Cardio (that’s short for “cardiovascular activity”) is basically anything that gets your blood pumping. Whether you’re running, dancing, or even hauling a week’s worth of groceries — as long as your heart rate’s elevated, you’re getting your cardio in.
Here’s why this type of exercise is so important to keep your bod happy and healthy.
Benefits of cardio
Here’s what cardio (aka aerobic exercise) does for your health:
- gets your blood pumping
- lowers your blood pressure
- strengthens your immune system
- improves your sleep
- supports your mental health
- regulates your blood sugar
- contributes to a healthy weight
- gives your brain a boost
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate cardio exercise (like brisk walking) or 75 mins of vigorous activity (like running) each week.
Still, mixing any cardio into your routine could lead to beaucoup benefits. Need a little motivation to get your body moving? Check out these possible perks.
1. Gets your blood pumping
Getting your cardio in on the reg can improve heart health by lowering cholesterol levels and reducing your risk of heart disease. How? Just like doing a biceps curl trains your arm muscles, cardio exercise challenges your heart. This helps blood move more efficiently throughout your body and strengthens your heart.
The American Heart Association and most docs recommend following the HHS guidelines to keep your heart healthy.
And since cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death globally, most peeps could benefit from a little more cardio in their life.
2. Lowers your blood pressure
According to a 2015 research review, exercise is key to treating and preventing hypertension (aka high blood pressure). Hypertension can lead to heart attack, stroke, aneurysm, heart failure, or even dementia.
The researchers note that exercise, including cardio exercise, consistently leads to lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure in folks with hypertension. It may also work to immediately reduce systolic blood pressure for almost 24 hours.
Just keep in mind that studies are done primarily on middle-aged men of European descent (surprise, surprise), so the potential results may not apply to everyone. Still, there’s no evidence that age, sex, or ethnicity has any effect on your blood pressure response to cardio exercise.
3. Strengthens your immune system
Wanna beat cold season? You’re in luck. According to a 2020 review, regular exercise (like cardio) is beneficial for the immune system.
Getting your workout on also helps keep your blood cells and cytokines (a type of proteins) healthy. Both of these components are key to immune system regulation.
Researchers think certain types of cancer may even improve as a result of exercise — but that research is still inconclusive. Plus, the authors of another 2020 review speculate that regular exercise could even help prevent COVID-19 infections.
While the jury’s still out on whether getting physical can really stave off cancer or COVID-19, it certainly seems to support a healthy immune system.
4. Improves your sleep
It prob doesn’t come as a surprise that tuckering yourself out on the treadmill can make you extra-sleepy come sundown. According to lots of research, even a little bit of exercise can help you catch A+ Zzz’s.
While older adults may benefit the most, science suggests that everyone will likely have a breezier trip to Dreamland with a little extra cardio. A small 2013 study in people with insomnia found that consistent exercise led to improved sleep quality.
5. Supports your mental health
Many peeps feel extra-sunny after sweating it out. Exercise causes your bod to release endorphins (hormones that give you those happy, euphoric vibes).
This positive effect has even been confirmed by multiple scientific studies. According to a 2019 review, physical activity like cardio can help treat symptoms of major depression.
According to the authors of another research review from 2020, exercise is an affordable and noninvasive way to help treat or prevent anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders. A small 2018 study in people with panic disorder found that regular exercise led to reduced anxiety.
Remember, hopping on the treadmill might not be like waving a magic wand and poof, your anxiety’s gone — but the research does point to numerous potential benefits.
6. Regulates your blood sugar
Blood sugar skyrocketing? A quick trip to the gym just might do the trick.
In a 2013 study in people with type 2 diabetes, researchers found that cardio exercise helped participants regulate their insulin levels, lower their blood sugar, and maintain a healthy weight.
That’s why exercise is usually one of the first strategies (alongside dietary changes) that docs recommend to patients who have recently received a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.
According to a 2017 review, cardio, resistance training, and high intensity interval training all help improve glucose regulation and keep blood sugar levels in check too.
Even if you don’t have diabetes, exercising regularly can be excellent prevention for probs down the road.
7. Contributes to a healthy weight
OK, OK, you’ve heard this one before: Exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight. Nothing new here, but it’s true! Doing regular cardio can help you keep your weight at a moderate level.
In a small 2013 study with 92 participants, cardio alone — without any dietary changes — led to weight loss over a 10-month period in men and women who were overweight or had obesity. Still, a 2017 review notes that combining exercise with dietary changes will be the most effective.
So, you *can* lose weight by just hopping on the treadmill daily and noshing as usual. But you’ll be more successful if you also incorporate nutritious eating habits.
8. Gives your brain a boost
Cardio: It’s not just for your bod but also for your brain. Exercise is associated with reduced cognitive decline, sharper memory, and better brain performance.
According to a 2013 review, regular exercise like cardio can help protect your brain from cognitive decline that may otherwise begin around age 45.
Getting your workout on also boosts chemicals that support the hippocampus, which is your noggin’s center of memory and learning.
A 2019 study (in middle-aged men) found that a hardcore workout boosts a protein in your brain called BNDF, which may improve your ability to think, learn, and make decisions.
So if someone ever asks why you’re going to the gym instead of studying for your test, tell them it’s so you can ace it. (But don’t forget to study at some point too.)
Convinced about cardio but unsure where to start? Take it slow and start simple — no equipment required.
1. Jumping jacks
Jumping jacks: They’re not just for gym class. You’ve probably done these before, so why not do them in your living room? (Trust us, Netflix has never felt so productive.)
For the best results, do these babies with purpose.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and arms by your sides. Jump off the floor and spread your legs wider than shoulder-width, lifting your hands above your head at the same time. Then return to the starting position.
Repeat for 3 sets of 30 seconds each. Take 30 seconds of rest in between.
2. High knees
Time to kick it into high gear with high knees.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and arms by your sides. Engage your core and bring your right knee toward your chest, just above waist level, as you bring your left hand up.
Lower and repeat on the opposite side. Go for 3 sets of 30 secs. Take 30 secs of rest in between sets.
Running or jogging is the perf cardio workout for many people because it doesn’t require a costly gym membership or any fancy equipment.
Simply run or jog for about 20 mins — longer if you can, or shorter if you need to! Eventually, you’ll find your sweet spot.
If jogging or running isn’t for you, consider alternatives like:
- using the elliptical
- jumping rope
- playing sports (like soccer)
Cool down by walking it off for about 5 minutes.
Cardio is a killer form of exercise that comes with a host of health benefits, including blood sugar regulation, improved mood, and better brain power.
Whether you opt to swim, bike, or run, adding cardio to your routine can help improve your health.