Cardio should be an integral part of everyone’s gym routine, but many people make the mistake of not including enough cardio if they’re trying to focus on other goals. Maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system – keeping your heart and lungs in proper working order – should be a major part of every workout.
Cardio is great as a standalone exercise, or as a way to warm up your body for the tougher exercise that’s still to come, but it has its own benefits that shouldn’t be overlooked. Here are a few ways for you to improve your cardio routine, so you know you’re getting the best out of your workout.
The benefits of cardio for your body
One of the top benefits of cardio is that it strengthens the heart. Your heart is a muscle, and like any other muscle, you need to work it to keep it in shape. Although you can’t strengthen it with weights, a good way to help work your heart out is to get a good cardio workout in 2-3 times a week.
Cardio also helps increase the speed of various bodily processes such as your metabolism, which helps you digest and use your food faster, so it isn’t sitting in your stomach.
The benefits of cardio for your mind
Cardio doesn’t just benefit our physical bodies. It also helps release hormones that improve your mood, and alleviate depression and fatigue. While it might be hard to imagine getting in a workout if you’re feeling tired or blue, it’s actually the best thing for you under those circumstances.
Besides the fact that it just feels good to push yourself through something that you know is good for you, your workout also releases important hormones that regulate your sleep cycle, helping you achieve a more restful and healthy sleep.
Types of cardio
There are tons of different cardio activities that are beneficial for your workout – you just have to find one that you like. In the following few pages, we’ll break down the different types of cardio activities and how you can use them to tone various muscle groups as well as improve your stamina and strength.
Don’t worry if you don’t find an activity you like right away – sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error to find something that you legitimately enjoy doing. Don’t waste time on something you don’t enjoy, it might affect your overall love for cardio in a detrimental way.
This is truly one of the most basic forms of exercise you can do – for most people, it’s something that’s just a part of their natural everyday activities. Walking is great for people who aren’t used to heavy cardiovascular activity yet. It gets your muscles used to more physical movement, without straining them too much. It’s great for people with injuries, since it’s light on impact. Typically, it takes about an hour to burn 300-400 calories, so it isn’t great for losing weight.
If you’re just starting to work out, you’ll want to begin by walking three times a week, for at least 20 minutes each time.
Running is one of the most common forms of cardio activity because it’s just so easy. All you really need is a pair of decent running shoes. Make sure to get ones that give the arches of your feet enough support so you don’t hurt yourself. Then, you can choose whether to run outside, inside, on a machine, or however you like. If you’re using a machine, try to lengthen your strides so you aren’t bobbing up and down too much. This puts major stress on your joints.
Running burns an average of 600 calories per hour, and can also be useful in shaping and defining your leg muscles.
Biking is a great workout, and has the added benefit of being a useful way of getting from place to place. It’s easy to bike inside on a stationary bicycle, but it can get a little more challenging (read: way more rewarding) if you choose to do your biking on the streets. If you’re going to take to the streets, make sure you’re fully aware of all of the rules governing bikes in your city.
Biking is less stressful on your joints than running, but burns the same number of calories per hour. It’s a low impact, high intensity way of ridding yourself of excess body fat. Just make sure to use the proper form – adjust the seat to ensure that your knees are in the correct position, and you’ll avoid nasty repetitive stress injuries.
Rowing is another activity that has both indoor and outdoor options. Outdoor rowing, while fun, is generally practiced on a team and requires expensive equipment to either be purchased or rented. Indoor rowing machines take all of the issues out of rowing, allowing you to get in a total body workout in addition to your cardio. Rowing burns around 840 calories per hour, but like biking, it has a much lower impact than running.
Most rowing machines will allow you to program in different workouts, so try to change your routine up a bit. Switch between high and low intensity rowing, doing 2-3 minutes of each, so that your heart rate can come down in between sets.
The elliptical machine has received a lot of bad press in recent years, but it can actually be a useful tool if you’re looking for a workout that targets both your arms and your legs. Many people make the mistake of treating the elliptical like a fun, bouncy rest period. Since most ellipticals have adjustments for both the foot pedals and handles, you have to figure out the correct numbers that will give you a workout, not just bob you up and down for 20 minutes.
Like most other cardio activities, you’ll really benefit from the elliptical if you do an interval workout – 2-3 minutes of high-impact and high-resistance exercise, followed by 1-2 minutes at a slower, less intense pace.
Stair climbing is a tried and true activity for those looking to boost their cardio and their booty at the same time. It’s a great workout to either run up and down real stairs, or use a stationary machine like a StairMaster. In addition to the cardio and shapely booty, you’ll also get the added benefit of an increased range of motion in your hips and knees, which is something that you can’t get through running.
While some people feel intimidated by the StairMaster, it’s actually really easy as long as you use the proper form. Do not lean forward or use your forearms to brace yourself. Instead, rest your hands lightly on the crossbar, and keep your shoulders straight. If you slouch all that work you’re doing on your legs, abs, and butt goes straight out the window.
Swimming is a great workout if you’re looking for a low-impact, total body workout. Swimming in a basic freestyle form for an hour burns around 600 calories. If you mix your strokes up a bit, you can craft a workout that exercises all of your different muscle groups – some key strokes are the butterfly, breast stroke, and backstroke.
Working out in a weightless environment is great for people with existing stress injuries, so make sure to carve out some pool time if you’re looking to work your way up to regular activity after an injury.
Dance and other group activities
One fun way to keep your cardiovascular system active is to enroll in a group class. Many gyms offer several options like salsa, tango, or even classes that are specifically focused on using dance to boost cardio performance. These classes are enjoyable to do on your own, but you can really create a fun, positive environment if you enroll with a few friends. That way, you’ll keep each other accountable and encourage each other to push that much harder.
If you’re too self-conscious about your moves, there are plenty of online routines that you can follow, complete with peppy teachers and awesome music.
There are so many different options for various cardio activities that we didn’t even have time to mention all of them here today! Some other options include skipping rope, skiing, kettlebell swings, or kickboxing. If you don’t find an activity that resonates with you, keep on searching –
you’re sure to find something you’re into.