Fitness 101: Cardio

This past week one of our Facebook Fam (thanks, Yvette!) asked how much cardio a person should do. Unfortunately there's no one-size fits all answer. Recommendations from entities like the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), American Heart Association (AHA), National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and governmental entities only offer a range for parameters such as frequency and duration, as well as no specific type of exercise other than a recommendation to use large muscles.

According to the Law of Specificity, how much cardio, and any other type of exercise for that matter, largely depends on the goals that are trying to be achieved. For instance, the answer for someone training for a marathon, triathlon or even a 5k is not the same as someone training for general health or weight (fat) loss. Additionally, due to our varied ability, health issues and pre/post injury states the best workout program varies from person to person. This is actually great news since some people would be intimidated away from exercise if the only recommendation was the hard core nature and sheer intensity of Cross Fit or Insanity-style workout, while others would be bored to tears if "Sweatin' with the Oldies" a la Richard Simmons were the only acceptable workout model.

So what should YOU do?

First, consider your goal. Why are you doing cardio?
Are you training for a sporting event?
Are you an athlete?
Do you just want to be healthy?
Are you trying to lose weight?
Are you lifting weights and want to keep your muscle gains?
Is time an issue?

Next, consider these general guidelines:
  • WARM UP/COOL DOWN at approximately 50% of your workout intensity. Include movement prep exercises before your workout and flexibility stretches at the end.
  • Accumulate 30 MINUTES OR MORE of moderate intensity physical activity on most days of the week. Note: To improve your health, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week. Also, research has shown that intermittent bouts of exercise during the day have the same health benefits as one long session, so you could, for instance do three 10-minute exercise sessions if you’re pressed for time.
  • FREQUENCY of formal workouts should be 3-5 times per week.
  • DURATION of workout sessions should be 20-60 minutes per session unless you’re in a sports-specific program or training for endurance sports like marathons and triathlons.
  • As you get stronger PROGRESS the duration OR the intensity in a single session but not both. So, for instance, either run longer during a workout or run harder, but not both.
Additional tips and considerations:

FREQUENCY: Beginners, seniors and the post-injured should probably start at the low end (3 days). Athletes should train in a modality specific to their sport or event. If the goal includes keeping muscle gained from weight training, cardio should generally be done only twice per week. Cardio moments can be added to weight training sessions, however, in the form of interval training to increase the calorie burn of the session and to work the cardiovascular system.

INTENSITY: Beginners, start slow. Always remember that if you do too little you can always add more, but if you do too much you can't take it back and you may invite injury.

Additionally, the "Talk Test" can help to quickly and easily assess how hard you’re working. Consider if you can carry on a conversation easily or if your breathing is labored. Beginners should find their breathing a bit labored but they shouldn't be gasping desperately for air when trying to carry on a conversation. The Borg Scale of Perceived Exertions (RPE) can also be used to gauge how hard you feel you're working on a scale of 1-10, ten being hardest (modified Rate of Perceived Exertion or RPE).

Note: be sure to periodize hard training days and easy days within the week, as well as hard weeks and easy weeks in a month to help with adaptation and recovery, as well as to lower the chance of injury.

TIME: The amount of time you spend will largely depend on your intensity. If your doing an easy, steady state run, for instance you'll be able to keep going for a lot longer than if your sprinting down the block. For general health, steady-state cardio can be done 20-60 minutes 3-5 days per week. Interval training (periods where you breathe easily mixed with periods where you're breathing hard) should generally be done at least 2 times per week.

INTERVAL TRAINING: Once a solid foundation of cardio endurance has been gained, regular interval training sessions should be added. Note only does this help you to manage your weight, short high intensity workouts help to maintain muscle mass. Interval training is basically a method of interrupted work periods. Higher intensity work periods are alternated with lower intensity or rest periods. Depending on the intensity, work periods can last 20 seconds with a 10 second rest (as in Tabata-style training) or they may even last up to 2 minutes with a shorter, 30 seconds for instance, rest period. Generally, the shorter the interval, the higher the intensity may be. Longer intervals tend to support less intensity and therefore the rest periods can be shorter.
Leave a comment to let us know what you think or if you have questions.


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