Your ideal cardio program is the one that motivates you to continue day after day and keep pushing
By now, you know that cardio workouts are excellent for improving your overall health and fitness, but with so many options, you can be forgiven for being confused about the best approach. Runners swear their activity is best, while cyclists, swimmers, and triathletes all make similar claims. Even the title of fittest athlete is up for grabs, with triathletes, CrossFit competitors, Nordic skiers, and more all vying. The options for cardio training are nearly endless: circuit training, the one-minute workout, high-intensity interval training, spin bikes, and treadmill routines, to name just a few.
If you’re feeling perplexed, take heart. Finding your optimal cardio workout might seem like a complicated project, but it turns out that you can achieve your best cardio self by mastering a few fundamentals.
I asked some experts to identify the key features of an ideal cardio program and answer questions like: How much cardio training do you need to do? Can short bursts of exercise really make you fit? How hard do you have to push yourself to get benefits? Are intervals really necessary?
Here’s what you need to succeed.
Finding the right activity is one of the most important steps you can take to ensure success. It needs to be something that feels enjoyable, or you’ll eventually quit. “You’ve got to frame whatever you’re doing as an everyday activity, not as something that seems like a chore,” says exercise physiologist Steve Magness, head cross-country coach at University of Houston and co-host of the Growth Equation podcast. A 2012 study found that peoples’ “affective response” (a measure that captures mood and overall psychological state) during exercise tracked with their physical activity levels. People who experienced positive affect during their exercise activity were more physically active, implying that finding something that feels enjoyable while you’re doing it will improve your chances of continuing.
The bottom line: There is no one magical cardio workout. The best, most effective cardio activity is the one you actually do, says exercise physiologist Louise de Lannoy, PhD, at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute.
Walking is one of the easiest and most accessible cardio workouts you can choose; running, biking, swimming, and hiking are other old standbys (along with that timeless classic, Prancercise). If you’re looking for something to do at home, there are countless options, ranging from jumping rope to Zumba to cardio/dance/kickboxing, and you can find lots of workout videos on YouTube, Instagram, and the web if you need ideas or instruction. Arrange to sync a video with an off-site partner to make virtual workouts a fun way to connect with family and friends during the pandemic, de Lannoy says.
“You’ve got to frame whatever you’re doing as an everyday activity, not as something that seems like a chore.”
It’s important to set reasonable expectations and goals to avoid becoming overwhelmed or frustrated. “Don’t try to run 10 miles when you’re at two miles,” Magness says. “Bite-size goals and expectations allow you to get a taste of the benefits to keep you coming back for more.” Small wins can add up and motivate you to continue, while biting off more than you can chew could just make you feel like you’re failing—and might drive you to injury. Start where you’re at and gradually increase, adding either time or intensity to your routine.
Research shows that cardio fitness is the single best predictor of your risk of dying early. Both the U.S. and Canadian guidelines recommend that adults get 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week. That 150 number is not arbitrary; it’s based on large datasets showing that this is an amount that can meaningfully improve your fitness and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality, de Lannoy says. She and her colleagues are just one of multiple research teams who have shown that this amount of activity can cut the risk of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality by 10% to 20%. That’s a huge reduction, she says, and “this is not a whole lot of exercise.” You can meet it with just 30 minutes, five days per week.
Previous guidelines had called for each bout of exercise to last at least 10 minutes, but that’s no longer the case, de Lannoy says. It turns out that even short bouts of exercise can add up to measurable health and fitness improvements, and even taking a single flight of stairs can count toward your weekly total.
To improve health measures like blood pressure, insulin response to regulate blood sugar, and heart health, even a single bout of exercise is far better than nothing. The biggest health payoffs from cardio exercise come from going from the couch to the first bout of physical activity, says Jenna Gillen, an exercise physiologist at the University of Toronto. From there, the benefits to your heart and metabolic system continue to accrue. Don’t be discouraged if you can only do one workout per week; that one workout will provide the greatest relative benefit, Gillen says.
The optimal frequency and duration of your workouts depend on your goals, says Michael Joyner, a physiologist at the Mayo Clinic who studies human performance. If your main objective is improving your health, it doesn’t take much. “Once you get to 30 to 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity most days a week, you’ve gotten 80% of the benefits for reducing heart disease risk,” he says.
If you’re exercising to get faster or to reach your athletic potential, on the other hand, “more will be better,” Gillen says. Three sessions per week is a good starting point, she says. From there, try to work up to five or six sessions, at least some of which include some intensity (see below).
There is no one magical cardio workout. The best, most effective cardio activity is the one you actually do.
“Consistency trumps heroic efforts,” Magness says. “When it comes to cardio, it’s more about establishing the habit than feeling the burn.” Finishing every workout gasping for air might feel like you’re really doing something good, but it’s hard to sustain all-out efforts all the time. “The key to any good cardio program is doing something that you can keep showing up to week after week,” Magness says. A study published in the journal Obesity in 2019 found that people who exercised at the same time on a regular basis ended up accumulating more physical activity than those who weren’t as regular.
One of the best ways to get more out of your workouts (in less time, to boot) is to add some intervals — bouts of intense efforts interspersed with rest periods. What counts as intense exercise? Use the talk test to gauge your effort, Gillen says. When you’re doing a high-intensity effort or interval, you shouldn’t be so out of breath that you can’t utter a word, but it should be difficult to complete a full sentence, she says.
Intervals are one of the best ways to reach maximum fitness. “If you want to get close to your biological potential, you have to do some higher-intensity exercise,” Joyner says. “You have to get fatigued and push yourself.” To get the most bang for the buck, he likes a workout that involves four-minute intervals, repeated four times, with a short period of recovery in between.
Intervals don’t have to mean sprinting, and you don’t have to do them for multiple minutes at a time to reap rewards, Gillen says. Anything you can do to get out of your comfort zone will work. A study by Gillen and her colleagues at McMaster University found that even a single minute of intense exercise can produce real benefits. The researchers assigned volunteers to one of two exercise programs on a stationary bike; a third group served as a control. One group rode for 45 minutes at a moderate intensity, three times per week. Another group warmed up for two minutes, then rode all-out for 20 seconds, spun at a slow cadence for two minutes, then repeated the 20-second hard bout again, followed by the easy two minutes of riding, and then repeated it all once more. The workout added up to a grand total of 10 minutes, and only one of those minutes (3×20 seconds) was at a difficult effort level. They completed the 10-minute workout three times per week.
“Consistency trumps heroic efforts. When it comes to cardio, it’s more about establishing the habit than feeling the burn.”
After 12 weeks of these thrice-weekly workouts, the researchers compared the two groups and found that both groups increased their exercise capacity (as measured by their ability to use oxygen during exercise) by 19%. They also posted similar improvements in insulin resistance and changes in their muscles indicative of improved endurance capacity. Even though the interval group did only 30 minutes of exercise per week — 22% as much as the group that exercised at a moderate intensity — they achieved the same results.
A 10-minute workout might seem too good to be true, but “I’ve tried it, it works,” says de Lannoy, who was not involved in the study.
The intervals in Gillen’s study involved sprints on an exercise bike, but she says that sprinting up a flight of stairs for 20 seconds or briskly walking up a hill or even doing some burpees or jumping jacks can achieve the same effect.
Some people aren’t keen to exercise vigorously, and if you’re just going for health benefits rather than your fittest self, it’s perfectly fine to skip the high-intensity exercise. But don’t knock interval training until you’ve tried it. In a new study by scientists at the University of British Columbia and Leeds Beckett University, researchers put previously inactive adults through three different workouts on separate occasions. One was a 45-minute ride at a moderate pace on an exercise bike; another was a very hard one-minute interval followed by a one-minute rest, repeated 10 times; and the last type of workout included three 20-second all-out efforts with two minutes of rest in between. Even though they rated the bouts of intensity as difficult, many of the participants discovered that they liked the interval workouts more than they expected, and some participants continued them on their own.
When it’s all said and done, your ideal cardio program is the one that motivates you to continue day after day and keep pushing, Magness says. What those workouts look like will depend on your individual preferences, and it’s okay to try things out until you find something that clicks. Just know that there’s no single best plan, so don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Instead, find the program that keeps you eager for more.