Even at the height of the COVID pandemic in 2020, heart disease was the leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But several studies have shown that cardiovascular diseases, which affect the heart or blood vessels, can be prevented by regular physical activity—especially aerobic or endurance exercise, also known as cardio.
"Even light-intensity activity can offset some of the risks of being sedentary," according to the American Heart Association.
The Benefits of Physical Activity
The AHA says the health benefits of being active include:
- Reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, dementia and Alzheimer's, various types of cancer and some complications of pregnancy
- Better sleep, including improvements in insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea (breathing disruptions)
- Improved cognition, including memory, attention and processing speed
- Decreased weight gain, obesity and related chronic health conditions
- Improved bone health and balance, with reduced risk of injury from falls
- Decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Enhanced quality of life and sense of overall wellbeing.
How Much Cardio Should I Do Each Week?
The government recommends 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity cardio, or a combination of the two, every week. Doing this will help you "to avoid the adverse consequences of our overly sedentary lifestyles," Dr. William Kraus, a fellow and past president of the American College of Sports Medicine, told Newsweek.
Moderate intensity might mean brisk walking or another activity that leaves you breathing hard but still able to talk. Vigorous exercise would be running or jogging, leaving you unable to talk much without getting out of breath. Muscle and bone-strengthening exercises are also recommended.
Karen Maxwell, a personal trainer and director of training at exercise studio company CycleBar, told Newsweek: "Consistency is the key, but you don't want to overdo your cardio as you may lose muscle mass."
Doing cardio three to four times a week is ideal, "especially if paired with a non-cardio-based strengthening and toning workout."
She advised doing at least 30 minutes of cardio per session, adding that most group fitness classes are 45 minutes long, "so look for those cycling, rowing and climbing classes."
The U.S. Surgeon General states that children and adolescents should get 60 minutes of physical activity every day.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has also published specific recommendations for older adults, people with disabilities and pregnant women in its Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
Guidelines for Older Adults
- Older adults should "determine their level of effort for physical activity relative to their level of fitness," according to the HHS. Those with chronic health conditions should establish whether and how this affects their ability to do regular physical activity safely.
- Those who cannot do 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity a week because of chronic health conditions should be "as physically active as their abilities and conditions allow."
Guidelines for People With Chronic Health Conditions or Disabilities
The HHS says adults with chronic conditions or disabilities should do the recommended 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity activity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous intensity if they can. These workout sessions should preferably be spread throughout the week.
Those who are unable to do so should "engage in regular physical activity according to their abilities and should avoid inactivity."
Guidelines for Pregnant Women
Women can consult their health care provider on whether and how to adjust their physical activity during pregnancy and after giving birth.
The HHS recommends that pregnant women do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity a week during pregnancy, as well as in the postpartum period. The workouts should also preferably be spread throughout the week.
Women who regularly engaged in vigorous aerobic activity before they became pregnant can continue these exercises during pregnancy and after the birth.
What Types of Cardio Are Recommended?
Kraus recommends any type of activity that raises one's heart rate to a moderate or vigorous intensity level—if it is an activity "that one enjoys."
Options could include "brisk walking or jogging about eight to 16 miles per week. In general, the biking equivalent is about five times as far, or 40 to 80 miles per week, and swimming is five times shorter, or 1.6 to 3.2 miles per week."
Maxwell suggests that low-impact cardio, which is easier on the joints, and interval training, which combines short bursts of intense activity with longer intervals of moderate exercise, "will be the most effective."
She recommends indoor cycling, rowing or climbing as they provide "longevity and sustainability to your body."
Indoor cycling is Maxwell's "favorite, go-to" low-impact workout because of the music. She explained that many indoor cycling classes entail a "rhythm-based ride with interval-driven programming, so the music plays a big part in the workout."
Moderate Intensity Aerobic Workouts
Below are some moderate intensity aerobic activities, as defined by the AHA:
- Brisk walking (at least 2.5 miles per hour)
- Water aerobics
- Dancing (ballroom or social)
- Tennis (doubles)
- Biking slower than 10 miles per hour
Vigorous Intensity Aerobic Workouts
Below are some vigorous intensity aerobic activities, as defined by the AHA:
- Hiking uphill or hiking while carrying a heavy backpack
- Swimming laps
- Aerobic dancing
- Heavy yard work (such as continuous digging or hoeing)
- Tennis (singles)
- Cycling 10 miles per hour or faster
- Jumping rope