With all the different types of cardio available, it can be hard to determine what’s best for your fitness routine, your body, and your health goals. So, we’ve broken down the most common types of cardio workouts: what they are, how they may benefit you, and why our Aaptiv trainers love each of them.
What is cardio?
At its core, cardiovascular exercise (“cardio”) is continuous exercise that elevates your heart rate for a specific length of time. It’s often recommended that it be done 3-5 times a week, for 30-60 minutes per session. It can help you burn calories and lose weight. Cardio can also be easily modified for beginners, experts, or anyone in between.
Cardio ranges in terms of impact:
High-impact: a weight-bearing movement where both feet are off the ground at some point, like running, jumping, or dancing
Low-impact: one foot is always on the ground, such as walking, aerobics, or an elliptical workout
Non-impact: no feet or arms are touching the ground, as you’ll experience during swimming or cycling
Within those categories, the intensity of your workout may vary. For example, a vigorous treadmill walk is technically low-impact. But, it also might leave you dripping in sweat, depending on how much you push yourself. Conversely, a slow but steady run qualifies as high-impact, but may not get your heart racing. And almost everyone knows the difference between a challenging spin class and a casual beach bike ride, so there’s a spectrum with non-impact cardio, too.
How can I check my heart rate during exercise?
For cardio workouts, it is important to work within your target heart rate range. This basically refers to how hard or fast your heart beats during physical activity. You can utilize a wrist-strap or chest-strap heart rate monitor, like a Garmin or a Fitbit, but you can also manually calculate where you need to be. Here’s how.
Your maximum heart rate (MHR) is considered the high end of what your cardiovascular system can do during exercise. To figure this out, subtract your age from 220. Meaning, if you’re 30 year old, subtract 30 from 220 to get a maximum heart rate of 190. That final number (190) would be the absolute maximum number of times your heart should beat per minute (also known as BPM) during exercise.
From there, you can determine a desired target heart rate zone, which is the pace at which your heart is being conditioned but not overworked. Some experts suggest multiplying your maximum heart rate by decimal increments to create this zone, but you can also use any of our calculators to see where you are on your fitness journey.
Which types of cardio are best, and why?
All types of cardio are good for you; however, here are some ways to make a decision about which types of cardio might best suit your fitness needs, and a couple testimonials from Aaptiv trainers as to what kind of cardio they prefer and why.
Be sure to check out all our different variations of cardio classes on our #1 audio fitness app.
Cycling works the same muscles as running, but with lower impact. If you’re going at an intense rate, you can burn anywhere from 600 to over a thousand calories a session, especially with use of intervals. Aim to keep your maximum heart rate about halfway between the low and high ends of your target heart rate zone.
“My go-to cardio favorite is running,” says Aaptiv trainer Jessica Muenster. “Running outdoors always allows me to lose myself and what’s going on to focus on being grateful for both my surroundings and ability to run. And it’s free!”
Whether you run outdoors or indoors on a treadmill, running is often the cardio workout of choice for many people. It’s clear why—burning upwards of 500 calories a session, running is something most can do anywhere, anytime, for whatever length. Only thing to keep in mind? Running can be very hard on your joints, so plan for cross-training and rest days and be mindful of twinges or pain.
You may not think about walking as a traditional form of cardio, but some say it is the very best way to get in shape. Easily customizable as a low-impact workout with capacity for building endurance, walking tones the lower body and reduces fat. You can also work your upper body by pumping your arms to strengthen triceps and upper back, or add inclines.
Running encourages you to put forth 2.5 times more energy than expend when walking. But, you can still walk off some weight with regular laps. Try to keep your MHR anywhere in the 50-70% range of your personal zone.
The lowest impact of all aerobic forms of exercise, swimming works your main muscle groups while burning calories and helping with fat loss. It counts as both strength training and cardio, helps your body use oxygen more efficiently, increases blood flow to the brain and is safe for literally anyone who knows how to swim.
Kettle Bell Swings
A combination of cardio and strength, this workout doesn’t normally land on the cardio list. But, it can since it bumps up one’s heart rate quite a bit. It may also burn additional calories and increase aerobic capacity. “Kettle bell swings put stress on your entire central nervous while challenging you aerobically,” says Aaptiv trainer Mike Septh. “This is a great full body anaerobic/aerobic exercise. It’s completely functional and translates into a multitude of benefits throughout your workout routine.”
This high-impact workout requires only one simple, inexpensive tool, but can burn up to hundreds of calories in just a few minutes. Best for short but sweet workouts, jumping rope builds strength, stamina and speed. These portable workouts can be done inside or outside, and also helps improve coordination and lose fat—as well as prevent osteoporosis.
Good for weight loss, an elliptical workout doesn’t burn calories in the same way as exercise done on treadmills and Stairmasters, but simulates running without hurting your joints. Most elliptical machines have moveable handles that allow you to workout your upper body at the same time. Or, you could try striding in reverse to put more emphasis on your quads. Finally, studies show people work harder than they think on an elliptical, which means this type of workout can burn more calories with less effort than other forms of exercise.
If you’ve ever spent one minute on a stair climber machine at the gym, then you know how serious of a cardio workout this can be. Even better news: you don’t actually need to use a machine at all. You could receive the same benefits with a hilly climb or by jogging up a staircase. As a low-impact cardio workout, stair climbing also provides resistance to your lower body to build strength. Also, climbing with proper form gives your core a workout, too. Be sure to avoid leaning forward or relying on the handles.
Though high intensity interval training (HIIT) has become more of a trend in years past, most agree this type of work can serve as cardio, particularly for burning fat. “My favorite form of cardio is Interval training,” agrees Aaptiv trainer Jaime Mcfaden. “Using high intense exercises with low intense exercises keeps your heart rate elevated and burns extra calories in a short time.”
What are the benefits of cardio?
- Decreased blood pressure
- Improved memory and thinking ability (as well as a decreased risk of stroke and Alzheimer’s disease)
- Better circulation and cholesterol levels
- Increased oxygen supply, which allows muscles to work harder
- Reduced chance of developing type 2 diabetes
- Helps decrease demands on lungs, which reduces fatigue
- Assists with healthy weight management
- Maintains joint range of motion and fights osteoporosis
Additionally, your body burns more fat, strengthens your heart, eases stress, improves sleep and promotes higher levels of energy. Paired with strength training, adequate nutrition and water intake, and appropriate rest days, cardio can be your ticket to a healthier body.