What is Cardio?

What is Cardio?

by: Lisa Ritchie

Understanding cardio basics is important for anyone embarking on an exercise program. If you have any health conditions or concerns, please speak with your doctor before beginning a cardio program.

Step by Step Cardio Basics

1.  What exactly is “cardio” exercise? Back in the 1970s and 1980s we called it “aerobics." That term acquired the negative connotation of Jane Fonda prancing around in leotards and leg warmers, and many men would simply not take an “aerobics” class. Gym owners got smart and started calling aerobics “cardio” classes, short for cardiovascular.

Cardio is simply exercises that involve large muscle groups (such as your legs) and help make your heart and lungs stronger. Cardiovascular exercise provides many health benefits which include lowering your blood pressure, increasing your lung function, burning calories and reducing stress, just to name a few. The word 'aerobic' refers to something that needs oxygen. During cardiovascular or aerobic exercise, oxygen gets continuously delivered to your muscles.

To give your heart a proper workout, you need to ensure that your workout is done with a certain amount of intensity, but you don't want to overdo it. One way measure the amount of exertion while exercising is to monitor your heart rate. You can measure your heart rate manually or with a heart rate monitor. The monitor is a small investment but is very convenient and many models offer a variety of readouts such as calories burned, average heart rate, distance and time.

Heart rate is the number of times your heart beats per minute. Everyone has a resting heart rate, which is just what it sounds like - the rate your heart beats per minute while you are resting. Everyone also has a maximum heart rate, which is the maximum amount of times your heart can beat in a minute. Your 'target heart rate zone' is the best range to give your heart a good workout. This range is considered to be between 50% and 85% of your maximum heart rate.

Your maximum heart rate can be determined by a doctor, or you can use a simple formula to calculate a rough estimate. The most common way to calculate it is the following:

For women:  226 - (your age) = your maximum heart rate

For men:  220 - (your age) = your maximum heart rate

2.  What kinds of exercises would be considered cardio? Anything that keeps your heart rate up for 20 minutes or more.  For example; swimming, running, skating, bicycling, jogging or walking, or the elliptical trainer, rowing, and dancing to name a few.

3. Can you recommend a basic program for people just getting started (assuming they have clearance from their doctor and no underlying health problems)?  Many people don’t exercise because they fear or hate being indoors at a gym. You can workout on your own or with friends in ways that are low cost. Your best piece of equipment to invest in is a good pair of sneakers. Make sure they fit snuggly, but not too tight, and leave a thumbnail length of space in the toe box to prevent blackened toenails or ingrown nails. Buy your sneakers at the end of the day when your foot is slightly swollen.

Walking is free and can be a lot of fun too! You can take varying routes, explore different areas, add jumping, ramps, hills, skips, or just pleasant conversation with a walking buddy! Running and jogging fall along the same lines.

Skating requires the purchase of skates, while bicycling requires a slightly larger investment in a bike and helmet at the minimum. If you’re really getting into it; shoes and padded cycling shorts add to your comfort. Frisbee or ball-catching offer more inexpensive ways to get fit and have fun. Many communities have a local pool where you can take water aerobics classes, swim laps, or take swimming lessons. Look around for inexpensive, local opportunities.  Community support helps you stick with your program too, so if you are a Member of the Alkaline Lifestyle Community, be sure to ask our Expert Fitness Advisor for help and join in the fun on our message boards (available to Members only).

If you’re truly a beginner and quite out of shape, first see your doctor for a health assessment. If he gives you the green light, I recommend walking. Aside from shoes, there’s no equipment to buy and there’s no learning curve. Pool exercises can also be effective for those with joint problems or injuries. Start with whatever you can do and build on it gradually.

I do recommend hiring a certified personal fitness trainer, even if you can only afford ONE session. They can give you a health assessment and design a plan for you to follow on your own. Every few months, reconnect with that trainer to revise your program. A good resource is www.acefitness.org (The American Council on Exercise).  Alkaline Lifestyle Members have access to a Staff Personal Fitness Trainer, so check out the Member page and if you are a member, contact our Fitness Trainer personally for workout advice.

4. What’s the recommended amount of cardio exercise people should get for healthy hearts?  The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends a frequency of three to five days a week for most cardiovascular programs. If you are very out of shape and/or are overweight and doing weight-bearing exercise such as an aerobics class or jogging, you might consider at least 36 to 48 hours of rest between workouts to prevent an injury and to promote adequate bone and joint stress recovery. For weight loss a more frequent program is generally recommended; four to six days a week at 65-85% of your maximum heart rate.  

As far as duration, which refers to the time you've spent exercising, the cardio portion (not including the warm-up and cool-down) should vary from 20-60 minutes to gain significant cardio respiratory and fat burning-benefits. Of course, the longer you go, the more calories and fat you'll "burn" and the better you'll condition your cardiovascular system. All beginners, especially those who are out of shape, should take a very conservative approach and train at relatively low intensities (50-70% maximum heart rate) for 10-25 minutes. As the fitness level improves you can gradually increase the duration of each session. Once you’ve “maxed out” on the length of each session, you can increase the intensity by adding hills, jumps, and skips. Never carry weights while walking or running as it can impair your gait, stride and body mechanics. A weighted vest is recommended that evenly distributes the added weight.   We have a great DVD in our co-op store called Cardio for Beginners that is a great place to start.


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These statements have not been evaluated by the food and drug administration.  The preceding information and/or products are for educational purposes only and are not meant to diagnose, prescribe, or treat illness. Please consult your doctor before making any changes or before starting ANY exercise or nutritional supplement program or before using this information or any product during pregnancy or if you have a serious medical condition.


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