By Joe Wuebben
Everyone knows cardiovascular exercise is important for heart health and weight management, but it can be a confusing topic. What type of cardio should I do? How long do my workouts have to be? How fast (or slow) should I go?
The answers to these questions depend on many factors, but below are 6 straight-forward cardio strategies you can start implementing right away for a stronger heart... and a little less confusion.
1) DO CARDIO IN 5-MINUTE INCREMENTS
Don’t have 60 minutes, 30 minutes, or even 10 minutes to exercise right now? No problem! Getting fitter and healthier doesn’t have to mean blocking off huge amounts of time for the gym. If you’ve got 5 minutes to spare, you’ve got time for a workout – research proves it.
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that even very short bouts of physical activity – as little as 5 minutes in duration – “count” toward the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week.
The researchers analyzed data from over 4,800 adults (40 years and older), for a period of more than six years, and found that those who did “moderate-to-vigorous” exercise at least 30 minutes a day had a lower mortality risk than those who didn’t exercise. The significant finding from the study, however, was that it made no difference whether those 30 minutes of activity came from dedicated bouts longer than 10 minutes or as little as 5 minutes.
So, if you ever think to yourself, I’d like to exercise right now, but I don’t have much time... remember this study. If you’ve got at least 5 minutes, take advantage of it – that totally counts as a workout!
Need some ideas of what to do during this time? Any of these activities will work:
- 5 minutes of jogging, brisk walking, swimming, or other aerobic activity.
- 5 minutes on the cardio machine of your choice – treadmill walking or jogging, stationary bike, Elliptical machine, etc.
- 5 sets of resistance-training exercises with 30 seconds rest between sets (the 5 minutes can incorporate rest periods if the activity is intense, as resistance-training is). Exercises can be bodyweight exercises (squats, lunges, push-ups, etc.), machine exercises at the gym, or elastic band exercises. [*Note: link to bodyweight and band exercise articles on the site.*]
- 5 sets of jumping rope for 30 seconds per set and 30 seconds rest between each set. If jumping rope is too high impact, jog in place instead.
Once you start your workout, you may find you have more than 5 minutes and want to keep going. Have at it! Turn your 5-minute walk or jog into 15 or 20 minutes, or 5 sets of resistance-training to 10 sets or more.
The journey to better health and fitness is all about taking one small step at a time. Every 5-minute workout will make a difference.
2) TAKE THE STAIRS FOR A CARDIO BOOST
Are you looking for a cardio activity that’s more challenging than walking but lower impact than running? Here’s a great middle ground: climbing stairs.
What’s great about using the stairs as a workout is that it combines both aerobic activity and resistance training – you’re technically walking, which is where the aerobics come in, but the greater range of motion at the knee and hip joints from having to step up on every “rep” mimics a traditional lunge or squat exercise in the gym. (In fact, one common lower body resistance training exercise is called “step-ups.”)
Walking up a few flights of stairs will work your leg muscles (glutes, quads, hamstrings, and even calves) as well as your heart and lungs, making it a great “bang for your buck” activity.
Wondering how to work the stairs into your current routine? You can do so either at the gym, at home, or even just in everyday life when walking around town or at work. Below are a trio of stair “workouts” that individuals of all levels (beginner to advanced) can add to their fitness repertoires:
3 Ways to Take to the Stairs
Stair-Climbing Machines – Stair-based cardio machines are available at most commercial gyms and come in two main varieties: “step mills,” which are literally revolving stairs; and “Stairmasters,” which typically consist of two pedals that move up and down. Step mills more closely mimic actual stairs, but either type of stair machine will provide a great workout.
How-To: The easiest way to use a stair-climbing machine is to step continuously at a low-moderate-intensity pace for anywhere from 10-30 minutes – 10 minutes at a low-intensity for beginners, a full 30 minutes at moderate intensity for advanced/experienced individuals.
Another option is to use one of the programs that the machines offers. Virtually all stair machines these days have computerized programs you can choose that take you through routines of varying intensities to keep your body guessing and your mind engaged. Again, shoot for a minimum of 10 minutes on the machine and a max of 30 minutes.
Bleacher Workouts – If you’d rather exercise outdoors and you have an athletic field nearby, the bleachers of that field or stadium can serve as your stairs.
How-To: Start at the bottom of the bleachers and walk up to the top – that’s one rep or interval. Depending on how high the bleachers go, do anywhere from 10-30 reps total, walking down slowly between each to get a rest between intervals.
A word of caution: Be extremely careful as you walk up and down the bleachers so you don’t fall at any point. If you have serious balance issues, you may want to find a set of stairs or bleachers with a handrail you can hold onto at all times.
Stairs in Everyday Life – On a daily basis, most of us encounter stairs at some point. Instead of avoiding them, make it a point to use them as often as possible – at work, at home, at the mall, or wherever else you find yourself that has stairs. Public places offer many opportunities to squeeze in a quick workout, so take advantage of it.
How-To: If you’re in a building with elevators, take the stairs instead. If you’re taking an escalator, don’t just stand on it; walk up the stairs to reach the top faster. At home, take an extra few minutes at some point during the day and walk up and down the stairs multiple times – three times, five times, 10 times even!
3) REPLACE REST PERIODS WITH CARDIO
If you’re already following a resistance-training program and you typically stand around (or sit) between sets, start filling those slivers of time with cardio instead. It’s called cardio-acceleration, a technique based on a 2008 study performed at the University of California-Santa Cruz, where between sets during your workout, you do 30-60 seconds of the cardio activity of your choice in lieu of resting.
Doing cardio instead of resting will work your heart and burn more calories, but the Santa Cruz researchers found it may also enhance recovery during your workout. And of course, it will save you time – you won’t have to do a separate cardio session because you squeezed it in during your workout!
How-To: If you’re new to the technique, start off with only 15-30 seconds of cardio between sets (rest the remainder of the time), and gradually work your way to being active the entire “rest” period. As for what types of cardio to do here, anything that’s convenient. Walking over to the treadmill or Elliptical will probably be impractical, so think jumping jacks, jumping rope, running in place, or step-ups on a nearby bench.
Because this cardio technique will add intensity to your workouts, make sure to get some protein afterward. NutraCollagen’s Collagen Maximizer+ contains 20 grams of muscle-replenishing protein per serving, making it a great post-workout supplement.
4) INCORPORATE WEEKLY “RESTORATIVE” EXERCISE
Exercise classes like yoga, Pilates, and barre are the perfect complement to resistance-training workouts and traditional cardio. The benefits of these low-impact, restorative activities are multiple and significant. Better flexibility and core strength are the most often cited, but you’ll get a cardio boost as well.
“Don’t underestimate the cardiovascular benefits of low-impact routines like yoga and Pilates,” says Liz Hilliard, owner of Hilliard Studio Method in Charlotte, North Carolina. “You can safely increase your heart rate and work in the fat-burning, muscle-building zone when you use lighter weights or your own body weight in these types of classes, all the while reaping the benefits of a restorative, muscle-balancing workout.”
How-To: Do anywhere from 1-3 yoga, Pilates, and/or barre sessions per week, as your schedule allows. If you do gym routines Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, for example, do classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays or on the weekend. Many gyms offer classes free to members, but you can also find streaming videos online (including Hilliard’s website) that walk you through the routines.
5) STOP MULTITASKING WHEN DOING CARDIO
With as busy as most of us, it’s only natural to want to multitask and get more things done in less time. Sure, you can alternate between resistance- training sets and cardio to save time, but when you’re doing a dedicated cardio workout it’s best to focus solely on that. In other words, your cardio session is not the time to get caught up on texts or emails, and you shouldn’t be trying to read a book or magazine on a treadmill.
“Reading or non-stop texting while on a machine just doesn’t allow you to work with any real intensity,” says Jim Ryno, a personal trainer and owner of Iron House Gym in Alpine, New Jersey (Iron-House.co).
6) SHOOT FOR 3,000 STEPS IN 30 MINUTES
Intensity matters when it comes to cardio. Going too fast (intense) can be dangerous for those with existing heart conditions, but too low of an intensity may not yield any significant cardiovascular benefit.
The key is to find a happy medium, and one 2017 study suggests the “right amount” of intensity when walking is 3,000 steps in a 30-minute span. The study, which followed 250 heart disease patients over a five-year period, was conducted by researchers at the Technical University of Munich (Germany) and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Their 3,000-steps-in-30-minutes advice represents a middle ground between a true high-intensity workout (which is not advisable for heart disease patients) and the ubiquitous “10,000 steps per day” prescription that can easily be accomplished with low intensity.
How-To: Pretty much all smart phones these days have step-trackers, as do smart watches, so counting steps is easy. When you’re walking, 3,000 steps in 30 minutes equates to approximately 100 steps per minute.