Repetitive, rhythmic exercise that increases your heart rate and requires you to use more oxygen is called aerobic exercise, cardiovascular exercise, or “cardio” for short.
Cardio exercise is imperative to your heart health for many reasons.
- Cardio provides aerobic conditioning—this is when the heart muscle becomes stronger and enlarged due to exercise, which makes it pump more efficiently. Therefore, your resting heart rate is reduced and the heart doesn’t need to work as hard.
- Cardio strengthens the muscles used during breathing and throughout the body.
- Cardio burns extra calories, which helps reduce body fat and manage weight.
- Cardio improves circulation.
- Cardio increases red blood cells in the body, which helps transport oxygen to all tissues of the body that need it.
- Cardio improves mental health, reduces stress, and lowers the incidence of depression.
- Cardio reduces the risk of heart attack, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
The FITT principle can help you incorporate cardio exercise into your physical activity plan.
Frequency (how often you are physically active in a week)
According to the Centers for Disease Control, your long-term goal is to do cardio exercise at least five times per week. Of course, the more the better, if you are able.
If you need to set up small, more achievable temporary goals, aim to get cardio in at least three times per week. If this seems difficult, remember you can adjust the intensity and the time so that you can achieve this frequency goal first. Research shows the frequency of physical activity is very important for reducing many heart-related risk factors, including blood pressure, stress, and blood sugar for people who have diabetes. So, even if you have to start slowly—for example with 5 to 10 minutes of walking 3 times a week—you will begin to build another heart-healthy habit when you regularly set aside time in your week for physical activity.
Intensity (how hard you work each time you are physically active)
Moderate-intensity aerobic activity noticeably accelerates the heart rate. Examples of this type of activity include brisk walking, cycling at moderate speeds, mopping, or walking with a purpose. Moderate-intensity activity also generally “breaks a sweat.” As a general rule of thumb according to the Talk Test if you're doing moderate-intensity activity, you can usually talk, but not sing, during the activity. Whereas, if you're doing vigorous-intensity activity, you will not be able to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath. Vigorous activities include running, cycling at fast speeds, and swimming laps.
Time (the duration or how long your physical activity lasts)
Your cardio sessions should last at least 10 minutes at a time. But the longer you are able to exercise, the more calories you will burn and the more endurance you will build. Aim to slowly increase the duration of your physical activity over time to reach at least 30 minutes of continuous cardio. If you can eventually go even longer -- for example, 60 minutes -- that’s even better.
Type (the kind of physical activity you are doing)
It doesn’t matter what type of physical activity you do—as long as you work up to doing it about 5 times per week, you get your heart rate up, and you make it last at least 10 minutes at a time. Begin slowly and listen to your body to make sure you are tolerating it well.
Keep in mind, you may never be able to reach vigorous intensity, and that’s perfectly acceptable. Your level of moderate intensity may be different from another person’s level. Do whatever activity you can to get started and aim to make improvements slowly as you are able.
Examples of Moderate Intensity
- Walking briskly
- Water aerobics
- Bicycling slower than 10 miles per hour
- Tennis (doubles)
- Ballroom dancing
- General gardening
- Mopping or vacuuming floors
Examples of Vigorous Intensity
- Race walking, jogging or running
- Stair climbing
- Swimming laps
- Tennis (singles)
- Aerobic dancing
- Bicycling 10 miles per hour or faster
- Jumping rope
- Heavy gardening (continuous digging or hoeing)
- Hiking uphill or with a heavy backpack