There’s no doubt about it: cardio is good for you. But, how much cardio should you be doing in a week? What type? And, for how long?
That’s where things get a bit more complicated.
Despite some people who don't think cardio is the most efficient way to get in shape, it has many well-established health benefits, from boosting your cardiovascular health to protecting your brain function.
So, whether you choose to do HIIT or take a 30-minute walk every day, cardio should be an integral part of your life.
The question, then, isn't if you need cardio or if it's helpful, but -- rather -- how much you need to help you reach your goals. Or, how much is too much and could be doing more harm than good.
Cardio Workout Guidelines
Cardio exercise increases your heart rate and helps improve your exercise efficiency by strengthening your heart so it pumps blood more efficiently. This can help you with fitness goals like improving endurance or health goals like lowering blood pressure.
What's more, cardio boosts your mood and improves immune function.
So, how do you choose the right type of cardio for you? While cardio is recommended to everyone, there are different types of cardio exercises you can consider: high, moderate, and low intensity.
High-intensity workouts (HIIT)
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) describes a workout where you do short bouts of high-intensity exercise with a period of rest in between. It can include a wide range of different activities -- from traditional running or biking to weight training exercises -- and can last as little as 4 minutes or as long as 20 to 30 minutes.
HIIT workouts are defined by work periods and rest periods where you alternate between higher and lower intensities. The idea is that you rest enough to ensure that each "work" round maximizes intensity, and then you keep the overall workout short enough so that you never have any "low intensity" sets.
For example, after a warm-up, you might do work sets for 20 seconds followed by 1-2 minutes of rest, and then repeat until your workout is done.
How do you know when you’re in the high-intensity zone? The good idea is to monitor your heart rate. Your maximum average heart rate can be calculated by subtracting your age from 220. So if you’re 30, your maximum average heart rate will be 190 beats per minute.
Your target heart rate for the high-intensity activity should be between 70 and 85% of your average heart rate.
Some HIIT workouts go up to 90% of the average heart rate, but if you’re inexperienced, this is not a target you should be going for. With HIIT, it’s best to slowly build up to higher levels of exertion.
HIIT is has become very popular lately, and it does offer some fantastic benefits.
You can burn a lot of calories in a short time, your metabolic rate will stay up long after the exercise, helping you burn more calories at rest, and you can improve your oxygen consumption and blood pressure. Plus, it’s easy to fit into your daily schedule, as it usually takes less than 30 minutes.
Moderate activity is anything that can get your heart rate up for a consistent period of time.
Moderate exercise should get your heart rate up to 60 to 75 percent of your average heart rate. This type of activity can include lower intensity runs, resistance training, or even practicing your favorite sport. The idea is that you're pushing your cardio endurance but not at the level maximizes strain on your heart.
Whereas you can only do high-intensity exercise a few times per week, your body will have an easier time recovering from moderate-intensity exercise.
Low-intensity steady-state training (LISS)
LISS cardio entails low -intensity training, typically, for a longer period of time.
Let's say you're cycling. A LISS workout could mean training for 30-60 minutes at a steady pace while maintaining the target heart rate of anywhere from 30 to 60 percent.
LISS is excellent to include in your workout routine if you’re training for endurance events. It’s also suitable for beginners, as it is easier to do than HIIT, and the recovery time is shorter.
However, it takes a lot of time, and it can get boring.
How Much Cardio Should I Do (For Health Only)?
The guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services state that 150 minutes of moderate activity per week should be a goal for all adults, even the elderly.
Alternatively, you can do 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise, or you can combine HIIT and LISS workouts throughout the week.
In following these recommendations, you will improve your cardiovascular health, prevent heart diseases, lower your blood pressure, and boost fat-burning.
Cardio, especially low-to-moderate intensity, is generally safe for everyone, and it doesn’t require gym memberships or extraneous time commitment. It can be as simple as taking a walk every other day.
Given the above recommendations, if you’re just getting started with exercising, you can spread your 150 minutes to 30 minutes a day, five days a week. That can mean taking a 30-minute walk on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and perhaps going to the pool two times a week.
But, there's plenty of room to build a plan that works for you. For example, breaking up your workouts into shorter sessions can also be effective.
For example, you can spread out your 30 minutes throughout the day, and do 15 minutes in the morning and afternoon. If you’re doing low-to-moderate activities, you generally don’t need rest days but make sure you’re not going over 50-70 percent of your maximum average heart rate.
Or, you can do your cardio in high-intensity intervals. The recommendation is 75 minutes a week so that you can do three sessions of HIIT per week, for example.
You can also combine the two—it all depends on your daily schedule, level of fitness, and personal goals. And, of course, you can do more than 150 minutes a week. In fact, for maximum health benefits, research suggests that you should strive for 300 minutes of moderate weekly activity.
How Much Cardio Should I Do To Lose Weight?
When it comes to losing weight, the most important rule is the caloric deficit. That means consuming fewer calories than you’re burning. These numbers depend on your age, current weight, gender, muscle mass.
In general, to lose one pound per week, you need a deficit of 3,500 calories.
In principle, you could lose weight just by consuming fewer calories, but exercise can speed up that process and offer you numerous other health benefits.
While HIIT workouts have a level of intensity that burns more calories per minute of exercise, LISS is equally effective for weight loss. If you’re just starting, the low-to-moderate activity can be a more sustainable and easier choice.
According to the CDC, 30 minutes of moderate cardio activity can burn anywhere from 150 to 200 calories (for a 154lb person—this number will depend on your current weight). These activities include hiking (185 cal), dancing (165 cal), and walking at 3.4 mph (140 cal).
In case you want to speed up your weight loss, opt for including two or three HIIT sessions a week, with a day of rest in between. On your rest days, you can take brisk walks or do a low-intensity activity such as swimming.
Once you feel more comfortable and fit, try to include strength training sessions following recommendations from your trainer or gym staff.
If you’ve never exercised before, it’s a good idea to start slowly. In general, exercising around 75 percent of your maximum average heart rate is a good intensity that will guarantee a hard workout but not something that will push the limits too much as your body adapts. As you get more fit, you can increase that number and start doing HIIT workouts.