11 Surprising Health Benefits of Cardio Exercise

11 surprising health benefits of cardio exercise.

What does a cardio workout do for you?

Cardio is a term that you often hear in health and fitness.

And that’s for a good reason.

Cardio is an essential part of any exercise program whether it’s for endurance or weight loss.

Studies have linked many health benefits with those who regularly do cardio:

  • Weight loss
  • Fat burning
  • Endurance
  • healthier and stronger heart
  • Happier mood

Doing cardio will help improve almost every aspect of your health and fitness.

If you’re not sure how doing cardio exercises can benefit you, read on in this article.

I will share 11 health benefits of doing cardio.

What Is Cardio?

The word cardio is short for cardiovascular fitness, a term used to reference the circulatory system, which consists of the heart and blood vessels in your body (2).

Cardio is also known as aerobic exercise. It is a form of exercise that requires the pumping of oxygenated blood by the heart to deliver oxygen to working muscles and other tissues and organs in the body (3).

As a result, doing cardio regularly will improve how well and how efficient your heart and lungs work.

Usually, that results in having a lower resting heart rate over time.

As you can see the benefits of cardiovascular training are embedded in its name.

Cardio Exercise

In the simplest term, cardio is any exercise that stimulates your heart rate to beat at a higher rate than normal and your breathing rate increases in a way that can be sustained for the length of the exercise session.

This can be any form of exercise, including walking, HIIT, running, swimming, jogging, and Zumba, to name a few.

Regardless of the form, doing cardio will burn off calories.

And since weight loss does depend on calories deficiencies, incorporating cardio into your regimen is a step in the right direction.

But if you want to take a step further, not all cardio burns calories the same.

Some cardio exercises are better than others for weight loss and fat loss. So let’s dive in.

Different Types of Cardio

There are two types of cardio: aerobic and anaerobic.

Aerobic means needing or using oxygen (4).

You can think of aerobic exercises like running, biking or group classes like Zumba at your local gym class. Aerobic is the heart pumping exercise that makes your lung takes in more oxygen to keep you moving.

In contrast, anaerobic exercise is without “oxygen”, an exercise activity type that involves you moving quickly and getting out of breath quickly, like sprinting and weightlifting.

Anaerobic means without oxygen (5).

Anaerobic is just the opposite of aerobic. You can think of exercises like weightlifting and sprint. They are both called an anaerobic exercise because they require additional oxygen to perform.

In short, aerobic exercise is defined as any activity that stimulates your heart rate and breathing but not so much that you can’t sustain the activity for more than a few minutes.

Aerobic in contrast means “with oxygen,” and anaerobic means “without oxygen.”

It’s the type of exercise where you get out of breath in just a few moments, like when you HIIT, weightlifting for improving strength, when you sprint, or when you climb a long flight of stairs.

Why Do Cardio?

The main purpose of doing cardio exercise is to improve your heart health and efficiency of the rest of the “circulatory system”. As a result, your heart and lungs will get healthier, stronger and more able to work more efficiently.

When you are told to increase cardio, it simply means to perform exercises that will increase your heart rate to your “target heart rate zone” and improve the circulatory system.

Target Heart Rate Zone

Your target heart rate zone is a way to monitor your exercise intensity or effort to ensure that you are exercising safely and effectively.

The target “heart rate zone” is between 50-85% of your maximum predicted heart rate.

The main benefit to knowing your target heart zone is to help you exercise at the right pace or intensity and prevent you from over or under exercise, says Gerald Fletcher, M.D., a Cardiologist and Professor in the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Jacksonville, FL (6).

Before you can calculate your target heart rate zone, you first need to calculate your Maximum Heart Rate.

Your maximum heart rate is determined by age.

Maximum heart rate equation:

220 – Age = Maximum Heart Rate.

For example, a 45-year-old person would have the following calculation for Max Heart Rate:

220 – 45 years = 175 beats per minute or bpm.

To calculate their target heart rate zone (65-85%):

Max heart rate  x  target % = Target Heart Rate

  • 175  x  50% (or .50) = 88 bpm
  • 175  x  85% (or .85) = 149 bpm

This person’s target heart rate zone is 107 bpm to 140 bpm.

Why Is This Important?

According to the American Heart Association, the appropriate heart rate zone is between 50 and 85% of your hypothetical maximum heart rate (6).

Age and maximum heart rate breakdowns are as follows:

Cardio exercise target heart rate zone chart

Keep in mind that the numbers above indicate the standards. Genetic variability, medication, and other health conditions also affect your maximum heart rate (MHR).

For instance, the maximum heart rate could be affected and lowered by certain blood pressure medication.

Also, the MHR percentage training method is not absolute, thus should be used as a good target.

Take this exercise for example.

How hard is your body really working, running on a treadmill at 50% intensity?

The key to knowing your actual exertion level is to know and monitor your heart rate in your everyday life.

Keep in mind that the numbers above indicate the standards and genetic variability, medication and other health conditions that may alter your maximum heart rate (MHR).

For instance, the maximum heart rate could be affected and lowered by certain blood pressure medication.

Also, the MHR percentage training method is not absolute, thus it should be used as a good exertion proxy.

Take this exercise as an example.

How hard is your body really working, running on a treadmill at 50% intensity?

The key to knowing your actual exertion level is to know and monitor your heart rate in your everyday life.

It’s also worth noting that for moderate-intensity lower body exercises, you’d have a more accurate reading on the estimated energy expenditure using polar monitors than lab-based calorimetry.

How to Get Started with Cardio

If you are new to fitness, cardio is a great place to start.

It’s the most basic form of exercise that anyone can do to improve his/her fitness level.

It’s also a bonus that you don’t need a gym or expensive exercise equipment to start doing cardio.

As we mentioned above, cardio is any form of exercise that gets your heart rate and breathing rate higher than your normal range.

This can mean taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking to the store instead of driving, and going for a leisurely jog around the neighborhood.

All of these exercises are considered good forms of cardio.

A simple prescription for beginning cardio training is to start with light to moderate exercise.

For sedentary people, this may be a brisk walk or light jog pace.

Always make sure to invest in some good comfortable shoes, for proper support, and a heart rate monitor to make sure you’re staying in your heart rate zone.

Start slowly and on the low end of the intensity scale and give yourself time to adjust and improve your fitness.

Use the target heart rate zone chart below to determine the appropriate intensity for your fitness level.

This will allow your body to adjust to cardio training while minimizing the risk of soreness and injuries.

ACSM Cardio Recommendations

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is the world’s leading organization for sports medicine and exercise science, promoting healthier lifestyle choices for people worldwide (7).

ACSM cardiovascular fitness guideline recommends that a healthy adult should aim at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.

Exercise recommendations can be met also through 30-60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (five days per week) or 20-60 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise (three days per week).

One continuous session and multiple shorter sessions (of at least 10 minutes) are both acceptable to accumulate the desired amount of daily exercise.

Gradual progression of exercise time, frequency and intensity are recommended for best adherence and least injury risk.

People unable to meet these minimums can still benefit from some activity.

Takeaway: Healthy individuals should do a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio exercise a week. This can be done in 5 sessions of 30-minute cardio.

This is additional to your normal daily activities.

Although it takes commitment, especially in the first 21 days until you develop a habit to make cardio part of your daily routine, it can offer invaluable health benefits you treasure for a lifetime.

The National Academy of Sports Medicine recommends that you start with 2-3 sessions a week and keep your intensity high enough to make you sweat and get your heart rate up, but light enough you can still carry on a light conversation (8).

This implies to both men and women. Cardio workouts for women and cardio workouts for men follow the exact same rule.

Each week you can increase speed or duration, but do not increase it by more than 5-10% each week.

As your fitness level increases gradually, increase the number of sessions per week and the intensity or length of the sessions until you are performing 3-5 sessions of 60 minutes a week at a moderate to high intensity.

A high-intensity cardiorespiratory workout would be one in which you are working hard enough that you can only answer short yes or no type of questions. Give your body plenty of time to improve and adapt, and eventually, you will have a high level of fitness.

Without further adieu, let’s get started in learning about these cardiovascular benefits!

11 Benefits of Cardio Exercise

1. Lose Weight

To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you take in.

Cardio is very effective at burning calories and fat. According to a recent study that compared varying amounts of cardio and its effect on weight loss in obese and overweight individuals.

Those who burned 600 calories for 5 days a week doing cardio were successful at losing 5.7% of their body weight. The group who burned 400 calories for 5 days a week lost slightly less, 4.3% of their weight.

Those who did not exercise in contrast gained 0.5% of weight during the same period.

Furthermore, this is a typical result of seeing in studies on a link between cardio and weight loss. Many other studies have reported cardio can help you burn fat and lose weight (1011).

If you are trying to lose weight, adding cardio to your weight loss program will likely help you lose and manage a healthy weight and improve your metabolic health.

2. Lose Belly Fat

Weight loss is not the only benefit of cardio. If you have stubborn fat to lose, cardio should be your choice of exercise.

Cardio is one of the most effective exercises to get rid of belly fat.

Though it’s still unclear whether, at what intensity, moderate or high leads to the greatest fat loss, cardio’s effectiveness in getting rid of your excess fat is well documented.

And studies suggest more exercise the better.

In one study, postmenopausal women lost more fat from all areas when they did the cardio exercise for 300 minutes per week versus 150 minutes per week (12).

3. Promotes Brain Health

Harvard Health Publications reported regular cardiovascular exercises can improve your brain health.

In one study, researchers found that sweaty, heart-pumping aerobic exercise appears to increase the size of the hippocampus, the brain area relating to verbal memory and learning (13).

They did not see the same effectiveness from resistance training.

Another study in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience made similar discoveries (14).

They found that cardio whether short or long-term can boost one’s memory and overall brain health in addition to those otherwise sedentary adults’ physical fitness.

4. Improves Heart Health

This should come as no surprise as inactivity is one of the major risk factors for heart disease.

Luckily, cardio is the right kind of exercise to reverse that.

According to the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission, cardio exercise helps improve heart health and can even reverse some heart disease risk factors (18).

Like all muscles in the body, the heart becomes stronger as a result of regular cardio exercise, so it can pump more blood through the body with every beat and continue working at maximum level, if needed, with less stress.

People who do cardio regularly tend to have a lower resting heart rate since less effort is needed to pump blood throughout the body.

Doing cardio exercise regularly will improve your heart health and lightens the strains on your heart.

5. Eases Depression & Uplifts Your Mood

Cardio exercise has been shown effective at improving one’s mood and alleviating depression, anxiety, and stress.

It does that by initiating changes in a brain part that manages stress and anxiety. As you exercise, the brain becomes more sensitive to serotonin and norepinephrine, hormones that send relief to feelings of depression.

One published study on 156 depressed participants saw this positive correlation between depression and exercise (19).

To study the effectiveness of exercise as a depression reliever, they tested cardio as a treatment against medication, namely antidepressants. The participants were divided into three groups.

One followed a cardio program with no medication. Second, took antidepressants, but didn’t exercise. And the third group followed cardio and took antidepressants.

The test results exhibited that cardio worked just as well as a medication to relieve depression symptoms. In fact, after 16 weeks, up to 70% of people in all 3 groups were no longer diagnosed with major depression.

The research suggests that cardio offers an alternative to a medicated approach to relieving depression.

6. Boosts Your Energy

There’s no secret that more physically active people tend to have more stamina and get tired less frequently.

Cardio can do a lot to bring out that benefit in both healthy and unhealthy individuals including those suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, CFS and other serious illness (22).

One cardio study showed those with persistent fatigue experienced fewer feelings of being tired at the end of their 6-week trial (23).

In the end, regardless of your current health and physical state, cardio is a valid solution for energy and stamina boost.

7. Decreases Your Risk of Chronic Disease

Physical inactivity is one of the primary causes of chronic illness and can lead to belly fat gain, a well-documented threat to heart disease, premature death, and type 2 diabetes (24).

Not only physical activity can help lower your risk of chronic diseases, cardio, in particular, has also been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, reduce body composition, decrease blood pressure (25).

Inevitably, cardio is needed to lose the belly fat to reduce all the other serious illnesses associated with it.

8. Improves Sleep Quality and Relaxation

Exercise also benefits your sleep.

The energy that gets depleted during exercise actually stimulates the health restoration process during sleep, giving you a good night of sleep with a more energized morning.

In fact, one study found that those who perform 150 minutes of cardio per week can see over 65% of improvement in their sleep quality from the cardio activity (27).

Another research saw an increase in sleep duration in people with insomnia when they incorporated physical activity into their daily life (28).

What’s more, the benefits extend to the elderly, who often experience sleep disorders (29).

Furthermore, it seems that you can be flexible with your exercise selections. Whether it’s cardio exercise alone or cardio exercise combined with resistance training, can help improve your sleep quality (30).

9. Manages Diabetes

In addition to following a healthy diabetic meal plan and maintaining your blood glucose level through medications, physical activity such as cardio can play an important role in managing diabetes.

Exercise indeed will actually make it easier for you to control your blood sugar (glucose) level. This is particularly important to those with type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes points to a condition where there is too much glucose in their blood, either because their body doesn’t produce enough insulin to process it or their body doesn’t use insulin properly.

Studies have shown that exercise is, in fact, helpful in reducing the glucose in their blood since muscles can use glucose without insulin when you’re exercising (31).

In other words, it doesn’t matter if you’re insulin resistant or if you don’t have enough insulin. When you exercise, your muscles get the glucose they need, and in turn, your blood glucose level goes down.

By performing cardio exercises regularly, you will increase your muscles’ ability to utilize glucose. Amongst all, research shows cardio exercises are particularly beneficial for type 2 diabetes.

10. Boosts Your Sex Life

Being physically active on a regular basis can boost your confidence.

Not only that, several studies show exercise can effectively increase one’s sex drive (3233).

Exercise such as cardio can also strengthen the cardiovascular system and improve your stamina which is crucial for a good sex session for men and women.

Additionally, exercise increases blood circulation, builds muscle tones, and enhances flexibility, all of which add to an improved quality of sex.

Inevitably, it’s said to enhance one’s sex performance and sexual pleasure, which naturally leads to an increased frequency of sexual activity.

While this benefit applies to both genders, one study on women in their 40s shows how increased exercise led to more orgasms (35).

In a men oriented study, it’s also well documented that erectile dysfunction became less frequent with a regular routine of a short walk (36).

Takeaway: Regularly engaged in physical activity such as cardio can help drive sexual desire, function, and performance for both men and women.

Exercise is also linked to a reduced risk of men’s erectile dysfunction.

11. Improves Skin Health

Exercise is truly a wonderful thing for one’s health, and it goes beyond sleep and sexual drive.

It also helps clear your complexion and improves the health of your skin.

That’s because exercise can increase blood flow which will help keep your skin healthy and vibrant, says dermatologist Ellen Marmur, MD (37).

But if you have acne, rosacea, or psoriasis, it’s important to take steps to protect your skin during your exercise session.

Though it’s not necessary to stop physical activities for your skin issues. In fact, it’s encouraged for its benefits to your skin. 

The Takeaway

There you have it!

11 amazing health benefits of cardio.

Cardio is proven effective and important for optimal health.

The best part is cardio exercises are free and can be done anywhere. It doesn’t even require any exercise equipment to perform. By adding cardio to your daily life, you can begin to experience many of these incredible health benefits.

It’s recommended that you perform 30-60 minutes of low to moderate-intensity exercise per day for 5 days or 20-30 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise 3 times per week. Generally speaking 150 mins of any cardio a week is enough to reap its health benefits and provides you with noticeable results.

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