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What Is Cardiovascular Exercise?
Your heart beats faster. You breathe more rapidly and deeply. And you sweat. Well,
that’s probably because you’ve been moving the large muscles in your legs, arms
and hips over a sustained period of time. When these major muscles are involved in
exercise, there is increased rate of respiration to produce energy. In turn, the need
for more oxygen leads to increased breathing and heart rate. And such a form of
activity is called cardiovascular exercise—or cardio in short.
What is cardiovascular exercise?
Also called aerobic or endurance exercise,
cardiovascular exercise is any form of activity that uses aerobic metabolism. That is,
during the activity, oxygen is heavily involved in the cellular reactions that produce
the energy necessary to sustain the activity. Your heart rate increases and you
breathe more deeply to maximize the amount of oxygen in your blood and help you
to use more oxygen efficiently. Hence, you feel more energized and do not get tired
Cardiovascular exercise is any vigorous activity that increases heart rate and
respiration and raises oxygen and blood flow throughout the body while using large
muscle groups of the body repetitively and rhythmically. Such activity progressively
challenges your most vital internal body organs and improves the function and
performance of the heart, lungs and circulatory system. Cardio improves many
aspects of health, including heart health, mental health, mood, sleep, weight
regulation and metabolism.
Actually, the heart becomes more efficient with every beat as it pumps oxygencarrying blood, the lungs more effective in taking in oxygen, and the muscles more
equipped to use more oxygen. Still, as the breathing and heart rate increase, the
surge is should not be so much as to make you feel that you need to stop and rest.
In the course of cardio such as speed walking, cycling, swimming, running or speed
climbing, if you experience a strong urge to stop and rest, unusual pain or alarming
symptoms, then you have to stop immediately and seek medical attention.
But for an exercise to be considered cardio, it must raise your heart rate and
breathing rate into the moderate to vigorous intensity level (at least 50-percent of the
normal rate) for a minimum of 10 minutes. That is why activities undertaken to
improve strength, such as resistance exercise, using weight machines, lifting
weights, and core workouts are NOT considered as cardio because they do not raise
the heart rate throughout the period of exercise.
Which are the most common cardiovascular exercises?
Brisk walking
Jogging or jogging in place
Bear crawls
Water aerobics
Cross-country skiing
Race-walking Volleyball, basketball, soccer or racquetball
Kayaking, paddling or canoeing
Circuit training
Jumping rope
Stair climbing
In-line skating
Martial arts
HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)
Mountain climbing
Jumping jacks, squat jumps, split jumps
Roller blading
The most frequently used machines for cardio exercises include:
Stepping machine
Stationary cycles
Ski trainer
Rowing machine
Elliptical trainer
Recumbent bike
Upright bike
Stair climber
Upper body ergometer
Precor AMT
What are the major categories of cardiovascular exercise?
Broadly, cardiovascular exercise can be classified into three categories—high-impact
cardio, low-impact cardio and no-impact cardio.
High-impact cardio
Any cardiovascular activity that involves having both your feet off the ground at some
point during the activity is called high-impact cardio. It is also called a weight-bearing
exercise because you are supporting your own body weight with your limbs against
the force of gravity. Examples include jumping rope, high-impact aerobic dance, and
certain forms of advanced strength training.
Low-impact cardio
Any cardiovascular activity during which one foot remains on the ground at all times.
But low-impact cardio should not be confused with low-intensity cardio since many
types of low-impact activities are of high intensity. Low-impact cardio is still a weightbearing exercise and good for maintaining healthy bones and conditioning the lungs
and heart. Examples of low-impact cardio include walking, hiking and low-impact
aerobic dance.
No-impact cardio
When cardiovascular exercise is performed in water, the activity is classified as noimpact because being immersed in water reduces the pull of gravity on the body. So
swimming and water aerobics are no-impact cardio activities. Bicycling is also a noimpact cardio exercise because the tires and frame of the bike support most of the
body weight. No-impact cardio such as cycling and aquatic exercise are ideal if you
have arthritic condition or are undergoing injury rehabilitation as they eliminate most
of the jarring and pounding associated with land-based cardio activity.
Why should you engage in cardiovascular exercise?
Cardio exercise uses
the large muscles of your body in movement over a sustained period of time,
keeping your heart rate to at least 50-percent of its maximum level. With regular
aerobic exercises, you will have a stronger cardiovascular system, with more
capillaries delivering more oxygen to the cells in your muscles. You will also enjoy
increased stamina and endurance with each passing session.
Specific benefits of cardio exercise include:
Improved heart health
When you engage in 30-60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise daily, you are able to
build stronger muscles, including those of the heart, that control your blood pressure,
enhance HDL (good cholesterol), lower anxiety and stress, decrease blood proteins
and fats that contribute to blood clots, prevent heart disease, and reduce blood sugar
and manage diabetes.
Enhanced brain health
By engaging in cardio regularly, the regions of the brain that control memory and
thinking skills grow in volume or size. Frequent cardiovascular activity also reduces
the rate of shrinking of brain size in older people, improving their cognitive function.
But cardio can also help you achieve a good night’s sleep, which is necessary for
your mental health.
Increased metabolic rate
All types of cardio increase metabolism through the production of Fibroblast Growth
Factor 21 (FGF21) hormone, which increases the body’s metabolism, suppresses
appetite and causes more calories to be burned.
Weight regulation
By increasing the heart rate into the target heart rate zone, which is the zone where
the body burns the most calories, cardio helps to burn excess calories and control
weight. Exercises such as walking, swimming, running and jogging burn excess
calories over time while moderate to high intensity cardio burn quite a lot of calories
per exercise session. Examples of cardio exercises that are highly effective in cutting
weight include jumping rope, running stairs, walking, rowing, cycling and high
intensity interval training (HIIT).
Improved mood and energy
Cardiovascular exercise triggers increased secretion of endorphins—neurochemicals
that cause a feeling of euphoria. Cardio also causes increased production of moodboosting hormones such as dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. With improved
mood, you feel more energized and ready to complete your routine activities. But the
increased release of hormones also reduces stress, boosts stamina, increases
energy, and improves memory and mental focus.
Stronger immune system
Regular exercise increases the release of antibodies and white blood cells, which
improve your body’s ability to fight infections. The release of FGF21 also speeds up
metabolism and boosts immune system. Actually, cardio protects the body against
several illnesses, including hypertension, stroke, osteoporosis, diabetes and heart
Management of arthritis
Cardiovascular exercise helps to reduce the pain associated with arthritis and
minimize stiffness at the joint through movement.
How should you do cardiovascular exercise to get the most from it?
For maximum benefit, you will need to engage in cardio activity for at least three
days every week. For instance, if you have more time during weekends, you can
schedule the first two days to be on Saturday and Sunday, then look for one more
day in the middle of the week. So you don’t have to squeeze all your exercises on
weekdays—though if you can fit them into your schedule, then just go for it.
Big blocks of time are not required for cardiovascular exercise. With cardio, short
bouts (as short as 5 minutes each) are just as effective as longer sessions, provided
the intensity level and the total cumulative workout time are equal. For example,
twelve 5-minute bursts of high-intensity cardio is as effective as a single 60-minute
session. If you are worried about your tight schedule, then cardio is a great option for
you. You also don’t need special equipment or gym membership to do a lot of
aerobic exercises.
For a beginner, it is prudent to start with low-to-moderate intensity activities, such as
walking, bicycling, swimming, dancing, jogging, martial arts, in-line skating,
canoeing, golfing, and water aerobics. This will enable you to do them for long
periods of time and gain more health benefits. But as you choose your activities, go
for those that you enjoy so you can stick to them as you get along.
Besides, it is better to increase intensity over time than to increase the volume or
length of an activity. Cardio is not something you should overdo and spending hour
after hour at a low-to-moderate pace is not going to give you any further benefits. So
after you are able to do 30-45 minutes of an activity 3-4 times a week, you should
step it up a notch and go for its advanced principles.
The fundamental guidelines for successful cardiovascular exercise include:
Start slowly
Start simple. For instance, begin with a 5-minute walk in the morning then another 5minute walk in the evening. After that, add a few minutes gradually and pick up the
pace over time. In no time, you will be comfortably walking for 30 minutes a day. As
you begin, make sure to consider activities that interest you and that you will do
without financial or time constraints. Viable options include hiking, jogging, cycling,
rowing, running, and elliptical training. Just remember, it is any activity that increases
your breathing and heart rate!
Warm up
At the start of every session, take 5-10 minutes to gradually rev up your
cardiovascular system and improve blood flow to your muscles. Warming up means
you engage in lower-intensity versions of the cardio activity you intend to do. For
example, if you intend to take a brisk walk, you can warm up by walking slowly.
Moving at your own pace, make sure you condition your body to be able to
accomplish at least 30 minutes of cardio per day. In fact, for cardio to benefit you,
then you need to develop your aerobic capacity by increasing your heart rate, depth
of breathing and muscular endurance to the point you are able to comfortably do at
least 30 minutes of your chosen activity.
Cool down
At the end of each session, take 5-10 minutes to cool down. You can cool down by
stretching your calf muscles, upper thighs (quadriceps), lower back, hamstrings and
chest. This post-workout stretch will enable your muscles, lungs, and heart rate to
return to normal conveniently