Maybe you're a die-hard runner, or perhaps boxing is your activity of choice. Either way, you're no stranger to getting your heart pumping and sweat pouring. Cardio exercise can do everything from building endurance to boosting your mood. But you might be wondering just how long you should spend on cardio to reap those benefits and achieve your fitness goals.
So whether you're into the elliptical, swimming, or anything in between, here's how long you should be spending on cardio (and how different workout lengths can benefit you), according to personal trainers.
Meet the Expert
• Cam Countryman is a personal trainer at cure.fit and former professional football player in Europe.
• Sam Goss is an Austin-based NASM-certified personal trainer at RightFit Personal Training.
• Jenny Leigh is a movement coach and instructor at cure.fit.
What Is Cardio?
While cardio might conjure up the image of a runner hitting the pavement for miles, all sorts of activities fall under the cardio bucket, says Sam Goss, a NASM-certified personal trainer. When you picture cardio, think any exercise that drives your heart rate up. And what gets your heart pumping can vary based on your fitness level, age, and more, adds Jenny Leigh, an instructor at cure.fit. It doesn't have to leave you breathless (though that works, too): Walking, biking, dancing, even going up and down the stairs are just a few in a long list of cardio exercises you can try, so pick the activity that you love most, she suggests. "I am a really big advocate of moving your body in whatever capacity you can whenever you can," says Leigh. "Having a healthy relationship with cardio makes it easier to bust a move on the dance floor, keep up with your kids when they are ready to play, and chase your energetic puppy."
While cardio has plenty of benefits of its own, it's best when paired with strength training to keep your muscles spry and strong and power you through your cardio workout safely, according to Goss. "It is always a good idea to have a balanced training practice," says Goss. "Before you can even begin working on improving your cardio endurance through exercise, you will need enough stabilization in your joints to safely train. Others will need to do flexibility work in order to open up their body enough to perform the movements asked for in cardio."
Benefits of Cardio
Getting your heart rate up on the regular can benefit everything from endurance to bone health, says Goss. Here are some of the ways cardio can help your body and mind.
- It improves heart health: Not only does cardio get your heart pumping, but it can boost your overall heart health, says cure.fit personal trainer Cam Countryman. Your heart is like any other muscle in your body. Regular cardio exercise teaches it to work better, which helps keep it healthy and reduces your risk for heart disease.
- It boosts endurance: When your heart learns to pump better, it uses oxygen more efficiently, which helps your body sustain hard work over extended periods of time. "Endurance is built when we push past our current stopping point and allow our bodies to adapt to a new one," says Goss.
- It can strengthen your muscles: Remember how cardio comes in all different forms? You can build muscle while getting your heart rate up with cardio-based strength-training workouts like HIIT, boxing, or yoga sculpt. And teaching your muscles to work against resistance can boost your strength, tone, and build muscle endurance.
- It builds bone strength: According to Goss, your muscles are attached to your bones, so when you use your muscles, you're pulling on your bones, which can help increase your bone density, which means a stronger skeleton.
- It reduces stress: If you've ever left a sweat session feeling stress-free, there's science to back it up: Exercise can release stress, as well as symptoms of anxiety and depression. And that runner's high you've heard so much about? The rumors are true. Cardio exercise releases feel-good chemicals into your body that can boost your mood.
How Long Should You Spend on Cardio?
How long you spend on cardio depends on your fitness level and goals, says Countryman. As a baseline, Leigh recommends doing 30 minutes of cardio about five days a week, or 150 minutes a week total. But exercising for longer or shorter than that may be better for you based on what you're trying to accomplish, she notes.
There's no one recipe for the perfect cardio workout length, adds Goss. Listen to your body, and don't force yourself to work harder or longer then you're comfortable with. "Break it up and build: Five minutes here, five there, then 10 at a clip, all the way until you are comfortable with 30 minutes straight. An athlete may require more, or none if they are taking a rest day following a heavy resistance training session. Daily cardio will be based upon the individual’s needs."
Below, learn how much time spent on cardio might work best for you.
- 10 minutes: If you're new to exercise, recovering from injury, or over the age of 60, 10 minutes of cardio is the perfect point of entry to get your body used to movement, says Leigh. This can also be a good length of cardio to pair with a strength-training session, so you can get your heart rate up while still having time left over to pump iron. If your goal is to take a break from work or from being inside, a 10-minute walk, jog, or other activity can help you clear your mind and loosen up your body. If you are recovering from an injury, make sure to check in with your doctor before starting an exercise program.
- 20 minutes: If 10 minutes feels doable, why not up the ante and make it 20, suggests Goss. That extra 10 minutes of cardio can help your body start to build endurance but won't overload your muscles. Or if you already have solid endurance, 20 minutes is the perfect time to squeeze in a challenging but quick workout, like a HIIT class.
- 30 minutes: Spending half an hour on cardio several times a week is ideal for building endurance, says Goss. This length of time works well for all forms of cardio activity: Take a 30-minute walk to get your blood flowing or try a half-hour virtual fitness class. Either way, it's a great length of time to challenge your body without overdoing it, as long as you've worked your way up to safely perform 30 minutes of exercise.
- 45 minutes: If you're opting for higher-intensity or higher-impact cardio, like running, then 45 minutes of exercise is best for those who already have a strong background in endurance training, says Countryman. Longer cardio workouts like this can help sustain a foundation of good cardio and muscle endurance, according to Goss, but make sure to work your way up to it in order to avoid overuse or injury. Longer cardio workouts like this are also ideal for lower-impact activity, like walking or hiking, says Goss. Just make sure that you're alternating your cardio with cross training to avoid overdoing it: For example, if you're a runner, opt for lower-impact activities on your off days to give your joints a rest from pounding the pavement.
- An hour: If you're an athlete or otherwise have a strong background in endurance training, then an hour of cardio may be your sweet spot to maintain and continue to build endurance and strength, says Countryman. But again, remember to balance these long workouts with cross training to keep your body holistically safe and strong.
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