When you’re getting started with exercise, you probably know that cardio should be part of your routine. But knowing how to make it happen can feel a lot less straightforward. Not anymore. Here’s everything there is to know about cardio for beginners — and how to make your grand entrance into it.
What Is Cardio?
Cardiovascular exercise, technically, is any activity that elevates your heart rate to improve the function of your heart, lungs, and circulatory system, explains Openfit fitness expert Cody Braun.
However, when most people talk about cardio, what they’re referring to is a certain type of cardiovascular exercise, called aerobic exercise. The difference may seem small, but it’s important.
Aerobic vs. anaerobic exercise
Your body has two primary means of breaking food down into energy: your aerobic and anaerobic systems. Depending on the intensity of an activity, one system will be emphasized more than the other.
Your aerobic system requires oxygen to help produce fuel for activities that primarily build endurance. It can generate energy for long periods without abating, because it dominates when you’re working at lower, generally sustained, intensities.
Your anaerobic system, you guessed it, doesn’t require oxygen, relying instead on energy stored in the muscles. But because it powers high-intensity efforts, it tuckers out fast, explaining why you can’t sprint a marathon.
Both systems can, however, be cardiovascular if they work and strengthen your heart, lungs, and entire cardiovascular system.
Examples of aerobic exercise
Aerobic cardio includes low-intensity steady-state exercise such as walking, jogging, or cycling at a light to moderate pace. It can also include circuit training, as long as the exercises performed are low enough in intensity.
A good test: If you can carry on a conversation relatively easily, or at least get out a sentence or two at a time without having to take a breath, you are working in a predominantly aerobic zone. Besides strengthening the cardiovascular system, aerobic exercise builds muscular endurance and can be beneficial for those new to exercise.
Examples of anaerobic exercise
Anaerobic forms of cardio tend to be much more varied. They include high-intensity circuit training, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and even more traditional forms of strength training that prioritize large muscle groups at high intensity to keep your heart rate elevated.
The common denominator: They involve an intensity of effort great enough that anaerobic metabolism has to pitch in, and they usually involve periods of brief rest. Because they require working at such a high intensity and heart rate, these cardio workouts are best suited to those who have already built a base of fitness.
How Much Cardio Should I Do?
Federal guidelines recommend that, for overall health, adults perform at least 2 ½ to 5 hours per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise; 75 minutes to 2 ½ hours per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity; or an equivalent combination of the two. The guidelines also prescribe spreading aerobic activity throughout the week.
Beginner Cardio Tips
Keep the following in mind when starting a an exercise regimen.
1. Warm up first (really)
“You should always include a warm-up before jumping into any form of exercise in order to prep your cardiovascular system and your muscles for the upcoming work,” Braun says. He recommends dynamic stretches and bodyweight exercises that mimic the movements you’ll perform during your workout.
2. Choose form over volume
Whether you’re a beginner or gym rat, your workouts should always focus on technique over pushing for reps or distance. Start with low-intensity steady-state cardio or even some light circuit training, prioritizing low-impact exercises, before progressing to high-intensity training.
“As you build cardiovascular and muscular endurance you’ll prime your body for more vigorous forms of exercise like plyometrics or high-intensity interval training,” Braun says. Sorry, HIIT for beginners is generally not advised. Don’t worry; you’ll get there!
3. Don’t be boring
Venture outside your comfort zone and mix up your routine with activities, variations, and loads both familiar and alien. “Like most other concepts in fitness, once your workouts start to become easier for you, it might be time to progress and apply harder training modalities,” Braun says.
4. Hydrate religiously
Pay attention to your hydration levels, he says. According to the American Council on Exercise, you should drink 7 to 10 ounces every 10 to 20 minutes during exercise. This is especially important when performing sweat-heavy workouts or doing cardio in hot or humid weather.
5. Listen to your body
Cardio can be challenging for beginners — and it should be — but it shouldn’t feel painful. If you experience any pain in your muscles or joints during exercise, take that as your body giving you information, and don’t just “push through.” Also pay attention to how you feel in the 48 hours immediately following your workouts — while it’s OK to be a little sore, you shouldn’t be in pain.
Cardio Exercises for Beginners
The best cardio exercise for beginners is the one that you most enjoy and will perform consistently. Here are some common at-home cardio options — and tips for performing them safely and effectively.
- Even a leisurely stroll can help improve your cardio but, when able, try to walk at a brisk pace (3.5 mph or more) that increases your heart rate.
- When walking outside, stay aware of your surroundings. Follow all traffic signals and, if you wear headphones, do so at a low volume that allows you to hear what’s going on around you.
- Before starting, get fitted for a pair of shoes at a specialty running store. Or, if you have a history of previous injury or foot issues, consider discussing your shoe options with a podiatrist or physical therapist.
- For beginners, it can be hard to pull back and not perform every run at top speed. Remember, if the goal is to work your aerobic system or run for more than 20 minutes, you should be breathing at a calm enough rate that you can carry on a conversation.
- When adjusting the bike, your legs should not fully extend during each pedal stroke. With the ideal set-up, when you press the pedal as far from you as possible, you should maintain a slight bend in your knees.
- If cycling on an upright bike, keep your core braced, back neutral, and shoulders pulled down away from your ears throughout. You should not hunch or scrunch over the handlebars.
- For safety, always fasten the stop clip to your clothing. If you lose speed, stumble, or fall, this will help you immediately stop the machine to reduce the risk of injury.
- Maintain your arm swing! You shouldn’t have to hold onto the rails to walk or run. If you do need to, you are likely exercising at too great an incline and need to lower it.
- Focus on driving through your entire foot with each stroke.
- Use the handlebars to keep your arms pumping, or swing your arms down at your sides as if you are jogging.