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Cardio is arguably the most important form of exercise we can do. Dr Kenneth Cooper made this abundantly clear back in the 80s. In his book, The Aerobic Program For Total Well-being, Cooper prescribes regular cardio exercise because it promotes many ‘beneficial changes’ in the ‘lungs, the heart, and the vascular system.’
More recently, Daniel Liberman observes that as well as being the most effective way to burn fat, cardio ‘brings about many physiological adaptations’ that help to maintain general health and fitness (Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest & Health).
With all these benefits up for grabs, why is it that so many people dodge cardio? Of course, there are many reasons. However, I think one of the chief reasons that people abstain from cardio is because they find it boring. But that’s understandable. Sixty minutes on the treadmill would test the patience of even the most committed exerciser.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are some simple strategies we can use to spice up our cardio workouts. One way is to organise cardio exercises into a circuit. Transitioning between stations serves to break up the monotony of protracted periods of cardio.
Another way is to intersperse cardio stations with bodyweight exercises. Contrary to common misunderstanding, bodyweight movements can engage the aerobic system similarly to running or rowing. In a Medical News Today article (aptly entitled The Best Cardio Exercises), we are told that burpees, jump jacks, and squat jumps all qualify as effective cardio exercises.
Before slipping on your sweatpants and tightening up your trainers, stick around for a brief tour of the health and fitness benefits of aerobic exercise. (Not interested? Then start the circuit >)
Benefits of this cardio circuit
I’ve been reading about the impacts of exercise on health for more years than I care to count. Yet, I always seem to stumble on some new benefit. For example, the authors of a recent article on ‘occupational burnout,’ found that ‘moderate intensity’ cardiovascular exercise exerted a positive effect on states of well-being as well as reducing psychological distress.
While it was unclear whether cardio mitigates occupational burnout, the study suggests that it can certainly boost mood. Meaning, when you’re feeling crummy after a stressful day at work, a 5-mile run, or this cardio circuit, can be used as a much-needed pick-me-up. Both are far better alternatives than a bottle of wine or a takeaway.
That’s a brief insight into the psychological benefits of cardio. But what about the physical benefits? When asked why should we do cardio, most people will say because it’s good for your heart. While this is true, cardio training has been shown to confer many other benefits.
Cardio promotes whole-body health
In an epic National Library of Medicine journal, the team of contributors cite research showing that cardiovascular exercise is ‘associated with remarkable widespread health benefits.’ These benefits include a ‘reduction in all-cause mortality’ and a ‘modest increase’ in life expectancy.
The authors go on to tell us that regular aerobic training is also ‘strongly linked to a decline in the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.’ This is enormously advantageous when we consider that ‘coronary heart disease kills an estimated nine million people each year’ and that in 2019 ‘it was the world’s single biggest killer’ contributing to ‘around 1 in 6 deaths globally’ (British Heart Foundation).
It’s impossible to do the National Library of Medicine journal justice. Any attempt to do so would require thousands of words. As this is supposed to be a short review of the ways cardio can improve your health, below I’ve compiled a list of the key benefits from the journal.
Benefits of cardio exercise
Lowers risk of CVD (cardiovascular disease)
Can impede the progression of atherosclerosis
Improves insulin sensitivity
Reduces blood pressure
‘Promote functional adaptations of the heart,’ such as the density of the chamber wall, which can improve cardiac output
Increase the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood
How to do this cardio circuit
The training session starts with a 10-minute warm-up, which serves as a snapshot of the circuit. That is, you will be completing a series of cardio and bodyweight pairings. When working through the warm-up, keep the intensity low to begin with before gradually increasing it across the duration. (Need warm-up ideas?)
Once you’re warm and rearing to go, begin the circuit at the first station – rowing. Aim to sustain a consistent output for 3, 4 or 5 minutes. Concluding the cardio bout, transition to the bodyweight exercise.
Same deal as before but for half the time. If you selected 3 minutes for the cardio station, you’ll be performing bodyweight exercises for 1:30 (and 2 mins if you selected 4 mins and 2:30 if you selected 5 mins).
Again, aim to maintain a consistent output for the stipulated duration. After one completed lap of the circuit, reward yourself with a short break and a glug of water.
Sticking to the splits outlined above, your training objective is to circumnavigate the eight exercises two times.
Cardio circuit key points
Ensure to warm up well before starting the cardio circuit.
Select the level appropriate for your fitness ability. They are:
Level 1: 3 min cardio + 1:30 bodyweight (2 laps = 36 min)
Level 2: 4 min cardio + 2 min bodyweight (2 laps = 40 min)
Level 3: 5 min cardio + 2:30 bodyweight (3 laps = 60 min)
Aim to complete two laps of the circuit. Maintain a moderate-intensity pace for the duration of the workout.
Warm up before workout
1 min mobility exercises (joint flexions and rotations) → 2 min cardio → 30 secs air squats → 2 min cardio → 30 secs press-ups → 2 min cardio → 30 secs squat thrusts → 2 min cardio → 30 secs burpees → Start the circuit!
Cardio circuit hints and tips
Feel free to mix and match the level timings. If your muscle endurance is superior to your CV fitness, you might get more out of the circuit if you kept the cardio stations at 3 minutes but raised the bodyweight stations to 2:30. And, of course, reverse the advice if your cardio’s on point but your bodyweight is lagging.
Related: Bodyweight Circuit >
To make the workout more interactive, I have chosen different cardio exercises for the four stations. In addition to diversifying the workout, this session plan tactic also broadens the spectrum of physiological engagement – that is, more muscle groups will be stimulated.
However, you may prefer to reduce the range of cardio exercises. Perhaps because you plan to do the cardio circuit at home and the only CV exercise available is running. Making this amendment will not impact the mechanics of the circuit. You can go so far as to reduce the number to one. When I trialled this circuit, I completed the second lap solely on the rowing machine. I found the circuit as engaging as with four exercises. It was more boring though.
Throughout the circuit explanation, I have suggested that you train at a moderate intensity. As with all Hungry4Fitness Workouts, nothing is set in stone. You may find it beneficial for health and fitness purposes to push the pace now and then. For example, over the final 30 seconds of every cardio bout, you could pop in a HIT blast. Open up the throttle and punch it to the finish line. The use of the bodyweight exercise as a reduced-intensity active recovery period prior to progressing to the following cardio station.
Enjoyed this circuit
Then get your hands on over 80 more with the Hungry4Fitness Book of Circuits & Workouts Volume 3 >
About Adam Priest –
A former Royal Marines Commando, Adam Priest is a content writer, college lecturer, and health and wellbeing practitioner. He is also a fitness author and contributor to other websites. Connect with Adam via LinkedIn or email@example.com.