How Does Cardiovascular Exercise Improve Heart Health?

If you go out for a run or a brisk walk, you may notice your heart pumping faster and your breathing getting deeper. That’s because your heart and lungs are working together to get more oxygen into your blood and use that oxygen efficiently to produce the energy needed for your body to continue with its activity. This is what happens during cardiovascular exercise. 

Cardiovascular exercise, also called aerobic or endurance exercise, is any type of rhythmic and repetitive activity that uses large muscle groups, which results in an increased heart rate and respiration. 

You may notice that after days of repetitive cardio exercise, you’re able to run or walk farther and you don’t get so out of breath. Cardio progressively challenges your organs, especially your lungs, and heart, improving their function and helping them to perform more efficiently. 

Cardiovascular exercise improves many aspects of health: mood, sleep patterns, weight regulation, metabolism, and heart function. Doing at least 10 minutes of cardio daily helps to lower blood pressure, raises HDL (good) cholesterol, decreases proteins and fats that contribute to blood clots, and lowers anxiety and stress. In other words, cardio makes your heart happy. 

How Much of It Do You Need? 

For maximum benefit, you should do some form of cardio activity at least three days a week. Health authorities recommend that most people get about 150 minutes of cardio a week.

The great thing about cardio is you don’t have to work out for a full hour to get the benefits. Sessions as short as 10 minutes count towards your weekly cardio, as long as you’re increasing your heart rate into your target rate zone. Breaking your cardio workouts into smaller chunks may feel less overwhelming which means you’ll be more likely to stick with the exercise. 

When thinking about frequency, intensity is important to keep in mind as well. Just like any form of exercise, light or moderate-intensity cardio workouts can usually be performed every day. High-intensity cardio workouts require more rest days in between for your body to recover. You can also do a mixture of intensities throughout the week. You might do a long run on a Saturday and follow it up on Sunday with some low-intensity dancing. Because, yes, dancing IS cardio!

Examples of Cardiovascular Exercise  

High-impact cardio

This type of cardiovascular exercise involves movement that gets both feet off the ground at the same time. Examples of high-impact cardio include running, box jumping, burpees, jumping jacks, and high-intensity aerobic dance. 

High-impact cardio falls somewhere between 70% to 85% of your maximum heart rate (MHR). This type of cardio feels challenging and you may find yourself too breathless to talk much. If you’re just starting out, it may be a good idea to try beginner-level interval training where you’ll work harder but for shorter periods of time. 

Low-impact cardio

This type of cardio exercise gradually raises your heart rate and causes less pressure on your joints than high-impact cardio. During low-impact activity, one foot stays on the ground at all times. 

Don’t confuse low-impact with low-intensity, since many types of low-impact aerobic exercise are actually of high intensity. Examples of low-impact cardio include yoga, Pilates, walking, cross-country skiing, and hiking. 

During low-impact cardio, it’s recommended your heart rate falls between 50% to 70% of your MHR. 

No-impact cardio

While still a good form of exercise, this type of cardio is great for anyone suffering from joint pain or recovering from an injury. By reducing the jarring impact effects of gravity associated with moderate to high-intensity cardio, no-impact lowers the stress put on joints, muscles, and bones. 

Examples of no-impact cardio include swimming, rowing, elliptical training, and cycling. Again, don’t confuse no-impact with low-intensity. No matter what form of cardio you’re doing, be sure to get that heart rate up!

Ways to Incorporate Cardio into Your Daily Routine

Don’t think that you need a gym membership or fancy at-home equipment to work out. Regular cardio exercise can be taking a walk around your neighborhood or practicing Vinyasa yoga. Ask a friend to go on a walk along a local trail or put on a favorite song and turn your bedroom into a dance floor. 

With cardio, short sessions are just as effective as longer ones, just make sure your cumulative amount of time adds up to 150 minutes throughout the week. The first step to making cardio exercise a regular habit is finding a workout that you enjoy. What fits your personality? What are you comfortable fitting into your schedule? Finding a workout you like and that fits your life means you’re more likely to stick to it. 

If you’re a person who enjoys the outdoors, running, biking, and walking are all good choices. Gyms offer various forms of cardio machinery such as treadmills, rowing machines, stair climbers, and maybe even a pool. Home workouts are also an excellent choice and may be easier to fit into a busy life. Jumping jacks, burpees, mountain climbers, and squat jumps all get your heart rate up and require nothing but dedication and time. 

Any time you drive somewhere in your car, park a bit farther away from your destination and walk the rest of the way. If you use public transport, get off a few stops earlier. Stand at your desk instead of sitting (this is also great for your back and glutes), and get some fresh air during your lunch break. If you’re feeling ambitious, you could even ditch the car and bike to work! 

The Takeaway

As long as you’re getting your heart rate up, there are various forms of cardio out there for you to experiment with. Set some goals, find something you enjoy, and remember to start slow. Take your health to heart, and get moving!