How often should you do cardio? Whether you're a fitness fanatic looking to run your first marathon or clipping into your first pair of cycling shoes, it's important to know how frequently to do cardio exercise for your specific health goals.
Depending on multiple factors, including whether you want to improve your cardiovascular fitness and reap the benefits that come with this, lose weight, or help yourself maintain a positive mental mindset, how often you should do cardio exercise will change. It's also dependent on your current fitness levels as those who've already been working out for a few years will be able to dive right in, while those new to exercise may have to start slower.
To help answer the question of how much exercise per week you should do, woman&home spoke to a personal trainer with over 14 years of experience in the fitness industry. This is what you need to know about cardio exercise, what it includes, and how much of it you need every week.
What is cardio exercise?
Any exercise that raises the heart rate to 50 to 75% of your maximum heart rate is considered cardiovascular exercise, explains Luke Hughes (opens in new tab), a level 4 personal trainer who specializes in gym activity. "The pounding that you feel in your chest when you are working out is a sign you're working the cardiovascular system," he says.
Some examples of cardio exercises include:
- Running or jogging medium to long distances
- Brisk walking
- Stair climbing
However, this is the general threshold for cardio exercise. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is cardio exercise at 70 to 90% of your maximum heart rate and just below this, at a constant 20 to 40% of your maximum heart rate, is another type of exercise called low-intensity steady-state cardio, otherwise known as LISS cardio. Those who are new to working out, or have mobility issues such as joint pain, may find this to be more beneficial than cardio exercise in the higher heart rate zones.
To work out your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220, use a heart rate zone calculator (opens in new tab) to figure out the percentage threshold you're aiming for, and then you can use one of the best fitness trackers to monitor your heart rate throughout your workout to ensure you meet your goal.
How often should you do cardio exercise?
For cardiovascular fitness
By engaging in a recommended 150 minutes of cardio exercise per week, you can expect to see a dramatic improvement in your cardiovascular fitness, says Hughes, who is also the CEO and founder of Origym (opens in new tab). These 150 minutes (2.5 hours) can be running, cycling, walking, or swimming all in one go, or exercising in installments like two one-hour sessions and one 30-minute session.
If you manage to stay in this higher heart rate threshold for 150 minutes every week, you'll be reaping all the benefits of cardio activity. "These benefits include lower blood pressure, which is one of the most sought-after," explains Hughes, "More often than not, high blood pressure [also known as hypertension] is caused by having a so-called 'weak' heart. A 'weak' heart has to work a lot harder than a healthy heart to circulate blood through every part of the body."
Better circulation in itself has benefits too, including improved cognitive ability as there's plenty of blood flow to the brain, more energy throughout the day, better functioning of the immune system, and it can even promote a healthy glow to your complexion.
For weight loss
"By performing cardio exercises regularly, around three to five times a week, and incorporating them into your day-to-day life, research from Duke University Medical Center (opens in new tab) proves this will aid weight regulation and can even directly lead to weight loss," says Hughes. "For long-term weight loss, cardio exercise is also a good idea as it never loses its effectiveness, even for those who are at an advanced level, providing you're also in a calorie deficit," he says.
While many people hit a weight loss plateau if they try to lose weight through diet alone, as the body gets used to functioning at the lower intake, those who incorporate cardio exercise into their regime will be able to move out of this plateau easily by increasing or changing their workouts. "The more you build up your endurance, the more you can boost up the intensity of your exercises to increase calorie burn," the personal trainer says. "Even minor changes, such as running faster or climbing harsher inclines, will all accelerate the body’s metabolism."
To improve your mental health
When it comes to maintaining our mental health through exercise, research published in The Lancet Journal in association with the University of Oxford (opens in new tab) found the best improvement in those who exercised for between 30 to 60 minutes, three to five times per week. Those who exercised for 90 minutes every day also experienced a lift. However, those who exercised for over three hours every day reported worse effects than those who did not exercise at all, proving you can also have too much of a good thing when it comes to exercise.
When it comes to maintaining our overall mental health, however, it's not just cardio that's beneficial, more strength training and increasing how often you do yoga have both also been shown to have huge benefits. Recent studies, including ones by Jinan University (opens in new tab) and the University of Rochester (opens in new tab), have shown time and time again that any exercise can have major advantages for our minds. In these respective recent studies, all types of physical exercise were associated with a significant reduction in feelings of stress and its physical manifestations, an increase in self-acceptance, and an increased personal sense of competence and achievement.
But exercise may also be an undervalued way of helping those with more severe mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. While not everyone dealing with these will be able to head out for a walk or a jog, the University of Nebraska Medical Center (opens in new tab) points out that aerobic exercises like swimming, cycling, walking, dancing, and even gardening, can improve blood flow to the brain and influence the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
This axis plays a significant role in sending signals to other regions of the brain, including the limbic system, which controls our motivation levels and mood; the amygdala, which stimulates feelings of fear in response to stressors; and the hippocampus, which helps with forming memories as well as with mood and motivation.
Is it okay to do cardio everyday?
Yes, it's okay to do some cardiovascular exercise every day. According to a study by the University of Valencia (opens in new tab), most people will be able to do an hour of cardio activity every day without any issue. However, PT Hughes says you should ease yourself into training slowly if you're new to exercise. "Those that are beginners to fitness or those that are starting to increase their cardio fitness should do so by gradually easing themselves, as you could be at high risk of overdoing it. Over a several-week period, it’s recommended that you perform between 10 to 20 minutes every other day," he says, as this will help with fatigue and muscle soreness.
Naturally with all things fitness, if you're wondering how often should you do cardio, what works for you may not work for someone else. So, if you're concerned about what the right amount of cardio fitness is for you, speak to your healthcare provider. "They will be able to offer more guidelines and suggestions for your specific condition or fitness level," he adds.
A digital health journalist with over five years experience writing and editing for UK publications, Grace has covered the world of health and wellbeing extensively for Cosmopolitan, The i Paper and more.
She started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness. Everything from the best protein powder to sleep technology, the latest health trend to nutrition essentials, Grace has a huge spectrum of interests in the wellness sphere. Having reported on the coronavirus pandemic since the very first swab, she now also counts public health among them.
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