We hear it all our lives. Eat a nutritious, balanced diet. Drink plenty of water. And do plenty of cardio for a healthy heart. But did you know that cardio workouts, such as walking or running, can impact far more than just your heart health? It plays a role in cholesterol management, sleep, mood, healthy skin—and your sex life. And that’s just the beginning . . .
Cardio workouts keep your whole body healthy.
What is Cardio?
Cardio exercise—also called aerobic exercise or cardiovascular exercise—refers to a type of workout that increases your heart rate and keeps it raised for some duration. But it is not just the heart that is involved—your lungs will work harder, too, causing you to breathe more quickly and deeply. This results in better flow of oxygen, which helps many different parts of your body.
Heart Healthy Workout
Getting enough cardio lessens the risk of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death for adults in the U.S. When your heart is conditioned, it is stronger, so it doesn’t have to work as hard. It is able to pump blood through your body more efficiently.
This type of exercise decreases your resting heart rate. It also lowers your blood pressure. Since nearly half of U.S. adults have hypertension, this is something we should play close attention to.
Another heart benefit relates to cholesterol. Aerobic exercise can increase HDL (the “good” kind of cholesterol), decrease LDL (the “bad” kind), and decrease overall cholesterol. This decreases your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Benefits of Cardio Exercise to Other Parts of Your Body
There are strong pulmonary benefits as well. The lungs’ capacity expands, decreasing the number of breaths you need per minute. This results in less shortness of breath over time.
You can fight osteoporosis just by walking. Bone density is increased if there are load bearing elements as with hiking, climbing stairs, or using wearable weights. Increased bone density means a decreased risk of fall. Over 300,000 people aged 65 and up are hospitalized for fractures each year due to falls.
As we age, brain function naturally declines. In fact, we start losing brain tissue around age 30. But consistent aerobic exercise may slow this down.
Cardio can enhance cognitive performance, giving you a brain boost. It helps with memory and with clear-headedness.
It also lowers the risk of dementia. One in nine people ages 65 and up has Alzheimer’s disease, which is a specific type of dementia. Regular cardio workouts can protect against this!
Aerobic exercise lubricates joints. This means it can reduce stiffness and help you maintain a good range of joint motion.
Cardiovascular exercise helps increase your blood circulation, which decreases swelling and brings more oxygen and nutrients to repair damaged cells. It has a positive impact your skin health, as well, helping maintain a smooth complexion.
Exercise increases your immune system. A study at Pennsylvania State University found that cardio increased antibodies called immunoglobins, which strengthen the immune system.
Your pancreas breaks down sugars in your body using a hormone called insulin. When your body can’t regulate this process well, you may develop type II diabetes. The good news is that regular aerobic exercise can decrease the stress on the pancreas, improving insulin sensitivity and therefore blood sugar control. So, it can help not only prevent diabetes, but also manage it.
Cardio exercise can reduce depression and relieve anxiety. By reducing adrenaline, it provides an outlet for anger. Exercise reduces cortisol, which is a stress hormone. It releases the hormones serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which fight stress, depression, and anxiety.
Cardio workouts release endorphins, which give you that feeling of well-being. This helps you feel more invigorated. The increased oxygen-rich blood flow to all parts of your body can contribute to this feeling.
It can also affect your mood by improving your body image. This gives you more confidence, which can brighten your outlook.
If you start an aerobic routine, you may notice your sleep improving. Not only does cardio help you fall asleep, it also promotes REM sleep, which impacts memory, mood, and the ability to learn.
Exercise can have a negative impact on your sleep if you engage in it close to bedtime. Try to finish your routine at least two to three hours before going to bed.
The increase in oxygen levels will develop into increased stamina over time. This means that lugging multiple bags of groceries up several flights of stairs will become easier. You will also find that your tolerance for exercise increases.
An enhanced body image may lead to more confidence in the bedroom. And don’t forget that sex itself can be a good cardio exercise!
Dexterity and Balance
Over time you may start to notice increased dexterity and balance. So pull out your dancing shoes!
Aerobic exercise can help prevent back pain, especially if the back pain is due to excess weight. It can also help you manage arthritis pain.
Apart from heart health, weight loss is perhaps the best-known benefit. To lose a half pound a week through exercise, you need to burn about 1750 extra calories. This would equate to burning 350 calories per session if you are working out five days a week. This is approximate though, as calories burned depends on how much you weigh to begin with.
How Many Calories You Can Burn, by Exercise
The chart below shows how many calories a person who weighs around 150 pounds will burn in 30 minutes. This is adapted from a Harvard Medical School article.
Horseback riding 70
Walking, 3.5 mph 133
Water aerobics 144
Tai Chi 144
Step machine 216
Hiking, cross country 216
Swimming, moderate 216
Stationary bike, moderate intensity 252
Ice skating 252
Bicycling, ~13mph 288
Swimming, vigorous 360
Running, 6 mph 420
Yard Work and Household Chores
As you can see, there are quite a lot of activities that can be aerobic. You don’t need to be a marathon runner to benefit from cardio activity! Waltz with a partner or do a crazy dance when no one is watching. If you are adventurous, you can go rock climbing or bouldering. Or just walk your dog briskly around the block. The more you move, the more benefits you’ll have.
In fact, household and yard activities can also be cardio exercises. So it’s easy to do cardio workouts at home! Count the following as part of your weekly exercise goals:
- Bagging leaves
- Home renovating
- Lawn mowing
- Snow shoveling
- Splitting firewood
Beginning an Exercise Program
If you are just starting a cardio routine, begin slowly at a low to moderate intensity. Over time, your capacity to exercise will grow, and you will be able to work out longer and more vigorously. You might start by walking briskly 20 minutes a day.
Always warm up first, for at least 5 minutes. For example, walk, bike, or row at a low intensity to start with. Then, exert yourself to the point that it is difficult to talk. Finally, cool down for at least 5 minutes, just as you warmed up. Don’t forget to stretch—this helps your muscles relax.
If you are the type of person who really dislikes working out, review the chart above and find something that you do like. Try several new types of workouts. Exercise with a partner—the social aspect may be just the incentive that you need. Tracking your cardio in a phone app might spur you on. You can join on online accountability group, too. Start simple and stick with it.
How Much Exercise is Enough?
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends 150 minutes of physical activity throughout the week. This could break down to simply 30 minutes five times per week. If Americans met the guidelines, we could see around 35% fewer cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks. That’s a huge difference!
You may find it easier to split your workout into small chunks, especially at first. Maybe you take a quick walk in the morning before work. At lunch, you walk up and down a flight of stairs 15 times and do 20 jumping jacks. After dinner, vigorously clean a part of your house for five minutes. You’ve now engaged in cardio for 30 minutes!
It’s always a good idea to check with your doctor before starting a cardio program. This is especially true if you have certain conditions, like asthma, heart disease, back pain, hypoglycemia, or low blood pressure.
Now that you know how many benefits there are to cardo exercise, hopefully you feel inclined to get out there and start moving. Pick something you enjoy and have fun with it!