How to do cardio smarter


Cardiovascular exercise, aka CARDIO.

One of the most powerful and yet arguably the most misunderstood components of fitness.


Because there’s the right way to do cardio… and then there’s the way most people do cardio.

Most people think of cardio as simply going to the gym and jumping on the treadmill or maybe hitting the streets for a walk or some running. Nothing wrong with that, generally. It’s good for your heart and your overall well being. It’s also one of the easiest ways to get started if you want to get in better shape or lose some weight, if you’re a new exercisers, if you’re doing rest/recovery days, you’re under the care of a doctor, you’re an endurance athlete working to accumulate weekly mileage – you get the idea. It has its place.

The problem is, though, too many people stay right there doing their steady-state cardio day after day after day… They get into a rut. They do the same program, the same speed or the same pace they’ve always done – they may even have a couple routines that they alternate between, but the point is it’s pretty much the same ‘old same ‘ol. Cue yawn.

To make matters worse, they also tend to plod along for far too long, more than an hour at times, mistakenly believing that if a little cardio is good, more must be better, especially if it doesn’t seem to be “working”. NOT the best way to lose weight, keep weight off, transform your body and maintain that fit look you probably want since you’re reading this. Oh, and neither are the inconsistent spurts where you half kill yourself every single workout until you burn out or hurt yourself so you quit working out all together, for that matter.


Yes, there IS a better way!


See, cardiovascular exercise is any exercise that involves the large muscles of your body (aka arms and legs), makes you breathe heavily and raises your heart rate. That means yes, walking and running are cardio. Bike riding is cardio. Swimming laps is cardio. So is kickboxing, dancing, circuit weight training, playing tennis, calisthenics, your boot camp and Zumba classes – all cardio as long as you keep moving.


So, what should your cardio look like?


Well first off, the American Heart Association along with many other official-type health and fitness organizations like the Mayo Clinic and the CDC, recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week along with 2 or more strength training days per week (more on that later). You can, of course and should, mix it up with some moderate and vigorous activity depending on your situation. Based on your goals and ability you can break that time up into 30-minute training periods, 5 days per week. If you’re crunched for time, research even suggests you can get good results from dividing the time up into 10-15 minute segments, 2-3 times per day.

That takes care of the ‘how much’ cardio. Now on to the ‘how to’.

Depending on your health and fitness level, what you want is a mix of moderate and hard (maybe super-hard, depending on your circumstances) intensity training days based on your goals so that your body has enough stimuli to boost your metabolism and make changes you want, like burning fat or increasing your endurance, while still offering enough time to recover so you are less likely to overtrain or get hurt.


For an experienced exerciser that could look something like this:

Monday/Tuesday – high intensity
Wednesday – low to moderate intensity
Thursday/Friday – high intensity
Saturday – rest/recovery
Sunday – low to moderate intensity


Beginners, you might start like this:

Monday/Wednesday/Friday – moderate to high intensity
Tuesday/Thursday – low to moderate intensity
Saturday/Sunday – rest/recovery


Of course, these are just examples. The point is to vary the intensity over your training week so that your body keeps progressing in a healthy way.

You also want to vary the intensity of your workouts as well. Remember that steady-state training we talked about earlier? Once you’ve been exercising for a few weeks, include cardio interval training 1-3 times per week. Interval training is a type of training where periods of moderate to high intensity exercise is alternated with periods of rest/recovery. Some of the benefits include a higher calorie burn (so you don’t need to work out for hours every day to get results), continued higher calorie burn when you’re all done and both your aerobic and anaerobic systems get a significant boost. There are tons of ways you can do this, including mixing your cardio with your strength training and conditioning sessions – nope, you absolutely don’t have to do separate cardio days or cardio workouts. Your training time and workouts should fit your goals.

That said, these intervals may be a good place to start. 


This popular form of high intensity interval training, HIIT for short, is named for Japanese researcher Izumi Tabata. It consists of 20 seconds of work time and 10 secs of rest for 8 rounds. That’s only 4 minutes total but since you push yourself to work at or near your highest intensity, a little goes a long way. Researchers found that not only can you save time, Tabata training encourages muscle tissue retention while burning more fat.


This kinder, somewhat gentler modification of the Tabata is a good way for newbies to ease into the protocol. But don’t be fooled – it can still get a tough workout. Start by working at a comfortable level for 30 seconds, then ramp up to moderate intensity for 20 seconds, and go all out for 10 seconds. Do this for 5 rounds and then take a 2 minute active recovery period. Repeat the whole thing again for a second time – another 5 rounds of 30/20/10 followed by another 2-minute active recovery period. 


This is a great workout for building endurance. You’ll work hard for the first segment then go easier to recover for the same amount of work time. As the name suggests, pyramid up in time with each round and then work your way back down.
30 seconds work/30 second recovery
1 minute work/1 minute recovery
2 minutes work/2 minutes recovery
3 minutes work/3 minutes recovery
4 minutes work/4 minutes recovery
3 minutes work/3 minutes recovery
2 minutes work/2 minutes recovery
1 minute work/1 minute recovery
30 seconds work/30 second recovery


Of course, be sure to warm up and cool down as appropriate. And remember, you’re in charge of your intensity – aka, how hard you work. Keep it smart and work it on your level, of course.

Have fun!


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  1. Maxene | February 7, 2017 at 4:45 PM

    for years and years, I was a self-proclaimed cardio queen with a very sloppy weight lifting routine. back in Aug 2015 I decided to build a strict weight lifting routine (upper back day, leg day, glute day, etc…) and incorporated my already standing cardio (rock climbing, yoga, running) into the mix and holy cow I quickly saw results. it’s amazing how easy it is to just stick to the workout routine that works, however, the moment i decided to switch it up and get serious about weights, my body transformed! and on the days I was unable to get a full hour workout in I would go into my garage and bust out a 15 minute HIIT workout and I was just as sweaty as if I had done an hour of steady running, HIIT is the best in my opinion!

    • tami | February 7, 2017 at 7:03 PM

      Yes, yes, yes, Maxene! Luv this because it’s so true – change can be good! Congratulations on your hard work and making the changes you needed to get the results you wanted.

  2. Jane | April 17, 2017 at 3:22 AM

    Thanks for sharing this cardio workout routine.
    I want to start working out now for body wellness.
    I will give this a try.


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