Cardio 101: Part 1

What it is, how much you need, common misconceptions, and different methods to add it into your routine!

Jamie Staley, NASM-CPT, Pn1

Photo by William Choquette on

I have a feeling that just seeing the word “cardio” makes you feel a certain way. If I’m being honest, it’s not my favorite and I would rather spend more of my time strength training.

My thoughts exactly

However, regular cardio exercise has a myriad of benefits and the best workout program leaves room for both.

These benefits include:

  • stronger and more efficient heart
  • improved ability to pump blood
  • reduced risk of heart disease
  • lower resting heart rate
  • lower heart rate at any given level of work
  • improvement of lung ventilation
  • stronger respiratory muscles
  • improved oxygen transport
  • reduced cholesterol levels
  • reduced arterial blood pressure
  • reduced tendency for depression and anxiety
  • improved ability to relax and sleep
  • improved tolerance to stress
  • increase in lean body mass
  • increase in metabolic rate
  • reduced risk of obesity or diabetes

(Source: National Academy of Sports Medicine)

What counts as cardio?

So now that we know the benefits (aka: why we should care), let’s dive into what exactly it is.

Cardiorespiratory training is any physical activity that involves and places stress on the cardiorespiratory system.

National Academy of Sports Medicine

Broad definition right? I would add to this and say any activity where increasing your heart rate for a sustained amount of time as the main focus would be cardio.

These can include:

  • Walking
  • Running
  • Rowing
  • Biking (spin, upright, or recumbent)
  • Swimming
  • Bodyweight Circuit training (jumping jacks, burpees, etc.)
  • Using an elliptical, arc trainer, stair master, etc.
How much cardio do I need?

This is a common question, but a loaded one!

It depends greatly on a few things: what your current exercise routine is, what your fitness goals are, how many days you workout per week, any injuries/medical issues, any doctor recommendations/restrictions, how much time you have to devote to working out, and what you enjoy.

You will find a variety of different recommendations based on which sources you look at, but the following is what the American Heart Association® recommends.

To simplify, if you are a complete beginner, start with what you know you can do. Even 15-20 minutes of walking is a great place to start!

If you want something a little more difficult, try incline walking on a treadmill, biking, rowing, or swimming laps. With so many options, you don’t have to settle for a form of cardio that you don’t enjoy or that causes you pain.

Common Misconceptions

The following are things that people think are true of cardio that are not:

  • “Just doing a ton of cardio is best for weight loss”- false. Proper nutrition is the only way to lose fat.
  • “When people say cardio they mean running”- false. Cardio can be as simple as walking.
  • “If you aren’t sweating, it’s not effective”- false. You don’t have to be a bucket of sweat to be getting benefits.
  • “Any circuit workout is HIIT training”- false. True HIIT (high-intensity interval training) has very specific methods and metrics. Most likely, your “HIIT” workout is just higher intensity circuit training, which is fine. More on that here.
  • “Cardio will help me tone up”- mostly false. If you are overweight, losing body fat will need to occur before you will see any visible muscle tone. In addition, cardio does not build or strengthen your muscles as effectively as strength training.
  • “If I do a lot of cardio, I can eat whatever I want and still lose weight”- false. Most people are not burning as many calories as they think they are during cardio exercise. Fitness trackers and machines are not accurate. This gives people a false sense of what they are burning and can cause overeating, which will take you out of a deficit.
The Bottom Line

You don’t need to be afraid of cardio! Start small and be consistent. Even small changes can add up to big benefits. You don’t need fancy equipment or a detailed plan. Find a method that you enjoy and get started!

Does your workout routine need attention? Let me help!

If tackling a new exercise regime on your own feels too intimidating and confusing, I can help! I am a Certified Personal Trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine and have experience with a wide array of clients.

I will coach you through an individualized plan to meet your goals and help you gain strength and confidence, while cutting through the confusion. I’ll give you the accountability, real information, motivation, and guidance to make lasting change.

In-person or online coaching available! Send me an email at and let’s chat about your goals!

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