickiness on their little fingers locking the switch into that on position…not that I’d know.
Your body is anticipating a threat and prepares to exert energy to deal with it.
There’s no (physical) threat, so you have all of these stress hormones hanging out after the last call.
This is no bueno.
By doing your cardio, you’ll push your body into a more parasympathetic state. You’ll receive all of the benefits which come along with not being pursued by a tiger in the jungle.
This means better recovery between workouts, between sets during a workout and between reps during a set.
If you can’t recover from your higher intensity workouts, you’re losing out on all of the benefits you’re after.
You may be able to slam your face into a wall (metaphorically, of course) every workout, but not having the ability to adapt to the face smashing stress you imposed on the body isn’t doing you any good.
It’s actually slowing down your progress in a significant way.
I have first hand experience, when your cardio is up to snuff, strength workouts are going to feel like you’re being shot out of a cannon.
You won’t need to rest as long between sets (I.e. faster workouts, if you’re short on time). You’ll be getting an extra rep or two each set.
Sounds like a recipe for some new muscle and strength, if you ask me.
Who’d of thunk you can get brain and mental benefits from doing some good ole cardio?
You sure as heck can.
Aerobic exercise has been linked to improved cases of anxiety and depression.
This is due to the uptick in feel good chemicals – serotonin and dopamine.
Not to mention, this will help with motivation. Once you get over the initial hump of starting a cardio regimen, you’ll realize how much better you feel once you complete a session.
Your brain will remember that good feeling and up your dopamine levels so you do another session. That smart ole brain.
Improved Lymphatic Function
Think of your lymphatic system like a sewer system. It’s your body’s waste removal system.
It takes the gunk you don’t want hanging around and flushes it out of the body to never be heard from or smelled (poop joke) again.
It’s pretty miserable when your sewer backs up into your house, right?
You don’t want bacteria, viruses and other nasty things backing up into your body either.
The lymphatic system relies on movement (muscle contractions) to get fluids moving throughout the body.
So, a 30 minute bout of cardio can ensure the body’s sewer system isn’t backing up.
Types of cardio
This is where you’ll have plenty of freedom when it comes to deciding what you want to do to get the benefits of cardio.
The key points to keep in my mind when it comes to the modality you choose:
- It’s easy on the joints. If what you choose makes you feel like the Tin-Man when he can’t find his oil can, it’s not the best option for you.
- It can be done for 20-120 minutes. Riding a bike (I recommend an Assault Bike or Rogue Echo Bike) of some sort to get your cardio in is a great option for most, but plenty of people have complained about the seat not feeling so good in their junk region.
- There’s no or little learning curve. An incline treadmill walk and riding a bike doesn’t take much skill to accomplish. A rower has a small learning curve, but, generally, can be picked up quickly.
This isn’t an exhaustive list. It will provide plenty of options for you whether you’re at the gym or getting your blood pumping at home.
- Walking (this is going only going to apply if you’re very out of shape and can get into the proper heart rate zone)
- Incline treadmill walking
- Bike, recumbent bike, Assault or Echo bike
- Walking stairs or hills
- Weighted vest walk
- Stair stepper machine
- Playing with your kids
- Playing with your dog (if you’re like me, this one falls under playing with kids 😊)
- Low intensity calisthenics – think easy jumping jack variations, lunges, pushups, etc.
As you can see, there’s plenty of options to choose from when it comes to choosing what you’ll do for your cardio.
A few notes about some of the modalities.
I’m always going to lean toward the options which are cyclical in nature (running, walking variations, biking, elliptical).
If you’re on a machine, it’s easy to track your progress over time.
You’ll be able to see you went 3 miles in 30 minutes with an average heart rate of 130 beats per minute during week one. Then, during week 4, you were able to up that to 3.5 miles in 30 minutes while maintaining the 130 heart rate.
Having the extra data will always be the preferred method, but, like we talked about in the previous section, keeping your heart rate in the proper zone for the allotted time is the most important factor.
Scratch that, getting you to do some cardio is the most important factor.
A heads up about jogging/running
Unless you’re already a proficient runner and have been putting in the miles for some time, if you go this route, it’s going to be VERY difficult to stay in the proper heart rate zone for the needed time.
Running is expensive (meaning it takes a lot of effort and resources for the brain and nervous system to keep running), so your heart rate will get jacked up with very little effort.
If your heart is set on running, I recommend finding another modality when it comes to your cardio, for the time being.
Then, have 1-3 dedicated running workouts where it’s more about technique and preparing the running muscles for longer, continuous distances.
These technique runs should feel easy as all get out. Your heart rate and breathing should stay VERY much under control.
How to Perform Your Cardio
Alrighty then, now we’re diving into the meat and potatoes of cardio so you can start reaping all the benefits it provides.
The best part about this section?
It’s suuuuper easy to get right. All you need is some second-grade math and knowing your age and you’ll be off to the races.
A quick primer on heart zones.
Smarty pants scientists came up with a nice way of categorizing the intensity of training by breaking it down into heart rate zones. The five-zone system is the most used structure.
Each of the zones refers to a percentage of your max heart rate. To figure out your max heart rate, subtract your age from 220.
For example, in my case, the equation will look like this:
220-35=185 max heart rate
This isn’t the most detailed method for determining max heart rate, but I want you to have fast and simple so you get started on this as soon as you can.
The least amount of friction, the better.
Here are what the five zones look like in conjunction with their corresponding percentage of max heart rate:
Zone 1 – 50-60% of max HR
The first zone is best used for recovering. Doing 30 minutes of zone 1 can be done on an off day or the day following a higher-intensity session.
Zone 2 – 60-70% of max HR
This is where most benefits lie when it comes to your cardio efforts. Zone 2 is where the body improves its ability to use fat as a fuel source.
Read again; this is when your body becomes more efficient at USING fat as a fuel source. It doesn’t automatically mean you’re LOSING stored body fat.
You still have to be in a calorie deficit for that to happen. Even if your body is an absolute machine when it comes to using fat as a fuel source, you won’t lose body fat unless you’re in a calorie deficit.
Zone 2 should feel relatively easy and as if you could go a long period of time.
If you were on the phone with someone, you should be able to carry on a conversation, but the person you’re talking to will be able to tell you’re working out.
Zone 3 – 70-80% of max HR
This is where things are going to get a little tougher. Your body will start to use carbohydrates in the blood and stored in muscles to get the job done. By no means are you dying, but it’s no cake walk either.
Zone 4 – 80-90% of max HR
Zone 4 is going to be testing your mental fortitude when you hangout in this zone for any appreciable amount of time. You’re running primarily on carbohydrates.
This is more about raising the ceiling on your aerobic (ability to use oxygen) efforts and being able to handle higher intensity for longer periods of time.
Zone 5 – 90-100%
This crap is hard and painful. No denying it.
You’re mouth breathing like a dog on a 100-degree, 90% humidity day in the south. Your muscles are on fire. Life is not so fun at the moment.
If you’re relatively new to training, you won’t need – or are even capable of getting into – zone 5 work.
You’ll want to stick with zone 2 to reap the benefits listed above.
All of the other zones have their time, place and importance. Zone 2 is where most of your time should come from no matter what your goal may be.
When you’re doing your zone 2 work, it’s more than okay to bump up into zone 3 for a bit or to drop down into zone 1.
It takes a little practice to figure out your pacing to stay around the zone you’re chasing.
You’re still getting the benefits you’re after when you bump into a neighboring zone. It’s not a flip of a switch when you creep into another zone for a beat.
When and How Much
The almighty question of, “What’s the least amount I can get away with?” is now going to be answered.
Ideally, 60-180 minutes per week is going to be your sweet spot. That’d be at least two 30 minute sessions giving you all the swell benefits.
Now, I live in the real world and know you have competing demands (kids, work, social events, etc.).
Some (a lot, in some cases) weeks you may only be able to get in 30 minutes.
30 is ALWAYS better than ZERO.
Start with whatever lower amount you’re at and do it consistently.
Eventually, figure out ways to get more in.
This isn’t me saying, “You’ll eventually have more time to do more cardio,” because more time isn’t going to magically fall from the clouds.
Once a lowered amount is being done consistently, figure out where you can allocate more time to get up to a minimum of an hour per week.
As for when you do the cardio workouts: Whenever you can.
If it’s at the end of a strength workout. Awesome. Do it.
On its own day? Sweet action. That’s marvelous too.
Not going for perfect biological outcomes here. We want simple, consistent and straightforward.
Wrapping it Up
- There are plenty of reasons why you have been told cardio isn’t important. Those reasons don’t hold up or are simply dumb.
- Improvements in recovery, heart health, respiratory function, lymphatic function, mental health and not gasping for air after going up a flight of stairs. What other benefits do you need?
- There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to the modality you choose.
- Shoot for at least 60 minutes of zone 2 cardio per week. More is better, but something is better than nothing at all times.