If you find yourself taking a breather in the middle of a particularly tough workout wondering, “OK, so how much cardio per week should I do?” you’re definitely not alone. This extra-sweaty form of exercise is tiring, to say the least. But it’s still worth returning to it multiple times a week in order to experience its many benefits.
Cardio is short for “cardiovascular,” which is a blanket term for any aerobic exercise that elevates your heart rate, says Melissa Boyd, a NASM-certified personal trainer and Tempo coach. The goal of a cardio workout is to condition your heart and lungs for better endurance, but there are plenty of other perks, too. Boyd says cardio can boost your mood, improve your skin thanks to increased circulation, help ward off memory loss and other brain-related health concerns, reduce joint pain, improve cholesterol — and also help you feel better overall. “A good workout can give you an endorphin rush and a strong body will keep you feel energized throughout the day, too.”
To land on the perfect cardio workout for you, consider your fitness level, what you enjoy, and what would be easiest to return to time and time again — it doesn’t just entail running. “If you’re just starting out, try adding a few more walks a day with an increased pace or sign up for that dance class you’ve been eyeing,” Boyd suggests.
Some other examples of cardio? Jumping rope, pedaling on a stationary bike, rowing, swimming, biking, dancing, and taking group fitness classes, like kickboxing. And running and walking, of course. As for how much you should be doing on a weekly basis? Here’s what experts say.
How Much Cardio Should You Do Each Week?
To get the most heart health benefits from cardio workouts, it’s recommended that you aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week, Boyd explains. Ideally, you’d spread that out over multiple days, aiming for three to five aerobic workouts a week. Think a 30-minute jog on Tuesday, a 60-minute dance class on Thursday, and a 60-minute fast-paced walk on Saturday as an example.
To figure out if your workout falls into the “moderate” or “vigorous” category, look at your heart rate. The easiest way to track it is by wearing a smartwatch or heart rate monitor. Check with your doctor for your recommended target heart rate and ask how long you should maintain it, especially if you’re taking a medication for your heart. “Heart rate zones can vary from person to person, but for most people who are working on overall fitness and aren’t too concerned with peak performance, the general zones based on age and biological gender will work fine,” Boyd adds. The general guidelines according to the American Heart Association are 50-70% of maximum heart rate during moderate exercise and 70-85% for vigorous (subtract your age from 220 for your max heart rate).
You could also measure how intense your workouts are the old-school way by using RPE, or your rate of perceived exertion. “This scale puts exercise intensity on a one to 10 rating scale with one being very light and 10 being your absolute limit,” says Boyd. To see where you stand, try to hold a conversation while exercising. If you’re out of breath but can complete sentences, your workout is likely moderate. If you’re too out of breath to speak, that would be vigorous. “Your 150 minutes should live in the three to five and vigorous in the six to nine rating, Boyd explains.
Here’s another thing to keep in mind: Doing some cardio is always better than doing none. “Doing what you can with the time you have will still have great health benefits, so don’t be discouraged by these numbers and instead focus on building a habit of consistency,” Boyd says. “If 30 minutes a day sounds like too much, try stepping out for three 10 minute walks a day and push your pace a touch more than usual.” Also helpful? If you’re just starting out with a fitness regimen, Boyd recommends letting your workout level progress by slowly adding in more intensity — that way, you won’t burn out by going too hard too soon.
What About Strength Training?
For a complete workout routine, Boyd suggests switching between cardio and strength training throughout the week. “Your schedule and goals will dictate what you can stick to,” she adds. As an example, you might do four to five days of movement a week, using the other one or two as rest days or active recovery days. Rest and recovery days, BTW, are key, as they’ll help you ease into a new fitness routine without stressing yourself (or your body) out to the point you give up.
According to Boyd, many people opt to do strength workouts on separate days than cardio, but it’s up to personal preference. If you’re going to do both in one training session, doing cardio or weights first each comes with its unique benefits (doing cardio first means you’ll typically have better endurance, while lifting first means your muscles won’t be tired from cardio).
However you stick them together, pick a workout modality (or two or three!) that you like, give yourself plenty of time to gain cardio endurance and muscle strength, and you’ll be off to a great start.
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