Of all exercise types, cardio is the simplest. You might already do it and not even know. Walk your dog? Scrub your shower? Take the stairs?
“Anything that keeps the heart rate elevated can be considered cardio exercise,” says Mark Powell, a certified personal trainer and fitness center manager for Unum.
This is the 11th installment in a new WorkWell series, Healthy Living Basics for Everyone. The sanely paced plan helps you with nutrition, exercise and lifestyle and includes a mental component that helps clarify goals and identify what might hold you back.
The duration and intensity of your activity can offer different results. In other words, different heart-rate zones can help you meet different goals. Want to burn fat? Strengthen your heart and lungs? Run more quickly?
To get started, follow these steps from the American Heart Association and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
1. Know how to take your heart rate.
Your pulse gives it to you. Take your resting heart rate as a baseline. When you wake up in the morning is a good time.
Find it on your neck (carotid pulse) or wrist (radial pulse). Your carotid pulse is toward the sides of your neck, under your jaw. Your radial pulse is on the thumb side of each hand. Take your pulse by placing an index and middle finger (not thumb, which has its own pulse) lightly on one of those spots for 60 seconds, or 30 seconds and double the number.
Generally, 60 to 100 beats per minute is a normal resting rate, according to the American Heart Association. Very fit folks, such as endurance athletes, often have a lower number.
2. Find your maximum heart rate.
It’s 220 minus your age. Generally speaking, this is the highest rate you want your heart to pump at, especially for a sustained period of time. Your heart is a muscle, so you need to exercise it — to an appropriate degree — to keep it strong. But you don’t want to overdo it.
3. Find your heart-rate zone for moderately intense cardio exercise.
It’s 50 percent to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. This range is thought to be ideal for burning fat (although variables other than your pumper’s speed matter too, including how much or what you’ve eaten before exercising).
For basic health benefits the CDC recommends 2.5 hours a week of aerobic activity in this range. And it’s better to spread out your sessions, though each should last at least 10 minutes.
This zone is great for newbie exercisers, and it’s where you want your heart rate to be when you walk (a terrific form of moderate cardio). If you’re not a newbie and want even greater health benefits, aim for up to five hours a week.
“I recommend walking because it can be tailored to all fitness levels, costs no money, burns calories, can be done with friends or family, and because it can be monitored with a wearable device yet doesn’t require any actual equipment,” says Taylor Eubank, a health and wellbeing consultant with Unum and a certified exercise physiologist with the American College of Sports Medicine. Same goes for running, he says. Which leads us to the next step.
4. Find your heart-rate zone for very intense cardio exercise.
It’s 70 percent to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. This range, compared with the lower zone, will generally burn more calories and strengthen your heart and lungs more. It’s where you’ll likely be while running or hiking, for example.
“I also recommend high-intensity interval training, but it’s important to note that the heart will generally be working harder performing HIIT than walking,” Eubank says. “Because of this, be mindful of jumping in too quickly to a HIIT program without understanding modifications you can make for exercises your body may not be ready for immediately.”
Worth noting: HIIT can raise your heart rate to its max.
The bottom line
The key is doing various levels of cardio. And finding activities you like.
“Personally, I enjoy doing basketball workouts while monitoring my heart rate with a wearable device, as this type of exercise is engaging to me,” Eubank says. “I also enjoy being able to see how hard I’m pushing myself throughout the workout and the calories burned at the end.”
Another way to make cardio fun is to check your resting heart rate as you move into your new lifestyle. It might get lower and lower (yay!), especially if you’ve been eating well, sleeping soundly (which exercise often helps) and haven’t been extraordinarily stressed.
Journalist and yoga teacher Mitra Malek regularly creates content for wellness-focused outlets, including Yoga Journal, where she was an editor. Learn more at www.mitramalek.com.