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Want to get the most out of your exercise routine? A little knowledge can go a long way, especially as you work to craft a fitness hobby that will help stave off some of the most prevalent lifestyle diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.


The health community’s emphasis on exercise has never been so strong as rates of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in the U.S. continue to remain high with an estimated 1 person dying from CVD every 38 seconds on average. You may have heard that regular cardio or aerobic exercise is recommended for good heart health but do you know what that means or what types of exercise qualify as cardio or aerobic?

Cardio and Aerobic Exercise

The word cardio is derived from Greek roots; the original word “kardia” was used to describe the heart. Any exercise which increases your heart rate is described as cardio fitness.

Similarly, aerobic exercise, from the Greek word meaning “with oxygen”, refers to exercise which increases your intake of oxygen.

The two must go hand-in-hand as you cannot participate in heart-pumping exercise without also increasing your breath rate (which boosts your oxygen intake). Therefore, while cardio and aerobic are technically different types of exercise, they cannot be separated and may sometimes be used interchangeably. Cardio and aerobic exercises are defined by key characteristics including:

  • Keeps you moving for a sustained period of time – think running, swimming, stair stepping, cycling, etc.
  • Increases your heart rate and oxygen intake
  • Improves your cardiovascular and respiratory endurance

Some activities like yoga, strength training, weight lifting, and power training may momentarily raise your oxygen intake and heart rate levels, however, because they are not sustained for a long-term period they are not considered aerobic or cardio exercise.

Optimal Workout Routines

The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends in their physical activity guidelines that adults aim for getting at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of combined moderate-intensity aerobic exercise every week (or 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise each week). For even more substantial health benefits, experts encourage adults to exercise upwards of 5 hours a week (with moderate-intensity activities) or 2.5 hours a week with vigorous-intensity activities).

Measuring Physical Activity Intensity

How exactly can you tell if the exercise you are doing is moderate or vigorous intensity? Harvard School of Public Health shares actual scientific calculations that can help you figure it out. First, think about the energy you expend while simply sitting quietly. For the average adult, it’s about one calorie for every 2.2 pounds of body weight. Experts refer to that as one metabolic equivalent (MET). To put it in perspective, a 160-pound person could burn upwards of 70 calories sitting quietly for an hour.

Workout Routine Examples

Moderate-intensity exercise can then be measured as physical activity that burns 3 to 6 times as many METs per minute as you might sitting down. For a 160-pound person, that could equal 210 to 420 calories in an hour. Examples of a moderately-intense physical activity include:

  • Swimming
  • Tennis
  • Dancing
  • Brisk walking
  • Light cycling
  • Moving the lawn
  • Heavy cleaning

Vigorous-intensity exercise will burn over six times as many METs per minute. Examples of this type of activity include:

  • Jogging or running
  • Playing soccer
  • Fast cycling
  • Rowing
  • Hiking
  • Playing basketball
  • Shoveling
  • Carrying heavy loads

Granted, fitness levels vary from person to person, so one moderate-intensity exercise may not have the same effect on say, a marathon runner, as it may on an older, slower adult. When in doubt, shoot for at least 10 minutes of sustained physical activity at a time, even if you take a break afterward and don’t pick it back up until later in the day.

How Does Cardio and Aerobic Exercise Improve Health?

How exactly does increasing your heart rate and oxygen intake improve your health and protect you against illness? In a nutshell, exercise helps your heart pump blood around your body efficiently even as you age.

Final Thoughts

With cardio and aerobic exercise, you give your whole heart a workout. Just like other muscles, it becomes stronger and protected against age-related stiffening of key arteries and the left ventricle, the chamber which is responsible for circulating oxygen-rich blood back out and around your body. The cardiovascular workout additionally supports healthy blood pressure and weight management which all contribute to overall heart health.

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