The health benefits of regular cardiovascular exercise are well documented. The American Heart Association says that adults should aim for about 1-2 hours of focused exercise per week. Sounds simple, right? There’s a lot of considerations to make and even more options. Knowing how to develop a challenging and effective exercise program takes a little bit of planning.


Exercise is one of the simplest ways to improve your health. Along with diet, exercise is the single largest influence on longevity and quality of life (R). Not just any exercise counts though. The key is vigorous excercise—the kind that gets your heart pumping and your blood moving. This article takes a brief look at some of the key ways to challenge yourself during workouts to maximize your overall results without increasing the risk of injury. After all, if you push yourself past your limit during exercise you’ll find yourself unable to exercise as effectively!

Target Heart Rates

Regular cardio has also been shown to improve cognitive ability, prevent osteoporosis, and enhance mood and sleep quality (R). Cardio workouts are like many other exercises with the expressed goal of reaching and maintaining a certain heart rate for an extended period of time. Consult the target heart rates table below to better understand the optimal intensity of your workout.

AgeTarget HR Zone 50-85%Average Maximum Heart Rate, 100%
20 years100-170 beats per minute (bpm)200 bpm
30 years95-162 bpm190 bpm
35 years93-157 bpm185 bpm
40 years90-153 bpm180 bpm
45 years88-149 bpm175 bpm
50 years85-145 bpm170 bpm
55 years83-140 bpm165 bpm
60 years80-136 bpm160 bpm
65 years78-132 bpm155 bpm
70 years75-128 bpm150 bpm

Source: American Heart Association

Workout Design

Regular exercise is an incredible aid for optimal health. Regular exercise routines can become quite the opposite. Even when you’re within optimal heart rate ranges, repeating the same exercises day in and day out can create a scenario of stagnated growth and heightened risk of injury.  Listed below are just a few points to consider to help understand the benefits of shaking things up a bit

Avoiding Adaptation

Our bodies are very smart, and it doesn’t take long for them to adjust to an exercise and expend less energy when doing it. While adaptation is beneficial when it comes to increasing your mileage and endurance, it’s important to introduce new challenges so that you can continue to make improvements (R).

If you’ve been doing the same type of exercise for a long time and have stopped seeing results, whether they’re weight-related or endurance-related, your body may have adapted. Try switching up your routine to see if that helps you break through the plateau.

Preventing Injuries

When we repeatedly put our bodies through the same motions, we increase our risk of repetitive strain injuries. Not only does one run the risk of overworking the same muscle groups but also over-taxing specific muscles. It’s great to mix things up to avoid adaptation but also to help allow muscles to recover properly.

Optimal recovery times vary according to age (R), intensity (R), existing injury (R), lifestyle (R) gender (R), and probably a couple dozen other factors. One universal rule in helping to prevent injury is to avoid overuse. Everyone’s body has different needs and will thrive at different amounts and intensities of exercise. Consider the risks of overusing the same muscles and adapt to suit what suits your needs best.

Challenge Your Brain

Exercise comes with a variety of cognitive benefits including improvements in memory, learning, and perception. While there isn’t clear data to describe how mentally-challenging exercise routines improve strength—there is data to show the connection between exercise and mental performance (R). There are many nutritional compounds and dietary supplements such as nootropics that support cognitive health. Science suggests that our brains use similar regions for cognitive and motor functions (R).

Integrating certain mental challenges into your exercise routines can help avoid the type of stagnation that we discussed earlier. It can also help build and sustain the type of cognitive intelligence that might help reduce the risk of age-related cognitive decline (R). Think of this as crossing two things off your list at the same time! Some examples of mentally-challenging exercise are rock climbing, boxing, and even Yoga! If you have to stop and think about what you’re getting ready to do—chances are you’re on the right track!


Workout Intensity

Cardio training can become a confusing routine when considering all the potential variables involved. If you have the opportunity or means it’s recommended to consult with a trainer or licensed professional to better understand how a change to your exercise routine may benefit you. For those exploring on their own, consider the following approaches for getting more from your workouts.

Duration and Frequency

How long are you typically exercising? Are you doing the bare minimum? If so, one of the easiest ways for you to get more out of your cardio is to increase the duration of your workouts. Even adding just an extra 5 minutes can provide significant benefits.

You might also want to consider increasing the frequency of your workouts. If you’re only doing cardio two or three times a week, try adding just one extra session. Small changes can have a big impact, especially if you’ve been doing the same thing for a long time.

Increase the Incline

If you favor machine cardio, such as treadmill walking or running, you can also challenge yourself by increasing the incline. Incline walking, running, or biking is very challenge and will definitely get your heart pumping more than you’re used to.

When you’re using a cardio machine, simply increase the incline, even by just a small percentage, to instantly step into a more intense workout. If you prefer walking, running, or cycling outside, look for an area nearby with more hills to do your daily exercise.

Increase the Intervals

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a great option for shaking up your workouts and improving your results. HIIT training involves alternating between short periods of intense work at 80-95 percent of your maximal heart rate, followed by periods of rest to allow your heart rate to decrease (R).

HIIT is ideal for people who want to lose weight while still maintaining muscle mass, as well those who simply want to try something new with their cardio.

HIIT workouts are often done on a treadmill, elliptical, stationary bike, or by sprinting on a track. You can choose whichever option you prefer.

The key to setting up a good HIIT workout is to establish a work to rest ratio that gives you enough time to recover. Many people prefer a 1:1 ratio, where their periods of work and recovery are equal. For example, you might work out at full capacity for one minute and then take one-minute rest.

Increase the Weight

Many exercises involve moving heavy things around. Cardio workouts don’t always fall into this category as they often involve running, jumping, or some combination of the two. Equipment such as ankle weight, wrist weights, and even weight vests can help increases the resistance in your workout. Making your muscles move around more weight is a great way to isolate form-focusing exercises and keep your routine fresh.

Not all cardio has to involve running and jumping either. High-repetition weight-lifting can get your heart rate up as well. These can be exercises such as bench press, leg press, squats, or anything else commonly done at the gym. High-repetition means higher-risk of bad form—which can result in injury. Using safety equipment such as weight belts, gloves, and wrist wraps can help decrease your risk of injury during high-weight exercise.

Ditch the Machines

If you find yourself losing motivation during cardio because you hate the treadmill or elliptical, consider quitting the machines completely! There are tons of other options for getting your heart pumping without chaining yourself to a treadmill. The following are some of the best cardiovascular exercise options that don’t include machines:

  • Swimming
  • Zumba
  • Dancing
  • Aerobics
  • Kickboxing
  • Hiking

Once you find a type of exercise that you truly love, you’ll be much more likely to stick with it. You’ll probably find that some of these cardio options are more challenging than using the treadmill, too. Hiking outside is very different from walking on a treadmill, and kickboxing requires a lot more focus and engagement than sitting on a stationary bike!


Regular cardiovascular exercise is essential for your overall health. In order to keep reaping the health benefits that come from cardio, you need to switch up your routine and find options that are truly enjoyable. The concepts and ideas discussed here are meant to serve as a roadmap to better understand your body’s response to training and how you can maximize the benefits of your exercise. It might sound easy, but it isn’t. Learning how to effectively apply the types of concepts we’ve discussed can take a lifetime. For even more ideas, check out our article on workout nutrition and how it impacts your overall effectiveness in the gym.

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