Cardio is the thing most people picture when they think about working out. Running, walking, using the elliptical, swimming, biking. Anything that gets your heart pumping and your lungs screaming for air.
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While we’re all familiar with cardio, we may not understand why it’s so important.
Research has shown time and again that a sedentary life style is a risk factor for cardiac disease, which increases the chance you will have a heart attack or other cardiac event. Exercise is good because it can reduce your blood pressure, lower your “bad” cholesterol levels (LDL), and increase your “good” cholesterol (HDL).
If you have diabetes, it can help to regulate your insulin and glucose levels. Your day-to-day life will get easier, too, as your body will better be able to regulate the flow of oxygen in your body.
Not only will cardio keep you strong of body, it can also keep you mentally healthy. While scientists are still investigating the reasons exercise is so good for our mind, the results have been the same in multiple studies.
Exercise reduces anxiety, depression, and negative moods, and it increases self-esteem and cognitive function.
When you’re getting started, you want to try to workout for at least 30 minutes on as many days a week as you can. A brisk one- to two-mile walk will do the trick.
You want to do both cardio and resistance training, but which should you do first when you get to the gym?
I actually just had this conversation with my very cute personal trainer today, and he told me that you always want to start with weights. There are a few reasons for this.
One reason is common sense. If you start with cardio, you’re going to be too tired to properly work your muscles. In fact, you are risking injury, as you may not be lifting the weights correctly because your body is too tired to keep proper form.
The second reason is a bit more scientific. If you want to lose weight (and I’m assuming you do), you need to get your body to start burning fat stores during workouts. To get to this point, though, you have to burn through your body’s glycogen. If you lift weights first, you’re going to burn most of your glycogen stores. That way, once you get to your cardio session, you’ll be burning fat.
In fact, it’s very important that you DO lift weights and do other forms of resistance training. As I’ll cover more in a later article about resistance training workouts, muscles help you burn calories more efficiently.
I’m a long distance runner, and I swear that running is the best cardio workout for a number of reasons. First, it doesn’t cost anything. I bought some dry wick clothing because I sweat a lot and a good pair of zero drop shoes, and that was it.
Over the past several years, I’ve invested maybe a couple hundred bucks into running, and that includes shoes, multiple pairs of shorts, tank tops, and some cold weather running gear.
Secondly, I burn about 100 calories for every mile that I run. I regularly run between 6 and 10 miles, so that’s an extra 600 to 1,000 calories that I can consume each day. Along with this, I eat a lot less when I’m running. This is normal, as a study showed that people who walk consume more calories after a workout than those who run.
At the University of Wisconsin, two groups were studied. One group ran on a treadmill for an hour while another walked. The walkers were hungry and consumed 50 calories more than they had burned, and the runners ate 200 calories fewer than they had burned while running.
A few things about me, though. I’m thin. I’ve almost always been thin. I’ve never really been “out of shape,” and I have no major injuries. I have a hip that gives me grief occasionally and sometimes my ankles hurt (I broke it and never got it fixed—I was dumb and 19).
However, these mild discomforts can be cured with stretching. Thus, I understand that not everyone in the world is going to toss on a pair of shoes and run 5 miles tomorrow.
So what are your other options?
You have many to choose from. If you don’t want to join a gym, or if it’s cost prohibitive, you can take up walking (see an earlier blog I published about the activity to get started). You can also buy yourself a bike and hit the open road (you can read my blog about that here).
If you do want to join a gym, you can take an aerobics class, swim, or ride the elliptical. They have stair machines and many other options. Staff at the fitness center will be happy to show you how to use any of the equipment.
A term you may have heard if you’ve done any research about cardio exercise is HIIT workouts. If you don’t already know, HIIT stands for high-intensity interval training. When you’re doing one of these sessions, you will go back and forth between an intense work period, which means your heart rate is at 80-95% of your estimated maximum heart rate, and a recovery period for the same length of time.
During recovery, your heart will be pumping at 40-50% of your maximum heart rate. The periods can last anywhere from 5 seconds to 8 minutes, depending on your fitness level. Your total workout time would be anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes.
What’s so great about HIIT? It can:
You can implement HIIT into any physical activity that you already enjoy (or endure). For example, if you like cycling, bike intensely for 5 minutes, then recover for 5.
When I’m training for a race, I’ll have speed days where I run .25 miles at high intensity (a sprint) and then .25 miles at a lower intensity (a slower run). I’ll do this for 2 to 4 miles, depending on my goals for the day.
You’re probably used to Continuous Endurance Training, as it is what most of us do when we do cardio. You maintain a certain speed throughout the course of your workout. Is HIIT better? Worse? Or the same as CET?
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, with HIIT, you can burn more calories during the workout, and you continue burning more calories after the workout is over. Another study seems to prove that HIIT workouts are even better at improving cardiovascular performance than CET and that you will burn more fat in a HIIT workout.
The research seems to indicate that you should try high intensity interval training, as it will help you burn fat, improve cardiovascular function, and improve your musculoskeletal system. Since HIIT workouts will tire you out more, though, you’ll need to recover for longer.
Thus, you’ll want to start out with just one HIIT session a week and then work yourself up to two. On the days you’re not doing HIIT, you’ll do your CET as normal.
At this point, you should be on board with adding cardio to your life! If you’re looking for some ways to get started at home, you may want to consider purchasing some equipment.
This bike is selling for $149 and is great for small spaces because you can fold it up and store it when you’re done. Here are some other great features:
It would be difficult to do HIIT on this bike, as that’s just not what it’s made for. It’s intended to help you burn some calories in your home while you read or watch TV.
Thus, if you’re just now getting back into shape and want to squeeze in your cardio for the day, this would be a great buy. If you want to do serious training and get into amazing shape, you’ll want to keep looking.Here is another indoor bike that is going for $150 on Amazon. This is a much different bike that is more similar to what you would see in a spinning class. It has:
If you are an average height, this would be a good bike for you. It’s a bit sturdier than the Exerpeutic bike. If you have limited space, though, you may want to skip this bike, as it does not fold up for storage, and it’s too heavy to move around.
This small stepper is currently $89.98 on Amazon. It’s sort of like an elliptical, only it’s just the pedals. You can use it while you’re standing (as you would a normal elliptical), or you can sit down and use it like a bike.
It’s low-impact, so it’s good if you have trouble with your knees, hips, ankles, or back. The pedals are non-slip, so you don’t need to worry about your feet flying off (the pedals… not off your legs).
You could not use this machine for HIIT. Since the strides are so short, you’d probably fall on your face. However, if you have a sedentary job, you could get in a workout while you’re at work.
It’s also quiet, so you could use it while you’re watching TV in the evenings. You’re not going to get a serious cardio workout on this, but it is good for getting you moving.
Because you use your arms, it’s going to work all of the muscles in your body instead of just your legs (which is what the previous three products focus on). This one sells for $229.75.
Even though it’s more expensive, this is by far the best piece of cardio equipment listed in this article. It will strengthen your entire body, and it’s sturdy enough to add HIIT to your weekly workouts. The only downside is the price tag.
No matter how you decide to do it—biking, dancing, swimming, walking—you need to add cardio to your life. Not only will it help you slim down (or stay slim), but it will also improve your cardiovascular condition, which will keep your heart and lungs healthy.
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