For some people, hitting “Quick Start” on the treadmill is all it takes to get going on a great cardio workout. For others, the thought of climbing aboard a machine and staring at a screen for 40 minutes is reason enough to avoid the gym altogether.
Fortunately, there’s no need to spend your life on cardio row to get your heart pumping. “Any activity that elevates the heart rate sufficiently will have the same effect as traditional cardiovascular exercise,” says Mark Young, an exercise consultant and president of Mark Young Training Systems in Hamilton, Ontario. (See “Target Your Heart,” below.)
As our fitness experts point out below, there are a wide variety of heart-happy workouts that even the most cardiophobic folks will love.
A circuit workout is simply a set of exercises performed one after another without rest, keeping the heart rate consistently elevated. In the traditional cardio realm, a circuit might consist of five-minute bouts on the elliptical, treadmill and stationary bike. But you can follow the same format with resistance exercises. A 2004 study on college men conducted by the American College of Sports Medicine found a high-volume resistance circuit demanded enough oxygen consumption to boost cardiovascular fitness, too.
How to do it: The key to an effective resistance circuit is to keep moving and work as much of your body as possible. “When you do multijoint exercises, you increase the blood flow to more muscles, and that increases your heart rate,” says Tracy Banks, MS, CSCS, lead instructor at the National Personal Training Institute in Chicago.
To create your own circuit, Young suggests choosing five multijoint exercises and stringing them together. Perform 15 repetitions of each exercise, with one to two minutes of rest between rounds, up to five rounds. Alternate between push and pull or upper- and lower-body exercises to reduce the need for rest. An example circuit: chest press, row, dead lift, shoulder press, lat pulldown.
What’s in it for you: Research has found circuit training to be the most time-efficient way to gain both muscular endurance and cardiovascular fitness. “If a person is able to maintain a set of exercises nonstop for half an hour, they may actually get more benefits out of a resistance-circuit workout than straight cardio,” says Banks. “You’re performing different exercises, so your muscles have to react in different ways.”
If there’s one physical activity that’s universal in human culture, it’s dance. Genres such as hip-hop, ballroom, swing and salsa have kept people moving for years, but dance has carved a niche in the fitness world, too. For example, Zumba features fast and slow dance intervals set to the tempo of Latin music and incorporates light resistance training. Nia features a blend of dance, martial arts and restorative movements such as yoga.
How to do it: Health clubs, community centers and dance studios are all great places to find dance programs. You can also rent a DVD, go out to a dance club or just turn on the radio and groove in your living room, says Juliane Arney, an award-winning dance-fitness expert who has developed group-exercise programs for national fitness organizations.
Don’t automatically rule out dance styles that are out of your comfort zone. “Try a few different styles,” Arney says. “The litmus test is, ‘Do I like this and do I want to be better at it?’ If the answer is yes, stick it out. The more you do it, the better workout it’s going to be.”
What’s in it for you: “For most people, dance becomes a whole-body activity,” says Philip Anton, PhD, an exercise physiologist and professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill. “The more musculature you involve, the more calories you burn and the more you place overload on the heart.”
Recreational sports leagues aren’t just for kids. “The best sports for cardio workouts are those that involve full-body movements using large muscle groups and those that require more sustained cardiovascular activity,” says Tarra Hodge, assistant clinical professor of health and kinesiology at Purdue University. Think basketball, soccer and hockey rather than softball or volleyball.
How to do it: Choose a sport and a league that reflects your fitness and skill levels, whether it’s social or competitive. Many clubs offer house leagues for select sports, but if you can’t find your favorite, look into a recreational sports club. In major metropolitan areas, Sports Monster (www.sportsmonster.net) allows players to register as walk-ons or create a team from scratch. Or, just do a search for sport and social clubs in your area.
What’s in it for you: Adult participation in team sports has been linked to greater social cohesion, improved physical fitness and an enhanced sense of achievement. Being part of a team can also increase the likelihood of one’s commitment to an activity: A 2009 European study found that women who played on a soccer league were more likely to stick to their sport than those whose only form of exercise was running.
Interval workouts consist of alternating bouts of high- and lower-intensity activity, known as work and recovery phases. For example, high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, features work intervals of no longer than a minute, followed by two to three minutes of recovery. The goal is to stay near or even above your anaerobic threshold (AT) on the tough parts, and let your heart rate slow again during the recovery phases.
Intervals are commonly associated with cardio exercises such as running or cycling, but you also can apply the concept to plyometrics and resistance exercises, says Banks.
How to do it: Start by choosing movements that involve as many muscle groups as possible. Jon Hinds, Master CNT, owner of Monkey Bar Gym in Madison, Wis., employs interval training in variations of running, jumping, crawling and climbing. You can perform moves such as burpees, jumping rope, squats and pushups at faster and slower speeds. Or, alternate an intense movement with a less challenging one to create work and recovery phases.
Hinds’s favorite format is one he designed, called the MBG 15/15, during which participants strive to do as much work as possible in 15 seconds, followed by 15 seconds of light recovery, going from five to 40 continuous minutes. “They actually tested our MBG 15/15 workout in Europe and found that to significantly raise VO2 max, this is one of the best workouts you can do,” he says. “The thing that’s cool about it is that it’s quantifiable and scalable for everybody.”
Because interval training can be stressful to the body, many experts recommend limiting these sessions to about two days per week, with 72 hours of recovery between workouts.
What’s in it for you: If you want the most cardiovascular benefits in the least amount of time, interval training is your best bet, says Anton. By applying short bursts of high-intensity overload to the body, you improve the ability of the heart and lungs to deliver oxygen to the muscles and remove waste. “Because of that overload, the heart will respond by making itself stronger.” You also typically burn more calories per minute than you would in steady-state endurance exercise.
Today’s cardio-based group-fitness classes have come a long way since the days of Jane Fonda and leg warmers. While age-old favorites such as step aerobics and Jazzercise have stood their ground, boot camps, kickboxing and other strength-cardio combo classes now attract a wider range of gym-goers to group exercise, says Kathy Stevens, MS, educational director for the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA).
How to do it: Look for words such as circuit, fat-burning, interval, conditioning, metabolic and, of course, cardio in class descriptions. “Some classes have participants doing mainly multijoint strength movements, but they’re still demanding that your heart pick up the pace,” says Stevens. Exercises are performed with lighter weights than in a strength class and at slower speeds than in a pure cardio class.
What’s in it for you: Group exercise offers people three benefits that they wouldn’t get working out on their own, says Stevens. “One is more energy and motivation. Two is guidance and supervision. Three is the camaraderie. You’re in an environment where you meet people and can say, ‘Hey, I’ll see you next week.’ It’s like being on a team.”
There are plenty of options that don’t involve monotony or machinery. “Ultimately, the best type of cardio is the cardio you’re going to do,” says Young. “If you like cycling, running or swimming, then you should go ahead and do it. But if you don’t, then there’s really no need to. Other variations will work equally well.”
The bottom line is to keep your heart rate up, says Banks. “As long as your heart rate remains elevated, you can get the benefits of a cardio workout without doing traditional ‘cardio.’”
Target Your Heart
Experts recommend training just below and just above your anaerobic threshold (AT) for varying lengths of time to challenge your heart and vary the types of fuel your body is using. (Your AT is the point your body switches from primarily burning fats to carbohydrates.) Interval and circuit training do the trick by peaking and lowering your heart rate.
The very best way to target your AT is to undergo computerized metabolic testing at your health club, but in a pinch, you can loosely estimate your AT using the following method developed by Phil Maffetone, endurance coach and author of In Fitness and In Health. (Just keep in mind that formulaic methods leave a larger margin for error — your results could be as much 25 beats per minute off.)
1. Subtract your age from 180. 2.If you fall into one of the following categories, adjust the resulting number as directed:
- If you have not exercised for more than one year or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, any operation or hospital stay, etc.), or if you are age 65 or older, subtract 10.
- If you have been exercising for more than two years, at least four times a week, add five.
- If you are a competitive athlete, add 10.
For example, if you are 40 years old and began exercising moderately four times a week two-and-a-half years ago, your number would be 145 beats per minute (180 – 40 = 140, then 140 + 5 = 145). This number represents your estimated maximum aerobic-exercise heart rate, or the rate at which you remain somewhat below your AT. So if you want to get above it, you’ll need to push harder. For more tips on calculating your AT and doing AT-based cardio workouts, read “The AT Factor” or “A Better Way to Burn Fat”.