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7 Benefits of Cardio That’ll Convince You To Break a Sweat

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7 Benefits of Cardio That’ll Convince You To Break a Sweat

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“If cardiovascular exercise could be bottled up in pill form, it would be the most widely prescribed drug for all the health benefits it has,” says Todd Buckingham, PhD, triathlete, coach, and professor of movement science at Grand Valley State University.

Cardiovascular exercise, aka “cardio” or “aerobic exercise,” has been shown to improve everything from body composition to sleep quality. Yet this “miracle drug” doesn’t require a doctor’s referral or a script. It’s completely free. And as long as you remain consistent with cardio, you’ll reap all its benefits.


Experts In This Article

  • Pete McCall, Pete McCall is a fitness expert, strength coach, and the host of the All About Fitness podcast. He’s also the author of the book, Smarter Workouts: the Science of Exercise Made Simple.
  • Todd Buckingham, PhD, triathlete, coach, and professor of movement science at Grand Valley State University

First things first: What is cardio?

“Cardiovascular exercise is really any exercise that increases your heart rate above a normal resting level,” Buckingham says.

During bouts of cardiovascular exercise, your body utilizes oxygen to create energy to sustain physical activity, he says. Your body also needs to release carbon dioxide at a faster rate than when you’re not exercising. This is why you breathe more rapidly during a workout.

Cardio exercise is a broad category and includes activities that don’t necessarily look like exercise. (If you’ve ever broken a sweat cleaning your home or boosted your heart rate doing yard work, you get it.) That said, here are some popular forms of cardio exercise:

  • Walking
  • Running
  • Hiking
  • Bicycling
  • Swimming
  • Recreational sports, like tennis, pickleball, and basketball
  • Rowing
  • Dancing
  • Calisthenics (e.g., jumping jacks, jogging in place, burpees)
  • Stair climbing
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Boxing

Benefits of cardio that’ll get you excited to work out

1. It bolsters heart health

Regular cardiovascular exercise can help you reduce your risk of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States. Buckingham explains that just like resistance training creates a stimulus for growth in muscle tissue, cardio puts stress on your heart so that it adapts accordingly and can handle more stress in the future.

“The muscle [of the heart] does get stronger, but the volume of the left ventricle [which is responsible for pumping blood out to the body] gets bigger so it can hold more blood and then pump out more blood with each beat. It’s called stroke volume,” Buckingham says. Increasing your stroke volume enables your heart to pump blood to your body more efficiently.

2. It aids weight loss and maintenance

Weight management is a matter of energy expenditure and balance, explains Pete McCall, CSCS, author of Ageless Intensity: High-Intensity Workouts to Slow the Aging Process.

“When you eat something that’s 100 calories, that gives you about 100 calories of energy,” he says. “It’s either stored [as fat] for use at a later date or used [immediately] for metabolism, the body’s processes, or energy.”

Because cardio “spends” energy (or burns calories), it can help you maintain a healthy weight or lose excess fat if that’s your goal.

3. It may help lower blood pressure

A stronger heart and healthier body weight can trigger a cascade of positive health effects, including lower blood pressure.

“Cardiovascular exercise decreases your body weight, so there’s less pressure on the vessels. Also, if the left ventricle is getting stronger and bigger, there’s going to be less pressure on the aorta,” Buckingham says.

And it doesn’t take long to see cardio’s impact. In one 12-week randomized clinical trial, participants with resistant hypertension (high blood pressure) who completed three 40-minute cardio workouts a week showed a significant reduction in systolic (the top number in a BP reading) and diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number in a BP reading) by the study’s conclusion.

4. It supports mental well-being and brain health

Ever notice how a brisk walk can boost your mood? Or how you can stumble into a group fitness class completely frazzled and stressed out but leave feeling relaxed and in control? The truth is that much of cardio’s impact on your mental health is all in your head—literally.

Research shows a clear connection between physical fitness and mental health, and some studies suggest that exercise may be even more effective at managing conditions like depression than medication. Of course, mental health is complicated, and there are potentially many factors at play, but both Buckingham and McCall note that cardio is beneficial because it helps improve blood and oxygen flow to the brain.

“Physical activity also stimulates the brain and creates new neurological connections,” Buckingham says. “It can also help maintain or increase the size of the hippocampus, which is associated with memory development.” In people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, the hippocampus is typically one of the first areas of the brain to become damaged, he explains. “Exercise can help [prevent and manage] those diseases.”

5. It boosts immunity

A recently published research review found that regular cardio exercise was associated with not only a reduced risk of contracting certain communicable diseases and infections, but it was also linked to lower disease mortality rates and increased vaccine potency.

In other words, cardio is like a booster shot for your immune system.

“One bout of exercise actually decreases your immunity for a very short time period,” Buckingham says. He likens the effects to those of strength training on muscles; at first, the fibers are damaged before they’re built back bigger and stronger. “After you do that bout of physical activity, your immune system has to then build up so that it’s stronger so that the next time [you exercise], it doesn’t have the same effect,” he says.

6. It improves insulin sensitivity

Cardio exercise can be a game-changer for people with diabetes and insulin resistance who don’t respond well to insulin (a hormone produced by the pancreas that allows the body’s cells to convert glucose in the blood to energy) and have blood sugar levels that exceed a limit that’s considered healthy. Buckingham explains that, during a workout, the muscles take glucose from the blood for fuel, thereby lowering the amount of sugar circulating in the bloodstream.

While any amount of cardio can be helpful, some research shows that exercising later in the day and after meals can be slightly more effective at lowering blood glucose levels than exercising in the morning and before eating.

7. It provides a more restful sleep

While exercising too close to bedtime can raise your core body temperature and make it difficult to fall asleep, getting your cardio in at least one hour before hitting the sack may help you fall asleep faster and get more restful sleep.

A recent systematic review of 23 studies found that regular, moderately intense physical activity improved sleep quality and reduced sleep latency (how long it takes to fall asleep). And for people with existing sleep disorders, exercise may help improve symptoms.

In some cases, cardio exercise indirectly impacts sleep by improving conditions that can interrupt it, like obesity. Or it may alleviate stress, which can contribute to insomnia. Additionally, exercising outdoors exposes you to sunlight, which can help regulate your internal clock.

A beginner-friendly cardio workout to add to your routine

The following beginner-friendly cardio workout can be done at home, requires zero equipment, and can be modified for time and fitness level. Plus, it features tried-and-true cardio moves with which you’re likely already familiar.

The warm-up

Do each exercise back-to-back for 30 seconds. Complete two rounds.

  • Marching in place
  • Plank walk-outs
  • Air squats

The workout

Do each exercise in order for 30 seconds, then rest for 30 seconds before moving on to the next movement. As your cardiovascular fitness improves, you can adjust the work-to-rest ratio to make the sequence more challenging. (e.g., working for 45 seconds and resting for 15 seconds.) After the last movement, rest for one minute.

Depending on your schedule and level of experience, do between one and five rounds, resting for one minute at the end of each set. Remember that you can do individual rounds throughout the day as “movement snacks” and still reap cardiovascular benefits.

  • Jumping jacks
  • Burpees (to modify this movement, walk out to plank and skip the push-up and vertical leap)
  • High knees
  • Squat jumps (to modify this movement, remove the jump and do air squats)
  • Mountain climbers

How much aerobic exercise do you need?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that all adults accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardiovascular exercise per week. (To gauge your exercise intensity, use the “talk test;” if you’re breathing more rapidly than usual but can still utter short sentences, you’re working at a moderate intensity.)

“I would put those as basic minimum guidelines,” McCall says, suggesting that most people should be walking at least 30 cumulative minutes per day in addition to more intentional exercise. The marker for more optimal health, he argues, is probably closer to around 300 minutes of cardio exercise per week.

However, if you’re getting little to no cardiovascular exercise, adding just a few minutes a day—or whatever amount feels manageable—can make a difference in your health and generate momentum in pursuing more challenging activity goals.

“Some people say, ‘I can’t do 150 minutes a week, so I’m not going to do any. I would rather have somebody do just 10 minutes a week than none,” Buckingham says. “Ten minutes a week is still 520 minutes a year, and that’s a lot more than zero.”

Bottom line: When it comes to cardio, more is almost always better. And something is always better than nothing.

Safety precautions to take when doing cardio

Before beginning any new exercise program, you should check in with your doctor, especially if you have any health conditions or have undergone any recent medical procedures. Barring any restrictions specified by a healthcare practitioner, cardio exercise is considered safe and beneficial for all populations.

Of course, an appropriately challenging cardio workout will look different depending your experience and fitness level. For instance, it’s not safe or advisable for a sedentary person to jump into marathon training, as they’d likely experience injury and burnout. And a 30-minute walk, while still beneficial from a mental health and active recovery perspective, won’t stimulate the same adaptations in a highly conditioned professional athlete as it will in someone who’s just beginning an exercise program.

And while injuries and mobility issues should be under a doctor’s care, they’re rarely a reason to opt out of cardio.

“Cardio is for everybody, even older adults,” Buckingham says. “If your grandma or grandpa can’t walk really well to get their heart rate up, well then sit them on a bike and have them pedal a bit to get their heart rate up. There’s not a population that can’t benefit from cardiovascular exercise.”

FAQ

1. Why is it important to do cardio?

It’s important to incorporate cardio exercise into your routine, as an inactive lifestyle is linked to an increased risk for health problems, including cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, metabolic disorders like diabetes and hypertension, mental illness, and cognitive impairment.

2. What will happen if I do cardio every day?

Consistent daily cardiovascular exercise can lead to benefits like weight loss, improvements in cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, increased insulin sensitivity, better moods, and more restful sleep.

However, if you’re doing cardio every day, it’s important to vary the intensity of your workouts. High-intensity training is stressful on the body, and too much can lead to injuries and other symptoms of overtraining. Limit your “hard” workouts to two or three times a week, and incorporate time for active recovery.

3. Is 30 minutes of cardio three times a week enough?

Possibly. Based on the CDC’s recommendations, adults should accumulate 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardiovascular activity. If you’re doing three moderately intense 30-minute workouts a week (or shorter, more intense workouts) in addition to other activities like walking, yard work, and playing with your kids on the playground, you’re likely covered.

But if you’re generally sedentary except during your three weekly workouts, consider incorporating more movement into your daily routine.


Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.


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