Originally published 9 Dec 2016. Last updated 12 Sept 2020.
In my experience, when people hear the term “cardio” or “cardiovascular activity” or “aerobic exercise” (which basically all mean the same thing), images of the crowded, noisy, and sweaty gym environment come to mind. You can just see those gym rats getting in their cardio by jogging on their treadmills or cycling along on their bikes, trying to distract themselves from the monotony by listening to music (or our podcasts–thank you for that), watching their favorite movies and TV shows on their phones, playing on Facebook, catching up on their reading… anything to take their minds off of the next 30-60 minutes they have to endure to just to make their hearts healthier. Please know that getting in a good cardiovascular workout doesn’t have to be like this.
Yes, cardiovascular activity is important. Making your heart work harder than it normally would does in fact make your heart stronger. It also helps keep your arteries healthy and flexible, releases good-feeling hormones, and may help prevent a number of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, some forms of cancer and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. But again, you don’t have to have to spend time on an elliptical, a treadmill, or a stationary bicycle to achieve these benefits.
Shorten Rest Time Between Your Sets
By shortening the amount of rest time between your sets, you can begin to incorporate more of a cardiovascular workout. For example, let’s say you were working your biceps and you just performed a set of bicep curls using dumbbells and you lifted the weights 8 times. Translated another way, you performed 1 set of bicep curls for 8 repetitions. Usually what happens is folks will put down the weight, rest for 2-3 minutes and then repeat that exercise.
If you wanted to make your heart work a bit harder, rest for only 30 seconds before picking those weights up again. I must mention that you probably won’t be able to lift the same amount of weight after only resting for 30 seconds. You will probably have to use a lighter weight instead. But that’s ok. By increasing the intensity, you’re training your muscles differently, which will help them grow, and you are going to increase your heart rate and begin to force it to work almost as if you’re getting a cardio workout.
Shorten Rest Time Between Your Sets
A while back, my buddy and I were getting frustrated with our usual gym routine. We saw an ad for those bootcamp-style classes. He really wanted to try it. I was hesitant but I didn’t want to let him down, so I signed up. It was one of the best things I ever did. It opened my eyes to how hard I could push myself, but also how a fantastic cardiovascular workout can be done without ever hopping on a cardio machine. All of the exercises used my own body weight – nothing else. I was completely wiped after, but felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment. I used muscles I didn’t even know existed. I learned about exercises I could do in the comfort of my home, with no equipment. If I hadn’t gone through these bootcamp classes, I never would have pushed myself to branch out and try other routines. Sometimes it’s worth trying something new. If it pushes you to the point where you are unable to hold a conversation with someone, you’re getting in a cardio workout.
Another idea – let’s say you’re normally used to walking with your 8-year old around the neighborhood. To help improve your cardiovascular health, race your 8-year old to some landmark… maybe the end of the street, the next lamppost… you get the idea. Once you reach that landmark, be sure high-fives are given all around, continue walking for another minute or so, find another landmark, and race again. You may not end up walking as long as you normally would, but that’s ok. Because you increased the intensity of your routine by racing your 8-year old, you're pushing your heart to work harder than it normally would… which again, is a very good thing!
Something that is often forgotten when it comes to protecting our heart and blood vessels is stretching. Researchers are discovering that when we regularly stretch, it helps to keep our arteries more flexible which helps prevent heart disease and strokes. The best time to stretch is after your workout, when your muscles are nice and warm. Aim to stretch the large muscle groups like your legs, back, and chest.
Lastly, we’re also learning that if you don’t enjoy the cardio exercises you’re performing, or at least appreciate the fact that what you’re doing is helping you achieve optimal health and wellness, you won’t reap as many benefits. We used to think that if you are able to just go through the motions, put your time in at the gym & get out, that was enough to help prevent a number of diseases. But that doesn’t appear to be the case. You have to believe that what you’re doing is beneficial. You have to have some sense of appreciation… or dare I say, enjoyment of the exercises you’re doing. That’s why finding those activities that make you happy and/or modifying those that you do enjoy is a great way to ensure that all of your hard work will pay off in the end.