Cardio 101 – The Facts About Cardio

When I started getting fit, the word ‘cardio’ evoked images of sweating, leotard-clad bodies jumping around to 80’s music.It also filled me with the fear of death. Luckily this is not the case anymore. These days I enjoy the feeling of my body working to its maximum and then the feeling of accomplishment when you finish. And although I understand the benefits of cardio, it’s more the long term drawbacks of not doing cardio that gets my butt off the couch.

Which exercises are cardiovascular?
Anything you enjoy and that gets your heart rate up is cardio. If you hate gym workouts, don’t force yourself onto a treadmill. If you like socializing, consider sports, group classes, working out with a friend or a walking club. You need to find something you can see yourself doing at least 3 times per week. It’s not really about what you do but about how hard you are working and how consistently you can keep it up.
How hard should you work?
It depends on your fitness level and what you want to achieve with your workouts. The intensity of your workout can be measured using a rate of perceived exertion scale (RPE) which you monitor using your ability to talk while exercising. See the following table:
Measuring your Rate of Perceived Exertion
You can talk about anything, with ease. You are not working hard. Rating: 1-3
Breathing becomes laboured. You can still talk, but you have to focus. You are working moderately hard. Rating: 4-5
Your breathing is challenging but doable. Talking is effort. You are working hard. Rating: 6-7
You are breathing hard and conversation is nearly impossible. You are working very hard.
Rating: 8-9
You can’t talk without gasping for air. You can’t sustain this level of intensity for more than a few seconds – nor should you. You are working extremely hard. Rating: 10
This scale can be used to implement different types of cardio exercise. Not all exercise happens at the same level of work and again it depends on your fitness level and your goals. How hard you work is a crucial factor in your workout because it is directly related to how many calories you burn.
Different types of cardio:
Continuous Training:aka long slow cardio. It means training at the same workload for an extended period of time, usually 30 – 60 minutes, without any periods of rest. An example of this type of training would be jogging on a treadmill at a steady pace. It is safe and easy to pick-up, which makes it a great option for all levels of fitness. Once comfortable with this, you can spice it up by varying intensity and duration e.g. 
    • Low intensity, long duration – great to begin with.


    • Medium intensity, medium duration. This should be done in sets of no more than 40 minutes as it involves more intense work.


    • High intensity, short duration. This type of level demands readiness from the body in order to cope with the rigor of the cardio exercise. The duration can be anywhere from 5-15 minutes depending on your level of fitness and endurance. 


    •  Interval Training: this can also be done at all levels of fitness. It involves training at a high heart rate for a short period, then following that with a slow recovery period. This is a great option if you get bored easily and like to constantly change your intensity during workouts. Since this style of training elevates the heart rate a lot faster and more, the duration of training is less than that of continuous training.


The two types are:

    • Aerobic Interval Training. This means doing cardio exercise from a high intensity level and then moving to a lower intensity and repeating e.g. you can divide your workout into 3 minutes of running alternated with 1 minute of walking.


  • Anaerobic Interval Training. This involves doing high intensity cardio for a period of time and then resting or doing low intensity work for the same duration. An example is sprinting for 30 seconds, walking for 30 seconds, and repeating.



Fartlek Training: This is similar to interval training, only less structured. It is very demanding and best-suited for the advanced individual. The alternations involve intense training and recovery periods that are irregular. They fluctuate between high speed, high intensity anaerobic work and low intensity, relief type periods. I recommend you only attempt this under professional guidance.

 Cross-Training: This involves alternating types of cardio workouts within different periods of time. There are three varieties to this type of training:

    • Alternating equipment within the same cardio session, such as doing 10 minutes on the treadmill, 10 minutes on the stationery bike, and 10 minutes on the elliptical machine.


  • Varying the equipment each day, using a different machine for every workout.



  • You can also change training based on the seasons like swimming in the summer, hiking and rock-climbing in the fall, skiing in the winter etc.



Cardio Frequency, Duration & Intensity

The guidelines published by the American College of Sports Medicine suggest 30 minutes of moderate intensity cardio 5 days a week or 20 minutes of vigorous cardio 3 times a week. The general guidelines are that to maintain your current fitness level you need to do cardio 2-4 days a week (at least 20 minutes). To lose weight you need to do 4 or more days a week (at least 30 minutes). If you’re still working on endurance, it may take some time to work up to longer workouts. Once you’ve gotten used to exercise and are up to 30 minutes of continuous movement, you can start working on your intensity. Keep in mind that doing too much cardio is also not good and can actually backfire. There is a point of diminishing returns, so keep it reasonable, vary your intensity and don’t forget to take rest days when needed. Take your cue from how your body feels. Growth Hormone levels decline with high volume cardiovascular exercise, which also hampers the repair process of muscles. Low growth hormone also accelerates aging. So find a nice medium that works for you


Motivation for Exercise
Sometimes mustering up the motivation to exercise is more difficult than the actual exercise. Here are a few tips to help you with that.
·Keep it simple. If you’re feeling lost, start with the basics. Get out your diary, find 20 minutes on 3 different days and do something – walking, running, going to the gym, vigorous yard work – whatever you want.  
·Make it a habit first and work on your time and intensity later. Consistency is key. Make it part of your routine and after a while it easily fits into your day.
·Be patient. You probably won’t start off at full tilt but give your body the time it needs to work up to where you want to be. Keeping goals reasonable will prevent you from failing.


·Focus on your body. Try doing one workout a week with no distractions. Leave your magazines and walkman at home. Forget about calories, intensity and the rest of it and focus on how your body feels. Try different activities. Go slower or faster and see how your body responds. Take some time to learn about and connect to your body and you’ll be able to create workouts based on your needs.
·Stop and smell the roses. Go for a walk or bike ride and take some time to look around, notice the scenery. Breathe deeply. This will do wonders for calming the mind.
·Mix it up. Changing your cardio routine often will help you find new things you enjoy while keeping boredom at bay. This will also ensure continual progress and eliminate chances of burn-out. Another great option is to incorporate one day of fun cardio, such as your favourite sport, into your weekly program. This is also a great stress-reliever and gives you a chance to hang out with friends or family and have a good time.
·Appreciate your body. Not for how it looks but for the powerful machine that it is and how hard it works for you every day.
·Get a workout buddy. This way you have someone to talk to and push you through your workout.
·Music. Listening to pump-you-up music will motivate you and make time fly.
Now that you know the ins and outs of cardiotraining, you’re ready to start up or revamp your program and reach new heights in your training.