“Get your blood pumping!” If you haven’t heard that phrase on the court, field, pitch or track, you’ve likely at least heard it on TV.
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Cardiovascular exercise is a surefire way to get your blood pumping harder and faster, but why exactly is that a goal? And how much harder does your heart need to be working for the activity you’re doing to “count” as cardio?
We talked to clinical exercise physiologist Erik Van Iterson, PhD, MS, to learn what counts as cardio, why it’s beneficial and how much of it you need to do to keep everything in shape, from your ticker to your toes.
What is cardio?
“Cardio” comes from the Greek word “kardía,” which means heart. Simply put, exercise typically counts as cardio if it involves intentional coordinated physical actions that raise your heart rate for an extended period of time.
A good cardiovascular workout will have you consistently breathing faster than you would while resting. The result: More oxygen in your blood for your heart to pump to the rest of your body.
You’ll also hear cardio referred to as “aerobic exercise.” The term emphasizes the enhanced movement and utilization of oxygen for energy production when you’re engaged in a cardiovascular workout.
While not an exhaustive list, all of the activities below fall into the category of cardiovascular exercise:
- Running or jogging.
- Walking and hiking.
- Cross-country skiing.
You can also use machines like ellipticals, steppers, treadmills and rowing machines (ergometers) to get the cardio your body craves.
Keep in mind that — even if you happen to miss your cardio exercise session for the day — certain everyday tasks like cleaning, gardening and mowing the lawn can also count as heart-benefitting physical activity.
How cardio benefits your heart
There’s a reason we call it ”cardio“: Aerobic exercise is good for your heart!
When part of an overall heart-healthy lifestyle, not only can regular cardio exercise lead to a decrease in your resting blood pressure and heart rate, but these basic changes can also mean your heart doesn’t have to work unnecessarily hard all of the time, says Dr. Van Iterson. Maintaining a good cardio routine also helps improve good cholesterol levels while lowering blood fats.
The benefits of cardio go beyond just your heart. In fact, research suggests that getting enough cardiovascular exercise could help you live a longer life. Dr. Van Iterson explains how it affects your entire body.
How cardio benefits your brain
Cardio exercise can help protect your brain as you grow older. One study reported that physical activity may reduce dementia risk, no matter what age you are. Other benefits may include:
- Increasing blood flow and decreasing chances of stroke.
- Improving memory and thinking ability.
- Combatting a decline in brain function with age.
- Protecting your brain against developing Alzheimer’s disease.
How cardio benefits your joints
We’ve all felt a bit creaky from time to time. While you may feel like taking it easy, the best thing to do to improve your joint health is to get moving. Cardiovascular exercise helps:
- Fight osteoporosis and reduce your chances of a hip fracture.
- Manage arthritis discomfort and maintain range of motion.
How cardio benefits your skin
No matter how you choose to move, being active helps increase circulation, which leads to clearer, healthier skin. In practice, that means:
- Better blood flow to your cells, including the skin cells on your face. That helps reduce signs of aging and improve your complexion.
- Lower stress levels, which helps keep chronic skin conditions like eczema at bay.
How cardio benefits your muscles
“Wait a minute,” you may be thinking, “strength training and cardio are two different things!”
You’re not wrong, but keeping your muscles healthy isn’t just about making them stronger.
When you work your heart and other muscles of your body during cardio exercise, this increases oxygen supply to your whole body, allowing all muscles to work harder and more efficiently. Over time, regular cardio exercise allows your muscles to adapt to an increased workload, making regular activities seem easier.
How cardio benefits your digestion
- Speeds peristalsis. We’ve already mentioned that cardio enables your muscles to work harder. That includes the muscles driving peristalsis — the movement of food through your digestive tract. Just don’t do any high-intensity exercise immediately after eating, or you risk feeling things like cramping or possible lightheadedness.
- Improves blood sugar regulation. Your pancreas is the organ that helps convert the food you eat for energy while also helping aid in digestion. Staying active helps improve blood sugar control, decreases stress on this vital organ and reduces your chance of developing Type 2 diabetes.
- Helps regulate your gut microbiota. If you want plentiful and diverse good bacteria in your gut, research suggests exercise can help with that.
How cardio benefits your lungs
“Your lungs are also positively affected by physical activity,” says Dr. Van Iterson. “Cardio helps decrease how frequently you have to breathe as exercise ability improves and can lead to reductions in fatigue and shortness of breath in chronic lung problems like asthma.”
Other benefits of cardiovascular exercise
We’ve discussed some of the more specific ways a good cardiovascular exercise routine can benefit specific organs and body systems, but let’s zoom out a bit. The big picture is just as rosy.
When paired with a heart-healthy nutrition plan, safe weight loss comes with doing regular cardio exercise. Not only does being at a healthy weight make you less likely to develop diseases like diabetes, certain cancers and heart disease, but your body can more easily circulate blood. Less sitting time and more physical activity also help you maintain a healthy weight by burning more calories throughout the day.
There’s a reason why you feel amazing after a workout. Cardio exercise helps your energy by releasing endorphins, giving you more, lasting energy throughout your day.
When it comes to hitting the sheets, struggling to fall asleep is the last thing you want after that long, busy day. The good news is that cardio helps you doze off faster and promotes REM sleep.
But there is a catch. “Make sure to avoid rigorous exercise too close to bed or you could be left too energized to count sheep due to having too much adrenaline circulating,” cautions Dr. Van Iterson.
Strengthens your immune system
Less stress + more sleep + better blood and oxygen flow to your cells = a healthier, more effective immune system. When you do get sick, there’s some evidence to suggest that low-intensity cardio can reduce your symptoms and help you recover faster from certain kinds of illnesses.
There’s one big caveat, though: make sure you also always build rest into your fitness routine. If you do too much high-intensity exercise too often, you can actually weaken your immune system.
Reduces your risk of falling
It’s a frustrating fact of life: Our risk of falling — and serious injury — goes up as we get older and our mobility decreases.
Normally, when we think about fall prevention, strength and balance exercises come to mind, not cardio. But you actually benefit from all three. After all, strength and balance are only as good as your endurance.
Improves sexual function
Did you know that aerobic (cardio) exercise helps sexual function? It’s true — it decreases the chances of erectile dysfunction in men and leads to enhanced arousal for women.
One study reported that staying active improves erectile function and proved to be a protective factor against erectile issues, while another study found that positive body image and psychological health due to exercise increased sexual well-being in women.
Our moods fluctuate on a daily basis but staying active helps boost your mood, especially after a stressful day. So, next time you’re feeling stressed or you’re having an off day, get to moving your body.
“Not only that, but it combats depression, improves your self-esteem and releases tension-fighting hormones like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine,” states Dr. Van Iterson.
How long should you workout?
But how often should you do cardio to reap the health benefits? The American Heart Association recommends achieving at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity heart-pumping exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise spread out over most days of the week. If you’re just getting started with cardio exercise, opt for the moderate-intensity level as an initial step in order to better allow your muscles and joints to get used to the movements.
“Try getting in a 30-minute workout five or more days a week that raises your heart rate for the duration of the activity,” advises Dr. Van Iterson. “Or if you’re new to exercise or it’s been a while since you last exercised, try getting started with three, 10-minute workouts, five or more days a week.”
The heart of the matter
Cardio — also known as aerobic exercise — is a vital component of any exercise regimen. It gets your blood pumping and oxygen flowing, which translates to better health across the board. And studies show that cardiovascular fitness is associated with living a longer life. Whether you’re a sucker for swimming or walking’s your jam, keep it up! Those sweat sessions are adding up to big wins for your body.