January 06, 2010

Cardio: Getting Started

Photo: John Springer Collection; via twotoneatl.

Pretty much everyone agrees that for good health, you need to do some sort of exercise. But does that mean everyone has to do aerobic exercise? The kind where you get all sweaty, breathe hard, and struggle to keep your heartrate in its picky little "target zone?"

Well, I'm not prepared to do an exhaustive research review, but I do know a couple things:

(1) There are many, many studies that point to major health benefits from regular aerobic exercise, and for this reason, mainstream health experts all seem to recommend you do it. (See, for example, a good article over at Mayo Clinic.) Heck, even the Federal Government thinks you should get off your ass. For best results, they say work up to the point where you're doing 150 minutes a week of "vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity."

(2) And yet I know plenty of people who've lived to a healthy old age by walking, gardening, and just generally puttering around. Many of these folks would never intentionally sign up for a fitness class, nor would they consider "going for a run" unless something with large teeth and claws were chasing them.

Surprisingly Effective Exercise Motivator
(Photo: Orin Zebest)

So what to make of this? Do you have to do cardio?

My take: you'll maximize your chances for a healthy, vigorous, disease-free life if you suck it up and do regular aerobic exercise. Particularly if you have a crappy family history when it comes to chronic disease. But it's also really important just to keep moving. There are huge health benefits you get from not being sedentary, no matter slowly and gently you decide to approach physical activity.

But at least give vigorous cardio a shot someday, you may be surprised how much better you feel! Many of us find that aerobic exercise helps us sleep better, have more energy, catch fewer bugs, have less anxiety, crankiness and depression, and just generally feel more smug and special and awesome than people who don't.

Now obviously I'm not going to cover all the things you need to know about aerobic exercise in one post, but here are at least a few tips to get you moving. Or if you're already pounding out marathons, it's an opportunity to laugh at how lame my suggestions are help the cardio newcomers by offering your wise suggestions in the comments.

1. Pick an Exercise You Don't Abhor

There are a huge number of exercises that will get your heat rate up to aerobic levels; the tricky thing is finding one that doesn't make you want to puke, tear your hair out, or break down into a sobbing heap of misery five minutes into your workout. Of course Murphy's law dictates that the sort of exercise that sounds the most fun will be the least practical given your lifestyle, and the most convenient option will likely suck.

But with that in mind, at least here are a few cardio ideas:

Running; race-walking or power-walking; cycling; swimming; skating; rowing; cross-country skiing; exercise machines like ellipticals and steppers; fitness classes like boot camps, turbo-kick, functional fitness, etc; dance classes or dvds like Zumba, hip/hop, bellydancing, country dancing, or swing dancing; fitness video games; sports that keep you constantly moving like basketball or raquetball or soccer; hiking; climbing; surfing; or more exotic activities, like parkour, cheese rolling, or bog-snorkeling.

And I'm probably forgetting a whole bunch of other things.

2. Start Slowly:

Do you have medical issues, or are you coming off years of inactivity? These and other potentially risky scenarios mean you should check with your doctor first. Because having a heart attack is NOT a good way to start off an aerobic exercise program!

And don't try to go "all out" from the very beginning. People constantly make the mistake of giving it their all before they've built the physical foundations for intense exercise. So save some of your "all," you'll most likely be needing it for later.

Remember, you have a whole lifetime ahead of you to overdo it and injure yourself. Don't blow those crucial first weeks of habit-building momentum by getting burnt out, exhausted, or hospitalized.

3. Track Your Exertion Level and Gradually Build Up

Learn how to measure your pulse and find your target heart rate. Or hell, buy one of those nifty gizmos that calculates everything you can think of for you. And if you don't want to get too fancy, you can often find decent heart rate monitors on sale for $50 or less.

(Update: turns out Charlotte at the Great Fitness Experiment has a post all about heart rate monitoring today, be sure to check it out!)

And be sure to warm up with some easy walking or whatever before you start, and then cool down after you stop. Don't just go from huffing and puffing to plopping down in your car. You also probably want to do some stretching after you're done too.

While exercising, aim to spend increasing amounts of time in that target zone, working up to about 30 minutes or more a session (though recommendations on this seem to vary. Some say 20 is fine as long as it's vigorous). And use common sense; "target" heart rates are approximate. Your perceived level of exertion can be a very handy indicator of whether you're taking it too easy or whether you're killing yourself and need to dial it back. You want to be breathing heavily but not gasping for breath. (Later, when we get around to discussing high intensity intervals--that's where the gasping comes in).

The good thing about being totally out of shape when you start? It will be way easier for you to get you in your target zone than someone who's already fit.

For people considering going from walking to running, there are some more specific training suggestions for getting started: like the Couch to 5k program or this handy guide from the American Council on Exercise. Another general rule of thumb I've heard is not to increase your distance by more than 10% a week.

4. Find Support:

Many people find companionship to be very motivating, and finding a buddy, class, or group to be an excellent way to stay accountable. And even if you're the loner type while you exercise, it can be really nice to get helpful hints and encouragement afterwards. You may want to subscribe to a sport-specific magazine, or find blogs, forums, and other websites where like-minded others hang out, and where people love to give new exercisers plenty of advice and tips.

Some blog examples: runners may enjoy Caution Redhead Running or Marathon Mama; those who like exercise and healthy eating challenges should check out Living Healthy in the Real World; those who try to exercise despite injuries should check out I'm Not Superhuman; and, with excellent timing, the Fit Bottomed Girls are having a special Beginners Week this week.

5. Think About Cross Training:

One of the most annoying things about pursuing a lifetime of aerobic fitness is that once you finally find an exercise you really like? You need to go out and find another one. Or two. Or three.

You can find additional activities early on, and enjoy the improved fitness, variety, and increased sense of accomplishment you get with having more than one cardio option. (Plus--each sport usually has it's own nifty outfits and gear and gadgets!)

Alternatively, you can just do your favorite thing over and over, year after year, until you get injured, or discover your favorite class has been canceled, or you just become sick to death of doing the same thing all the time. In any event, you will probably find at some point that you need alternatives. Finding them earlier rather than later may help you prevent injuries, so keep an open mind about fitness options.

6. Be prepared for ups and downs:

It can be extremely motivating to see yourself make progress towards greater aerobic fitness. Over time, you will be able to go further, and faster!

On the other hand, if you get too invested in specific performance goals, you may end up totally discouraged by this perplexing fact: sometimes, for no apparent reason, your performance will suck! And not just for a workout or two--sometimes it will be hard for weeks. Why? Who knows? But this mysterious lack of connection between the work you put in and the progress you make can drive some folks crazy. Sometimes you just have to focus on the process, and how awesome you are for getting out there day after day, and not worry too much about the numbers.

So, do you do cardio, or are you just thinking about it? If you're a veteran, do you have any tips for the new kids?

[Note: this post also appears over at Blogher's 10x club. And you can check out the forum there for daily challenges and rewards]


  1. Heck, even the Federal Government thinks you should get off your ass.


    Note to self: do not sip coffee while reading Cranky Fitness

  2. I'll admit it, I'm a cardio junkie :) I hardly ever do strength training (I know..bad!); it's just so boring and you can't even zone out because you have to count reps!

    I think Crabby got the important tips :)

    One thing I used to do when I first started running was pretending that there were zombies/homicidal maniacs chasing me. It kept me running when I wanted to stop, kept me entertained, and it was almost believable when you actually participated in one of those huge races. It also definitely gets your heart rate up...

  3. Love the visualization linteater! Actually, maybe I'll picture Federal Government Zombies coming after me to eat my brains, that oughtta work.

  4. Find something you don't hate indeed - I spent at least 6 months losing weight consistently JUST playing Dance Dance Revolution for as long as I could stand it 4-5 days a week. I since have moved my focus to running, but what do I do to cross train 2 days a week? That's right - DDR.

    Also, I never would have gotten so far without goals. I abhor working out just to work out, I love working out to train for a race or just work on besting my time, or learning something new like Zumba or dancing.

  5. I love cardio. It feels so good when you stop!


  6. Bog snorkeling. I'll probably never do it, but it sounds so intriguing.

  7. I do cardio but I've never paid attention to my heart rate. I figured just the fact that I was doing something was good. Now I'm supposed to go for a target number? Ai carumba!

  8. When we were home over the holidays, I was having a discussion with my dad about exercise. He had no interest in "deliberate exercise", but he's not one to sit around either. He likes to keep busy and his job has always involved some physical labor, so between that and the gardening and yard work and tinkering his his wood shop, etc, he stays pretty fit.

    But for people like Husband and I who spend our days sitting behind desk, and don't have a particularly large yard to take care of or wood shop to tinker in, deliberate exercise is necessary (not that Husband does it, but he knows he should).

  9. I don't do it enough, especially considering I sit in front of a computer all day long. I do like it, but lazy brain takes over after a while. *sigh* Is there a cure for lazy?

    Quix had an awesome idea! I love to play video games (don't have a Wii), so maybe I can find something for the PS! No duh, right?(slaps self in forhead for the oversight and reverting back to 80's lingo)

  10. ahhh the brussel sprouts of exercise.
    I do ye.
    I do not heart ye.
    please to listen to cranky over me :)

  11. Hells yes, DDR! That's what got me off the couch in the first place last year. I finally broke down and got a fancy metal pad a few months back and love it.

    Arcade machines are still best, though. Teenagers make the most amusing faces when someone twice their age annihilates their high scores right in front of them. }:D

  12. I detest most of the "cardio machine" type of cardio -and that's what I'm kind of stuck with at the moment.

    I LOVE doing bodyweight/easy equipment circuit training (ala Turbulence Training) that get my heart rate up but do not mean going nowhere fast.

    Tips for beginners, I think you nailed it. Start slow, keep track of your progress - and yes. You have to progress. Remember your body adapts and if you don't go faster, further, higher you are actually falling behind.

    Eventually this year, I'm trying different kinds of dance...

  13. There are definitely two camps on this matter - those who are all cardio, all the time, and those who are so anti-cardio that you'd think it was a religion.

    I think the first priority is to find something you enjoy and will keep doing, whether it's running, dancing, hiking, lifting weights, or whatever. Start slow and build up endurance.

    After that, branch out a bit! Most cardio and non-cardio are synergistic. If you like to swim or run, there are weight training programs that will improve your strength, making you faster and less susceptible to injury. If you like lifting weights, martial arts and sprint sets will fine-tune your strength and endurance.

    I have a friend who got herself in shape just by going for daily hikes in the mountains outside her back door, so any daily activity in combination with a clean diet will result in good things. The only really big rule is "get off the couch."

  14. Ugh, I hate cardio. I’m not really that great at it, but maybe that’s because I hate it so much. I only do it because I have to if I want to have the heart health benefits/be one of the cool girls. Really, though, I think it’s the best way to get rid of the fat that sits atop muscle. Though I’d much prefer to strength train and do crunches.

  15. I only like cardio when I'm supported by water, so I swim and do water aerobics. I'd been slack for a few months and in December tests revealed that my arteries had become slack. The only way to tone them up again is through cardio, so I'm back in the pool.

  16. I prefer cardio to anything else. I really need to incorporate strength training on a more consistent basis.

  17. I think your cross training tip is so important!! I love my cardio but have learned that my stupid smart (does that even make sense?) body acclimated very quickly to any given activity. It's all about change!

    And thanks for the link love:)

  18. The first time I paid attention to my heart rate was this morning on the elliptical. I was in the upper range for a 20 year old! Hmmmm, there might be an equipment malfunction here or my heart's about to explode. Either way, I don't want to be there for the clean-up.

  19. Man, you covered it all!!!! GREAT GREAT POST! I will say that I am not a cardio fan but man do I do a lot of it. It just goes to show you can overcome these things BUT also find other things you enjoy as well. MIX IT UP! You are so right about that. I have done more things over my 25++ years of this exercising stuff & I still keep changing it up. Like this kickboxing/boxing I got to do. Never would have done that if the opportunity to use that club for free had not come my way & loved it!!!

    Oh, as a fitter individual, I use perceived exertion since the charts are not quite right for me for my age.

    And so YES on starting slow. People give up because they work themselves to death & burn out too soon. Really, Crabby, great stuff!

  20. I've yet to find a DVD that I like for aerobics at home, though truth be told, I haven't looked very hard. Lately, I've just turned the TV to a cable music station and danced for exercise. Blinds drawn of course. It feels less silly every day.

  21. Gawd, I hate all this talk about exercise!!
    Can't we talk about candy?

  22. The heart rate stuff - really confusing at times. I am told by the little charts on the cardio machines that I should be working out at, oh, about 110-135. The trouble is, that's still in zone 1 for me (easy, I mean, if you're not one of us crazy people who actually like this stuff). I can only assume that some lawyer told the machine-manufafcturers to put in very low numbers so they could not be accused of causing heart attacks. If I have to , I can sustain 170 for 30 minutes, and I'm 58.

    One thing I noticed when I was first doing all this: I'd start out perfectly happy, then feel as if I'd have to quit after about 1 1/2-2 minutes. If I stuck it out for another 30 seconds-1 minute, things got a lot better. So if you are beginning, the best advice is Crabby's - warm up. It will minimize the perceived effort in the early part of your work out. Then, be prepared to allow a little time to settle into your pace. I've even found that doing a bit of warm-up running, then backing down & walking for a minute or two can make the whole run feel much easier than it does if I try to be tough & ignore how hard it feels. For bicycle intervals, after warming up, I do 30 seconds at my goal efffort level 3-4 times, then take it easy for 15-20 minutes, then find the longer stretches of intensity far more manageable.

  23. I just love the fact that you guys end up teaching me so many little tricks and giving me ideas for new things to do... even if I'm too lazy to ever get around to trying most of them.

    Someday, maybe I will!

  24. All the evidence related to V02 max and health support the need for some type of cardio activity.

    Very nice article, Crabby!

  25. Number 1 is the most important for me. If I don't take joy in doing it, then I won't stick with it for too long. I'm a New York transplant to Atlanta and one of the things that makes it so hard to walk outside here is that there's nothing to see. In New York you could walk 40 city blocks and not even know it because there's so much going on. Exercise+Entertainment=Joy.

  26. I'd like to work up to running from walking...thanks for the links. I just got an ipod and tunes make a huge difference. I shaved off 7 minutes from my 3 mile walk. Loved it...except when static electricity kept zapping my ears through the ear buds.

    Besides good music, new quality shoes make cardio more enjoyable.

  27. Thanks for the shoutout Crabby! I'm a cardio lover but have been doing less of it lately. Comes with the condo-buying and school-beginning. But now that the river is frozen over, I'll be out there skating this week, hopefully!

    Walking makes me SUPER happy. It's kind of weird how happy it makes me, actually. I like it for the therapeutic aspects, too :)

  28. I agree with the bit about taking it slow. I "overwalked" myself two days ago and now I can't do any physical exercise without hurting my lower back. Boohoo.

  29. I used to hate cardio-I think growing up asthmatic had something to do with that! Cardio = not breathing! Last month I discovered that I love the elliptical machine and cranking up the incline and resistance, and consequently my heart rate. I make my workout into a game, where every 2 minutes I crank the incline and/or resistance more and more until I can't take it anymore, then I start decreasing the incline bit by bit. Really fun for the moment, but I do need to find other cardio I like. I'm thinking I'll try spinning next.

    The other key to cardio is good music :D I use a bunch of the free fitness music podcasts you find on iTunes.

  30. I had such big plans for starting a fitness program this year, but my damned sciatic nerve had other ideas! You can bet, though, that as soon as I get the feeling back in my right foot, I'll be back on track!

  31. I am booking marking this and sharing this post on my blog. Lot's of great information on getting started with a cardio program.

    One thing I would add is that people who feel like cardio is just too hard may be training too hard. Simply staying at 60-70% of your max heart rate is great for losing weight. A majority of the calories you burn will come from fat instead of carbs. This should be any easy pace for most people to sustain for a while.

    Thanks for the good information.


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