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Cardiovascular Exercise | Benefits & Best Exercises

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

A group of fitness enthusiasts participating in cardiovascular exercise.

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If you want to know more about cardiovascular exercise, you’re in the right place. This article answers 10 frequently asked questions about cardio.


In addition to answering a range of FAQs, we will look at the many positive ways that cardiovascular exercise impacts our health and fitness.


But it’s not all sitting and reading!


Our final FAQ provides you with a cardio workout to try. Furthermore, you’ll receive 10 effective tips for starting your own cardio training program.


Cardiovascular exercise quick finder


 

FAQ #1: What’s cardiovascular exercise?

What’s cardiovascular exercise?

Cardiovascular exercise is sometimes referred to by a number of different names. These include CV, cardio, aerobics, continuous, steady state, and L.S.D (or long, slow distances). What unifies the names is the underlying style of training they express.


Cardiovascular exercise constitutes a form of physical exertion that is sustained by the cardio-respiratory system (heart and lungs respectively). Kenneth Cooper defines ‘aerobic exercises’ as ‘activities that require oxygen for prolonged periods and place such demands on the body that it is required to improve its capacity to handle oxygen,’ (The Aerobics Program For Total Well-Being).


Other distinguishing features of cardio are the duration of exercise bouts and the level of intensity.


Slow and steady wins the race

For the aerobic energy system to be sufficiently stimulated, continuous output must be sustained for a minimum of 15 minutes. (However, recent studies that investigated HIIT (high-intensity interval training), showed that comparatively short explosive exposures of exercise can yield similar results to protracted bouts of cardio.)


As the alternative name implies, cardio exercise should be conducted at a steady state. ‘Aerobic exercise,’ Cooper tells us, ‘usually involves endurance activities which don’t require excessive speed.’


FAQ #2: How much cardiovascular exercise per day

How much cardiovascular exercise per day.

A person’s circumstances, fitness levels, exercise experience and training motivation will largely dictate cardio frequency. For example, someone preparing for a marathon may run multiple times a day and, at their training peak, may cover up to 100 miles per week.


Though excessive by most people’s standards, this volume is commensurate with their fitness goal. And it can be safely sustained so long as they rest, replenish, and rehabilitate accordingly.


What about those that harbour a more modest training goal – such as keeping the weight off and heart healthy? How much cardio should they do?


On that question, the author of the book Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest and Health, is a bit elusive. After contrasting and critiquing a score of studies, Daniel Liberman sums up his knotty analysis with a less-than-helpful statement.


‘Exercise is not a panacea,’ he says, ‘but the more you exercise, the longer you are likely to live, and the effects of physical activity on longevity become vastly greater as we age.'


So, how much cardio exercise per day?


Balance is the key to cardiovascular exercise

Kenneth Cooper, who wrote the exercise program for the US military and NASA, advocates a balanced approach to your aerobic exercise program. A single 30- to 60-minute bout of cardio a day is about right.


However, the training intensity and type of aerobic exercise should vary. Repetitive training – doing the same exercise day in and day out – increases your risk of suffering an overuse injury.


And you don’t have to do just cardio. For example, you could include bouts of cardio into a circuit (more on that below). Also, let’s not forget that most sports include aerobic activity.


Thus, if you play for a five-a-side team or participate in a racket sport, this will contribute to topping up your weekly total.


FAQ #3: Should I do cardiovascular exercise or circuit training?

Should I do cardiovascular exercise or circuit training?

Ideally, you should do both, and in abundance. Cardio exercise enables you to engage your heart and respiratory system. Also, as Daniel Liberman highlights, aerobic activity is a superior method of improving body composition – the ratio between fat mass and fat-free mass.


This, and other factors outlined below, accounts for why ‘endurance athletes’ such as triathletes and cyclists boast ‘a stunning two-thirds lower risk of heart attacks’ while ‘weight lifters’ suffered ‘one-third higher rates of heart attacks,’ (Exercised – p314).


Cardio can take your fitness only so far

But cardio has its limitations. For one, it doesn’t sufficiently stimulate the skeletal muscles. Thus, people that only do cardio can lack the strength and physical robustness that resistance training forges.


However, interlacing cardio days with circuits is a simple way to resolve that limitation. Because circuits are invariably comprised of callisthenics and resistance exercises, they can help build whole-body strength and muscle endurance.


In addition, as I explain in the introduction of the Hungry4Fitness Book of Workouts, circuits are extremely versatile. A common misunderstanding is that circuits should consist solely of resistance exercises. This is incorrect and there is nothing wrong with including cardio stations in your circuit sessions.


FAQ #4: How do you make cardiovascular exercises enjoyable?

How do you make cardio exercises enjoyable?

A perennial complaint of the cardio avoiders (or ‘runophobes’) is that it’s boring. Some people see cardio as a form of torture and, if they don’t dodge it completely, they begrudgingly force themselves through a sweat session.


It doesn’t, however, have to be this way. While for many cardio will always remain a chore, there are a few simple methods of making it a little less unpalatable. Here are four examples for you.


How to fall head over heels with cardio

  1. Long, slow bouts of CV can be mind-numbingly monotonous. But there is no Universal law prohibiting you from breaking up bouts by periodically changing exercises. For example, you could set up a cardio circuit and spend anywhere between three to 15 minutes per station. If you apply this approach just ensure to keep transitions short.

  2. Include cardio in your circuits and gym workouts. Try setting yourself the goal of starting every workout with a short 15-minute run.

  3. Ever thought about joining a running club? Me neither. However, studies cited in The New Psychology of Health report that group exercise can improve participation levels (peer pressure effect). In addition, exercising with others has been shown to enhance the enjoyability of activities that are normally perceived as banal – such as running, cycling, and walking.

  4. Mix up your cardio exercises. This is beneficial for a few reasons beyond banishing boredom. Changing cardio exercises will work the body in different ways and reduce injury risk. Below are 10 examples of cardiovascular exercises for you to try.


FAQ #5: 10 examples of cardiovascular exercises

10 examples of cardiovascular exercises.
Running (and walking)
Rowing
Swimming
Cycling
Skipping
Airdyne cycling
Cross-country skiing (the elliptical machine is a more accessible alternative)
Ski-erg
Grappler
Most sports

FAQ #6: What cardio exercise is best?

What cardio exercise is best?

That question ultimately hinges on your fitness goals and aspirations. For example, if you want to lose some superfluous body fat, your opinion of the best cardio exercise will be one that consumes the most calories.


According to the authors of Exercise Physiology, the best cardio exercise for burning fat is cross-country skiing. But then that shouldn’t come as a surprise considering it consists of running in sub-zero temperatures with planks of wood strapped to your feet.


What if want to lose weight but you hail from a country with a more clement climate? Skiing’s off the menu if live closer to the equator.


Well, all is not lost. Both running and rowing are effective cardiovascular exercises for losing weight. So are swimming and cycling.


Bruce Lee’s best cardiovascular exercise

Bruce Lee wasn’t just a movie star and martial arts master. He was also a pioneer of physical training that passionately pursued physical perfection. Granted, for Bruce exercise was a means of enhancing his combat effectiveness. However, this doesn’t detract from what he has to teach on the subject of improving physical performance. (Have a go at one of Bruce Lee's workouts.)


Having experimented with every conceivable form of cardiovascular exercise available, Bruce arrived at the conclusion that skipping was one of the best. He is quoted as having said that 10 minutes of skipping is the equivalent of 30 minutes of jogging (The Art of Expressing the Human Body).


Though there’s no research comparing the comparative effectiveness of the two cardio exercises, skipping certainly is an excellent aerobic activity. In addition to engaging a wide range of muscle groups, including, of course, the cardio-respiratory system, skipping improves coordination, balance, and timing.


Related: Best all-purpose Skipping Rope

FAQ #7: What are 10 benefits to cardiovascular exercise?

What are 10 benefits to cardiovascular exercise?

Below I’ve listed 10 benefits of cardiovascular exercise. It’s worth pointing out before we look at the list that it’s not exhaustive. That is, there are more benefits besides those outlined.


To give full vent to the health and fitness-promoting effects of cardio, we recently published a feature-length article on the subject. In that article (The Benefits of Cardio) you will discover a comprehensive outline of four key benefits.


For those that just want a taste, and not a four-course meal, the following list will suffice.


Benefits of cardiovascular exercise

  1. Is an efficient method of reducing total body fat

  2. Engages the cardio-respiratory system

  3. Improves aerobic capacity and efficiency

  4. Lowers resting heart rate

  5. Improves the strength and elasticity of the heart

  6. Helps to lower blood pressure

  7. Has been shown to improve mood

  8. Reduces risk of coronary heart disease (CHD)

  9. Strengthens bones and connective tissues

  10. Increases lung capacity and maximum oxygen uptake (VO2 max)


FAQ #8: Is cardiovascular exercise low impact?

A woman on an indoor bike.

Not all cardiovascular exercise is low impact. For example, running and skipping are comparatively high-impact cardio activities.


If you had a lower limb injury, are currently rehabilitating an old injury, or are overweight, elderly, or have been diagnosed with osteoporosis, you would be wise to avoid impact exercises – at least until you received medical clearance.


However, depending on your reasons for avoiding impact aerobic exercises, there are simple ways to reduce the impact. Running on a treadmill is a low-impact alternative to road running. Treadmills are spring-loaded and thus absorb the impact of the striking foot.


Related: Best Treadmill for the home gym

To lessen the impact of skipping, you can jump rope on a soft training mat. Similar to the treadmill, a mat absorbs and disperses impact each time you land. The severity of the impact can be further attenuated by wearing cushioned footwear (ON make the best running trainers).


Low impact cardio exercises

But let’s say that you need a low-impact cardio exercise and can’t compromise with a reduced-impact alternative. What cardio activities can you do? Thankfully, there are more low-impact cardio exercises than there are high-impact ones.


Swimming is the lowest-impact aerobic exercise you can do. In fact, it’s no-impact cardio. When submerged in water you are effectively weightless.


Cycling and rowing are two other excellent low-impact cardio exercises. In addition to being kinder to the joints, they engage one or more major muscle groups.


Other low-impact cardiovascular exercises include:


Airdyne cycling
Cross-trainer (or elliptical machine)
Ski-erg
Grappler

Related: Try this Low-impact Cardio Workout

FAQ #9: Can cardiovascular exercise lower blood pressure?

A woman checking her heart rate after a run.

First, what causes high blood pressure (also called hypertension)? High blood pressure, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), is a serious condition that develops gradually over time. It impacts a staggering number of people. A UK Government article entitled ‘Health Matters’ estimates that hypertension ‘affects more than 1 in 4 adults in England, around 12.5 million people.’


High blood pressure is a precursor for more serious conditions such as strokes, obesity, and coronary heart disease.


Related: Use this NHS approved Blood Pressure Monitor to keep track of your ticker

Of the factors that increase the risk of high blood pressure, the CDCP list unhealthy lifestyle choices ‘such as not getting enough regular physical activity.’ In addition to extending that list, the authors of the immense book Physiology of Sport and Exercise separate the risks into two distinct categories, those that we can and cannot control.


Those risks that are in our power to control include:


Insulin resistance
Obesity
Diet
Smoking, and
Physical inactivity

High blood pressure is defined by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence as a ‘clinic blood pressure of 140/90 mmHg or higher.’


Cardio can control (even combat) hypertension

The importance of physical exercise in controlling high blood pressure couldn’t be overstated. Wilmore and Catch state that ‘strong data support the effectiveness of exercise in reducing blood pressure in those with mild or moderate hypertension,’ ( Physiology of Sport and Exercise – 5th Edition – p652).


They go on to say that, more specifically, endurance training appears to yield the most significant results in reducing both ‘systolic and diastolic blood pressures.’ The mechanism responsible for this reduction, they suggest, is the effects of endurance exercise on blood lipid levels. That is, the way cardio metabolises body fat for energy.


Remember, hypertension is in part a result of fatty plaque build-up in the arteries (atherosclerosis) and a thickening of the blood – usually a consequence of the excess fat deposits in the blood. But also exacerbated by high sodium intake, stress, and smoking.


How cardio exercise reduces blood pressure

This mechanism was documented by researchers that compared the effects of cardio and weight training on overweight and obese adults. After a 12-week training program, ‘individuals prescribed just weights barely lost any body fat but those prescribed twelve miles a week of running lost substantial amounts of fat, especially harmful organ fat,’ (Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest & Health – p304).


The logic follows that, by reducing total body fat, the fat clogging arteries and curdling blood will also reduce. This in turn frees up blood flow which reduces the burden on the heart.


But don’t forget that there are other ways of reversing hypertension that, if implemented, can compound the effectiveness of exercise. For example, in conjunction with cardio exercise, consider:


Improving your diet – transitioning to a plant-based whole-foods diet
Stopping smoking (and vaping)
Reducing (or better still, ceasing) alcohol consumption
Avoiding stress – especially long-term or ‘chronic’ stress
Reducing sodium use in food

FAQ #10: Cardio workout and training ideas

A woman performing a plyometric jump.

Now that we’ve considered a diverse range of frequently asked cardiovascular exercise questions, it’s about time we put theory into practice. Of course, the only way to tap into the many health and fitness benefits of cardio is to incorporate it into our exercise routine.


What follows is an example of a cardio workout for you to try. In addition, I have compiled a list of tried-and-tested methods that can help you maintain cardio training consistency.


Cardio workout

This general-purpose cardio workout (which was taken from the blog Best Gym Routines) was designed to be completed at a gym. However, it can be modified for home training.


The session plan is nice and simple. It consists of four different cardiovascular exercises. These are interspersed with bodyweight exercises, which were included to break up the monotony of continuous cardio.


You’re spending ten minutes on each cardio exercise before progressing down the bodyweight pyramid. Feel free to adjust the workout to suit your training preferences and equipment availability.


Cardiovascular exercise workout routine session plan.

10 tips to implement a cardio training program

  1. Know your current fitness levels and capacity to commit – if borne in mind when putting together a program, these factors can enable you to avoid the age-old mistake of setting the bar too high.

  2. If you’re a new exerciser, out of shape, or harbour a strong aversion to cardio, start off super simple!

  3. Select a range of cardio exercises that you enjoy.

  4. Establish cardio training days.

  5. Ensure to complete your cardio at a time when you’re least likely to be distracted. (My preferred time is 4:30 am, and because not a soul is stirring nothing can come between me and my cardio routine.)

  6. Keep the distances and times of your workouts short, to begin with. Incrementally increase the two as you feel your program harden into habit.

  7. Create a tracker or 6-week program and plot on it your cardio training days. Use this as a cardio to-do list and tick off each successful session.

  8. Ensure to make the above tracker/program VISIBLE!

  9. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. This can lead to anxiety and resentment towards your program.

  10. But you need to put enough pressure on yourself to keep up the cardio! I’ll leave this conundrum to you.


 

Need fitness training ideas?
The Hungry4Fitness book of circuits and workouts.

 

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 at info@hungry4fitness.co.uk.

 

References

Cooper, K. (1982) The Aerobics Program For Total Well-Being. Evens & Co. USA.


Haslam, C. Jetten, J. Cruwys, T. Dingle, G. Haslam, A (2018) The New Psychology of Health. Routledge. UK.



Wilmore, H. J, Costill, L. D (1999) Physiology of Sport and Exercise Second Edition. Human Kinetics. United States.


Centres for Disease Control and Prevention – Blog High Blood Pressure symptoms and Causes – Sited online at:


Full quote: What causes high blood pressure? High blood pressure usually develops over time. It can happen because of unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as not getting enough regular physical activity. Certain health conditions, such as diabetes and obesity, can also increase the risk of developing high blood pressure.


UK Government article entitled ‘Health Matters’ statistics for hypertension in England – sighted online at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/health-matters-combating-high-blood-pressure/health-matters-combating-high-blood-pressure (27/04/2023) Full quote: High blood pressure affects more than 1 in 4 adults in England, around 12.5 million people in 2015. The prevalence of high blood pressure for adults in England in 2015 was 31% among men and 26% among women, with little change over the last few years.

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