Fitness Fundamentals: Cardio Exercise

“Cardio” is usually one of the first types of exercise you’re exposed to when you begin a weight loss journey. However, cardio is so much more than a great way to torch calories.

Cardio, often referred to as cardiovascular or cardiorespiratory training, involves movements that increase your heart rate. The physiological goal of cardio training is to improve oxygen consumption by the body. Another way to look at it, investing in cardio will help your heart work harder and allow it to function more efficiently! Your heart is a big muscle and cardio is the way to make it stronger. If that doesn’t pique your interest, how ‘bout these benefits:

  • Increased metabolism
  • Improved hormonal profile (literally releases ‘feel good’ hormones!)
  • Reduced risk of heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes
  • Weight loss
  • Stronger heart & lungs
  • Increased bone density
  • Reduced stress
  • Better sleep
  • More energy

We could go on … are you convinced?

What type of Cardio is Best?

Although cardio training plays a large part in improving your health and wellness, it’s EASY to get started. Just get moving! The mistake most folks make is thinking that cardio has to be complicated or that it requires a lot of equipment. Dancing, walking, jogging, and biking all fit the bill. Of course, there are tons of options. Your first step is to determine the kinds of activities you would like to do! Do you like to be outside? Then, you might want to try walking, cycling, hiking or running. If the answer is no, you’ll need access to equipment (e.g. treadmills, ellipticals, steppers, etc) or classes (e.g. step, aerobics, Zumba®, etc).

Remember, there’s no ‘best’ type of cardio exercise. Anything that uses large muscle groups, gets you breathing harder than when you’re watching TV, and makes you sweat a bit will work. The best advice is to try lots of different activities, decide which ones you like and then continue to mix it up so you don’t get bored or overuse certain muscles, which can lead to injury.

How Long, How Hard, How Often?

The simple answer… it depends! It depends on your goals and your fitness level. To get started, think baby steps. Do a little bit today that doesn’t make you feel all that uncomfortable; something you can complete and feel good. Start with 10 minutes at a time with an intensity that allows you to talk in sentences. Then, once you’re able to stick with that time and duration, add a little bit of time to your session and try 15-20 minutes each time. To reap the most benefit from your cardio sessions, you’ll want to work up to the CDC’s 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines:

  • Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.
  • Exercise recommendations can be met through 30-60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (five days per week) or 20-60 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise (three days per week).
  • One continuous session and multiple shorter sessions (of at least 10 minutes) are both acceptable to accumulate desired amount of daily exercise.

If you’re not logging this kind of time, don’t worry. Any amount of activity is better than being sedentary! Gradual progression of time, frequency, and intensity is recommended for best adherence and least injury risk.

What do I need to get started?

There’s only one thing you absolutely need to get started with a cardio workout – shoes. Depending on what type of activity you choose, you’ll want to invest in a good shoe that provides support in the way you’ll be moving. If you’re not sure what you might end up doing for your workout, try a cross trainer shoe to begin. Other gear you may want to take a look at might include:

  • Clothing – almost every type of cardio activity has clothing dedicated to high performance. Unless you are logging serious miles running, biking or swimming, chances are lightweight, breathable exercise attire will do the trick to get you started.
  • Watch – if you’re getting into walking, running or biking, some type of a timing device will help. To keep it simple in the beginning, choose a predictable route and see how long it takes you and how you feel. Next time out, try to go a little faster with the same route. Of course, if you’re exercising indoors, make use of the timing device on the machine.
  • Music – music is a must if you’re doing your cardio alone! In group classes, the music is a given, but outside or on a cardio machine, you’ll want a great playlist to motivate you.


While some might suggest having a heart rate monitor is crucial for cardio, know that you can trust the “Talk Test” to get started. Consider four ‘intensities’:

  1. Easy – easy breathing, a walk in the park; able to carry on a conversation.
  2. Moderate – breathing still possible through the mouth, but work has begun; you can speak in sentences.
  3. Hard – breathing is becoming labored and you’re not necessarily thrilled about hanging out with this uncomfortable feeling; phrases (3-5 words) are about all you can get out.
  4. Breathless – you’re in need of recovery and it’s hard to catch your breath; words are tough to come by.

For the benefits we’ve discussed, you’ll need to aim for moderate and hard intensities. And, once you’re training consistently, you’ll want to mix in some higher intensity work that takes you breathless. Good rule of thumb, if you have long periods of time, the intensity can be less. If you’re short on time, it’s better to push the intensity to get the biggest bang for your buck. But, it’s most important that you simply start accumulating activity first! If you need a plan to stick to, try the Beginner’s Workout Calendar that’ll help you get started with about 3-4 days of workouts per week! You’ll be surprised how quickly you adapt to cardio training. The first step is just getting started. Try to focus on small successes along the way to keep you motivated. You may just find, regardless of the health benefits, the way cardio makes you feel will keep you coming back for more.

What is your favorite form of cardio?


  • ; Center for Disease Control & Prevention. 2008 Physical Activity Guideline for Americans.
  • Additional info:
  • ACSM, 2014. Guidelines for Exercise Testing & Prescription (9th ed), Baltimore, MD, Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins.
  • Image credit: Port of San Diego
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Shannon Fable, 2013 IDEA and 2006 ACE Instructor of the Year, is the VP of Fitness Programming for the FIT4MOM® franchise. For more than two decades, she has helped impressive brands such as Anytime Fitness, Schwinn®, Power Systems, ACE, Silver Sneakers, and BOSU® as a fitness business and programming consultant. An experienced educator, freelance writer, and certified Book Yourself Solid® Business Coach, she helps fitness entrepreneurs navigate the industry and make more money. Fable serves as Vice Chair of the ACE Board of Directors and is the founder and co-owner of GroupEx PRO®, a cloud-based group fitness management tool.