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As with most things in life, opinions vary about the best type of cardio workout. Personal preferences and schedule may vary, but there’s one point no one will argue: Since consistency is key, your best workout is one you will stick with, whether it’s an elliptical routine, running, or up-tempo ballroom dancing. The basic idea is to do something that elevates your heart rate, so that the heart muscle becomes progressively stronger and doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood and keep your body alive.
To put things in perspective, here are a few facts from the American College of Sports Medicine:
- We need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio exercise per week, or at least 20 minutes of vigorous activity three times a week. “Moderate” means you’re breathing harder than usual but can still talk; “vigorous” means talking is difficult.
- The 150 weekly minutes can be broken down any way you like; 30 minutes, five days a week, is one option.
- If weight loss is your goal, short bursts of high-intensity, alternated with lower-intensity activity, will burn more calories than the same amount of time spent doing moderate exercise. However, a study for the American Council on Exercise found that for beginners, both approaches produce similar fitness benefits.
- When walking, jogging, or running, most people burn 100 calories per mile.
How to Make Progress
Walking at a leisurely pace on a treadmill, while texting or reading, isn’t going to get great results. Depending on your preference, these are some ways to challenge your body and gradually improve your cardiovascular fitness:
- On a treadmill, stair climber, elliptical, or stationary bike, set the speed, resistance, or incline to be challenging, and gradually increase these. As you get more fit, the same settings become easier and need to be adjusted to elevate your heart rate.
- Incline, resistance, and speed work different muscles, so vary these.
- Outdoors, walking, jogging, running, or biking different routes will keep things interesting. Hills will add intensity.
- To add variety and introduce bursts of higher intensity, try adding jumping jacks or burpees: squat with hands on the ground in front of you, jump to extend your legs straight behind you, jump back to a squat, stand up, jump straight up, and repeat.
Spotify, the popular music app, developed Spotify Running to stream music matched to your taste and running tempo. Check it out at spotify.com/running.
Fitness Tracker Pitfall
Fitness trackers can overestimate calories burned when walking or jogging, according to researchers at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, who tested Fitbit’s Flex, One, and Zip, and the Jawbone UP24. “I think that activity trackers are very valuable, especially if they motivate people to be more active,” says lead researcher Alex Montoye, PhD. “However, I would not live or die by the step or calorie estimates but rather, use them as a general idea of activity levels.”
Pre- & Post-Workout Energy Enhancers
Among the many sports supplements, these are some popular ingredients to enhance cardio workouts.
Whether it comes from a cup of coffee, an energy drink, or a sports supplement, studies show that caffeine can enhance energy and performance, and even reduce pain. One study, at the University of Georgia in Athens, found that the equivalent of two cups of coffee, an hour before a workout, reduced post-workout pain up to 48 percent. If you choose coffee, be mindful of extra calories from milk, cream, sugar, or flavorings.
An amino acid available in powders and capsules, beta alanine has been found to improve performance andendurance in young, middle-aged, and elderly adults. In studies, the supplement was taken daily for 28 to 90 days.
A favorite of body builders, creatine is an amino acid used by muscles to generate energy. While it isn’t recommended for enhancing endurance, it may help support bursts of activity, such as during sprinting or other short, high-intensity bouts of cardio exercise.
Sodium, potassium, and other electrolyte minerals are essential for transmission of electrical impulses through nerves, normal contraction of muscles, balance of fluids, and generation of energy within cells. Electrolytes are lost through sweat and when depleted, can lead to muscle weakness or cramps, dizziness, confusion, and irregular heartbeat.