How Much Cardio Should You Do?

cardio exercise

How much cardio should we be doing?  Likely something that you’ve never considered is that the ideal amount of cardio exercise will vary based on age, body type, lifestyle, and medical conditions.  What might be the ideal amount for me may not be the correct amount for you.  In fact, the ideal amount of cardio exercise for each of us may also change in correlation with other changes made during one’s life.  Today, we’re going to take a look at the different situations that will dictate the amount of cardio exercise we should be getting along with some suggested exercises and intensity levels to reach your goals.

Medical Conditions and Cardio Exercise

Going out on a limb here, but I’m going to assume that all of you understand that cardio exercise is good for you as a general rule.  There are a number of proven benefits to cardio exercise such as blood pressure reduction, lower LDL cholesterol, increases in HDL cholesterol, and regulated insulin sensitivity [1].  Regular daily activities performed to increase your blood flow and heart rate have been known to strengthen the heart and cardiovascular system in general.  That said, if you’ve recently had a heart attack, stroke, or surgery of any kind, it’s probably not a good idea to go out and sign up for a 5k any time soon.

Though the common presumption is that a healthy amount of cardio exercise in one’s life will increase the longevity of life and help prevent heart disease, this may not be the case for all individuals.  An excess or sudden serious increase of intense cardio exercise can trigger more health problems for somebody in an already weakened state.  If you’ve recently had a heart attack, stroke, or major surgery of any kind, the last thing you want to do is put your cardiovascular system under even more stress.  Follow the road to recovery rules and exercises dictated to you by your doctor or physical therapist and do not overdo it.  You can cause more harm instead of healing.

Assuming you’re taking the medications prescribed after one of these medical situations as you were instructed and you’re working hard during the recovery process to practice the physical therapy exercises that your doctor or therapist has dictated to you, your body is experiencing a cardiovascular rebirth.  Cardio exercise in conjunction with controlling your diet when you have diabetes or are recovering from one of the serious aforementioned medical situations will help your body along in the regenerative process.  In just 8 months, an individual that had a serious heart attack and subsequent heart surgery can be ready to run a half marathon if he or she is being diligent about their new healthy, cardio-first lifestyle and didn’t try to overdo it in the beginning.

Cardio to Lose Weight

It’s worth mentioning that losing weight can often be accomplished without ever increasing the amount of cardio exercising you do.  If you’re already hitting the gym and lifting weights, you are doing enough exercises to slowly lose weight so long as you’re regulating your diet with the weight-loss goal in mind.  A high protein, low carbohydrate diet with the typical weight lifting exercises in a gym can often lead to weight loss for most people [2].

Using cardio can be a very effective way to further increase the levels of visceral fat burn and subsequently produce the lean physique you’re after.  Keep in mind that controlling your diet will dictate the amount of success you’re going to have.  Consider utilization a food journal to keep track of the amount of calories you’re consuming on a daily basis.  If you keep the protein levels high and snack on veggies rather than potato chips, your calorie count will be fairly low each day.  This means that the workouts you’re getting in the gym will be enough to maintain your weight in most cases, but if you choose to alternate the weight lift days with cardio days on the elliptical or treadmill, you’re going to find that you’re able to shed a lot of visceral fat while doing just two or three hours of aerobic, cardio exercises each week.  Consider these exercises when looking for a guide to cardio workouts [3]:


  • Swimming is often overlooked when it comes to working out.  Getting in a pool and either resistance running or practicing any of your best strokes is really easy on the joints and can raise your heartrate significantly.  Side benefit: You don’t feel as hot and sweaty!
  • For those who aren’t interested in a quick cardio workout, walking, especially with any sort of brisk pace, will raise your heartrate by up to 30 beats per minute.  Walking is ideal for obese people or somebody who is recovering from a medical ailment.  A few hours of walking a week will boost your metabolism and strengthen your cardiovascular system enough to make the next step over time.
  • Jogging/Running. The next step.  It’s best for somebody who is just starting to run to fast walk for a while, then run for a while, then fast walk again.  As your endurance grows, you’ll find that you can run for longer and longer.  Keeping this elevated heartrate will burn away your visceral fat and have all the same effects walking has except they’ll be accomplished in a fraction of the time.  Running is likely the most common method of serious cardio exercise as it only takes 30 minutes or so a day to realize all the benefits.
  • Ready for the intense cardio exercise?  Nothing is better than getting on that elliptical and going flat out for a solid 20 minutes.  It’s easy on your joints and works out a lot of muscles rather than just your legs.  Your heartrate will match the running heartrate but you’re able to work out twice as many muscles and the intensity of your workout can burn more calories than you can while running.

Variety is Key

Obviously all or any cardio exercise is far healthier for you than nothing at all would be.  Simply sitting in a chair and picking up the remote or cell phone once in a while isn’t exactly a real heartrate booster…  Something you need to take into consideration though is complacency.  Your body will become complacent and eventually muscle memory will come to expect the type of cardio exercise you’re regularly doing.  The effects of the exercise are significantly impacted in a negative way.  It’s important to change up your cardio exercises much like you change up your weight lifting exercises.  This prevents complancency, soreness, injury, and frankly, can keep things more exciting in the gym.

Once you’ve improved your heart health and have built up some endurance with the exercises listed earlier, it’s time to throw in some different twists and practices to maintain the results you’ve realized and work out muscles that may have been getting ignored.  Here are a few exercises that should be inserted in your cardio workout rotation:

  • Jump rope. Commonly forgotten or regarded as a child’s toy.  An intense jump rope session can really get that heart pumping while working out some muscles below your knees that are often only slightly used.  The various muscles in your feet and calves can really benefit from an intense jump rope workout, even if it is just for 2 minutes a day.
  • Sled drag. Let’s sculpt those quads.  The sled drag is a really strong cardio workout to consider on leg days.  Your quads will be put to the test with this resistance workout much like they are during a leg lift, but with the sled drag you’re going to get the added benefit of elevating your heartrate.  A few minutes of the sled drag and you’re going to understand what I’m talking about…
  • Pushups/Crunches. Don’t do these at a slow rate and you’re going to feel like you’ve run a mile when you complete a set of pushes or crunches on upper-body day.  Complete these with serious intensity to gain the benefits of cardiovascular workout while you’re working out your abs and arms.

Common Cardio Workout Mistakes

There are 3 excruciatingly common misconceptions and mistakes that people make when it comes to cardio workouts.  They’re highlighted here and not to be taken lightly.

  1. Using weights. Many people decide to run while carrying light weights or do long sets of curls with tiny free weights thinking that this will help burn calories.  Technically, they’re correct.  You see a very small increase in calorie burn when adding the weights to your cardio exercise.  The problem is, it’s such a small increase that it isn’t worth the safety risk of carrying around free weights.  You could drop them, resulting in increased risk that can be completely avoided.  They also cause unneeded pressure on your joints and tendons that just isn’t necessary.  Run for the extra 30 seconds to make up the difference those weights would do in a half our trek.
  2. Complete fasting. There is no reason to fast to have effective cardio workouts, even when it comes to promoting weight loss.  Eat often, in small amounts and stay hydrated.  Extended cardio workouts will take a lot of energy from your body and it’s going to need to get that energy from somewhere!  You can have a low carbohydrate count but it’s recommended to have some in your diet to realize the most improvement when it comes to cardio fitness training.
  3. Cardio is enough. It’s not.  You need to supplement cardio with a controlled diet to ensure proper weight loss at a healthy rate.  Just because you’re running and feeling a sweat doesn’t mean you’re creating a calorie deficit.  If you’re serious about losing visceral fat, you need to control the diet as well.  Just because you’re swimming doesn’t mean you’re getting the heartrate up to be real effective.  You might be lean and fit enough that casual swimming isn’t really doing much for you.  Switch it up as mentioned before with some sled drags or pushups to get the most out of your workouts.

Don’t Ignore the Weights

You might not feel it but weight training increases your heart rate beyond what its usual state is.  High intensity weight training will push your body to a limit in ways that running and swimming simply cannot do.  Studies show that the best way to ensure positive body composition is by regulating diet and hitting the weights with an intensity that is typically seen in your local gym [4].  If you’re looking for muscle building results, there is no reason why you can’t get the results you desire while working out your cardiovascular system.  Do not ignore one type of exercise in favor of the other.


Much like you use supplements to enhance your muscle building exercises, there are supplements that will help you get the most out of your cardio exercises.  Many of these supplements can be taken along with the body-building supplements [5].  Heck, some of them are even used for both weight training and cardio exercising.  Let’s take a look at some of the products on the market that can make the most of your cardiovascular exercises…

  • Creatine. As we’ve mentioned before, creatine will increase the amount of energy needed for your body to have the intense weight lifting workouts you need to build that muscle.  Obviously, the more energy your muscles have, the more weight and/or reps you can complete.  Well, much like the extra energy can be used for an increase in reps, it can be used for longer or more intense cardiovascular exercises.  Creatine is key for giving us the extra endurance we desire to push through those long cardio workouts.
  • Caffeine. Often overlooked, caffeine has been used for years by professional athletes in the track and field areas.  It can come in the form of a pill or inside of sports drinks, so there is something that suits everybody.  Caffeine gives us short bursts of energy when you’re feeling low or are running on fewer sleep than usual.  As a side benefit, it’s also a natural fat burner since it increases your body’s metabolic rate and can suppress hunger pains for short bits of time.  Use caffeine just before a serious cardio workout to give you a boost when you’re just not feeling it.
  • Beta-alanine. Like creatine, this can be applied to those of us who are looking to gain muscle and those of us who are looking to have a more intense cardio workout as well.  Beta-alanine will increase the power of your muscles, quite literally.  Your strength is increased as well as the peak performance of the exercises that you’re doing.  With short rest periods between sets of high-intensity exercises, your body will literally perform on another level.  It doesn’t matter if you’re doing weight training or having yourself a serious cardio workout.  Carnosine is only effective when you’re in motion so if your breaks between sets last more than 60 seconds, you’re not going to see a significant boost in performance.  Your peak oxygen uptake needs to run at a high rate for a good duration of time.  Athletes everywhere are encouraged to use beta-alanine to get the best results they can from any work out, regardless of goal.  Refer to our beta-alanine guide for more details.
  • Protein powder. The most common of all supplements, protein will help you fight off hunger while enhancing muscle growth.  An added benefit is that when you participate in prolonged cardiovascular exercises, the higher levels of protein in your body can provide you with extra energy and prevent the loss of muscle that is often associated with extreme cardio exercise.  For many of us, there is no reason to work so hard to gain muscle mass if we’re just going to lose it during cardio.  Protein powder is the ideal supplement to ensure the results you’re looking for, regardless of what they are.

What’s Right for Me?

thinking about cardio exerciseAs I alluded to all throughout this article, what’s correct for you is largely going to depend on your lifestyle, health, and goals.  Assuming you’re the average Joe that’s looking to lose a bit of weight or just have a healthier lifestyle, considering visiting the NSCSD and taking a look at their chart of suggested heart rates for exercise.  It’s a great guide for the majority of people trying to calculate how much effort they need to be putting in to their cardio exercises to see the results they want.  Now… Get out there and get moving!


  1. Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence
    Darren E.R. Warburton, Crystal Whitney Nicol, and Shannon S.D. Bredin CMAJ. 2006 Mar 14; 174(6): 801–809. doi: [10.1503/cmaj.051351]
  2. Low-Fat or Low Carb for Weight Loss? It Depends on Your Glucose Metabolism
    Arne Astrup⁎ and Mads F. Hjorth EBioMedicine. 2017 Aug; 22: 20–21.
    Published online 2017 Jul 4. doi: [10.1016/j.ebiom.2017.07.001]
  3. Aerobic exercise alone results in clinically significant weight loss for men and women: Midwest Exercise Trial-2
    Joseph E. Donnelly, Professor,a,* Jeffery J. Honas,a Bryan K. Smith,b Matthew S. Mayo,c Cheryl A. Gibson,a Debra K. Sullivan,d Jaehoon Lee,e Stephen D. Herrmann,a Kate Lambourne,a and Rik A. Washburna Obesity (Silver Spring). Author manuscript; available in PMC 2013 Sep 1. Published in final edited form as:
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    Dutheil F1, Lac G, Lesourd B, Chapier R, Walther G, Vinet A, Sapin V, Verney J, Ouchchane L, Duclos M, Obert P, Courteix D. Int J Cardiol. 2013 Oct 9;168(4):3634-42. doi: 10.1016/j.ijcard.2013.05.012. Epub 2013 May 25.
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    Jahangir Karimian1 and Parivash Shekarchizadeh Esfahani2 J Res Med Sci. 2011 Oct; 16(10): 1347–1353.
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