If you ever feel like you just don’t have the time to exercise, consider this: Being physically active on a regular basis is one of the most important things you can do to get healthy and stay that way. And as a bonus, physical activity can also be fun—join a team, recruit a buddy or just enjoy the benefits of being active, such as having a trimmer waistline or more energy. Cardio is one of the best ways to achieve all of these goals, since aerobic activities use a wide variety of muscles while increasing cardiovascular fitness.
Any activity that gets your heart pumping faster counts as cardio—so try brisk walking, jogging, cycling, playing basketball, dancing or swimming. Lifestyle exercises, such as standing, walking slowly and lifting lightweight objects, may contribute to overall fitness, but the best benefits are achieved when you raise your heart rate and keep it up for an extended period of time. For this reason, regular aerobic activity makes your heart and cardiovascular system stronger and fitter.
Aerobic physical activity has three components: intensity, or how hard you’re working during activity; frequency, or how often you do it; and duration, or how long you exercise in one session.
The federally issued Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, a comprehensive set of guidelines on physical activity, set the bar for your stay-active goals. To improve your health, these guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity each week, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity. Judge your level of effort on a scale of 0-10, where zero is sitting down and 10 is the point at which you can’t talk and are moving as fast as possible. Moderate-intensity activity is a 5 or a 6 on this scale, where your breathing is faster, but you can still carry on a conversation. Vigorous activity counts as a 7 or 8, where you can’t say more than a few words without pausing for breath. The more you exercise, the more you benefit, generally speaking, but every little bit counts. If you don’t have a full 30 minutes to exercise, break it into three 10-minute sessions.
Aerobic activity can have big-time health benefits. Regular exercise helps strengthen your lungs and heart. This may lead to lower blood pressure and higher "good" HDL cholesterol, and can greatly reduce your risk for heart disease and stroke. Regular cardio sessions also may help lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes and help control blood sugar levels for people who already have type 2 diabetes. Weight-bearing aerobic exercises, such brisk walking, increase bone density (by producing a force on the bones that promotes bone growth and strength), making you less vulnerable to fractures as you get older. And, of course, physical activity burns calories, which can help you manage your weight.
Sold yet? Hope so. So find an activity you enjoy—walking is a great start—and get moving! You’ll be glad you did.