What Does "Cardio" Mean to You?

By Ray Boucher, Professional Trainer, ACSM CEP

If you asked 5 different people what they thought of cardiovascular (cardio) training, you are likely to get 5 very different answers. One person might love an early morning jog more than grabbing a cup of hot coffee and a warm muffin. Another person might have the complete opposite reaction, where the thought of going for a run is as appealing as fighting with a grizzly bear.

People have many different reasons for performing (or not performing) cardio in their daily or weekly routine, but what does ‘doing cardio’ mean to you? Is cardio something that you look forward to, or is that grizzly bear looking like a better option? Let’s take a look at what cardio is and how it can be used to help you reach several different fitness goals before you step into the ring with Smokey.

Cardiovascular training is a very wide umbrella that covers several types of movement patterns aimed at modifying body composition, improving oxygen use in the body, and/or increasing respiratory endurance. Some more common modalities include biking, swimming, and jogging. Basically, any activity that involves using large muscle groups in a continuous and rhythmic fashion would be considered cardio training. So how does cardio tie into your fitness goals and how can you use it most effectively?

Here at Island Fitness, we have several different machines that can be used by members with different goals, physical abilities, and equipment knowledge. Before you can choose one effectively though, it is important that you narrow down what exactly you are trying to accomplish through training. For simplicity, I’ve broken down cardio training into three main groups that I will explain and hopefully give you some guidance on where you should be starting.

Group 1 – Body Composition: It is common to hear people talking about ‘doing more cardio’ to lose weight, but what exactly does that mean? You will notice that I used the term ‘body composition’ when discussing the benefits of performing cardio as opposed to ‘weight loss’. The reason for this is that simply losing weight could potentially be a bad thing, so much so that in certain populations losing too much weight can have dangerous consequences (for example losing bone mass could lead to the development of osteoporosis or arthritis).

I always make this distinction because there is a clear difference in how you eat and exercise if you are looking to lose bodyfat in a healthy way. Thus, it is important that if you are looking to lose a little bit of body fat, or you are looking to get that more ‘toned’ look to your physique, you are training and eating properly. Generally speaking, in order to burn body fat you should be aiming to get at least 300 minutes per week of cardiovascular training at 64-76% of your heart rate max*. This can be accomplished by breaking up your cardio training into several 10-minute bouts throughout the week, or ideally 5 60-minute sessions.

*To find your estimated heart rate max, subtract your age from 220. For example, a person at 47 years of age would have a predicted heart rate max of 220-47=173 beats per minute (bpm)

Group 2 – Improving Oxygen Use: This has to do with event-specific training or improving acts of daily living (ADLs). Improving your cardiorespiratory endurance will not only allow you to move further and faster, it will help with some of the things that people tend not to think about like carrying a heavy load or having a conversation while going on a brisk walk. This is because you are actually changing the way that the body is able to process oxygen and perforate all of the tissues in the body that need it.

Improving cardiovascular performance will cause the heart to beat at a lower heart rate when working at a given intensity. For example, let’s say that your normal heart rate is 120bpm when out walking your dog. An increase in cardio performance will allow you to accomplish the same task at a heart rate under 120bpm (105bpm for example). This is because the heart is able to move more blood volume on each beat (called stroke volume or SV) and thus it doesn’t need to beat as fast to maintain a given cardiac output for the task that you are performing.

Training cardiovascular performance differs from training to modify body composition mainly in the form of the intensity required. While higher intensity training is beneficial (and recommended) for modifying body composition, it is not a requirement in the way that it is for improving cardiorespiratory function. In order to improve cardio performance, progression models come into play and a corresponding intensity needs to be found in order to elicit meaningful changes in VO2.

There are several different training models to accomplish this (high-intensity interval training, sprint interval training, low volume interval training, steady rate conditioning), and all of them are made to elevate the heart rate to 80% heart rate max or greater. The overall goal is to push the body to adapt to the high intensity by creating more efficiency in how oxygen is utilized in the body.

Group 3 – General Fitness: The last part of cardio training has to do with general fitness, and in this category the focus is on things like joint health, modifying your metabolic profile, and exercising to improve self-confidence.

For some, resistance training is not an option due to physical limitations or simply due to a lack of desire. Ensuring that you are getting enough physical activity throughout the day/week is crucial for overall health, and the American College of Sports Medicine has linked certain health benefits with higher levels of physical activity such as a reduction in the risk of Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, and all-cause mortality. For this reason, even if all you can do is walk, bike, or hop on an elliptical for a few minutes, you can make positive improvements to your overall health.

Research suggests that as little as 20 minutes or less per day of cardio training can be beneficial for individuals who are inactive. Don’t be discouraged or disheartened if you are just starting out, the important thing is just to get moving!

Hopefully this article was enlightening as to how cardio can be a useful tool in reaching certain fitness goals. Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg with respect to picking the right type of exercise, intensity, frequency, and volume to help you get to where you want to be. If you are wondering which piece of equipment is best for you, the simple answer is whichever one you are most comfortable with!

Ideally, unless you are training for a specific health modification or for an event, any type of cardiovascular training that you can do will be beneficial in some way. If you are curious about really digging into cardio, there are many ways where specific training plans can benefit you. Metabolic calculations can be performed to show you exactly how many minutes and at what intensity you need to be working out in order to burn a specific number of calories. METs or heart rate reserve are both wonderful estimating tools in the absence of gas analysis for a measured VO2max. And specific events generally call for training in ways that are ideal for the event, such as a marathon racer using the 10% rule to get to where he or she wants to be in a manner that is low risk for injury. If you have any questions, or you are simply a fitness nerd like me and want to know more I would be happy to talk to you about cardiovascular training!

Ishya Silpikul