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The Basics of Cardio

16 May 2016

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From middle school sprints around the track to swimming laps at the community pool, most people say they have a love/hate relationship with cardio activities. But what is cardio and why is it important? From the health benefits to health concerns, know the basics of cardio and the different ways to get your heart pumping.

What is cardio?

While the term gets tossed around frequently, the definition of cardio is pretty simple: any activity that raises your heart rate to at least 50 percent of its maximum level for a sustained period of time. The great thing about cardio is that you can begin at any level. The workout intensity will vary depending on your fitness level, but even if you are just getting back into an active lifestyle your body will adjust and grow as it gets used to the activity.

The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that most adults get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic (cardio) activity, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity. Feeling bored with your cardio? Shake it up! Here are a few different ways to feel the burn.


Perhaps the most common cardio activity, running is one of the best ways to raise your heart rate. Whether your pace is a slow jog or a quick 6-minute mile, you can always challenge yourself and increase both your pace and the duration of your run for an extra push. It’s a relatively inexpensive hobby -- all you need is a great pair of running shoes and running attire – and running can burn roughly twice as many calories as walking for one hour. If you prefer indoor activities (especially during the worst parts of Oklahoma’s allergy season), you can run on a treadmill to stay active.


Whether you take a spin class or just ride around the lake, cycling is an effective cardio workout. It puts less stress on your joints than running. Cycling at a quick pace or in intervals of varying intensities can burn calories quickly while strengthening your legs and buttock muscles. If you’d prefer to stay off the roads, a stationary bike or a spin class are great alternatives for a good workout.


For upper body and abdomen strengthening, rowing gets your heart rate up and tones your muscles. Oklahoma City has a beautiful rowing facility just south of downtown, but if you’re not able to visit or join the Boathouse, most gyms have a rowing machine. If you’ve never rowed before, be sure to ask a trained gym attendant or a coach on the proper form and technique for rowing, as improper rowing can cause injury.


If you’re overweight, pregnant, or suffer from joint pains, swimming can be an especially beneficial cardio activity because it puts less stress on your body and joints. However, swimming is less effective for weight loss than running or walking, and it does not reduce the risk of bone loss. By the way, if you’re planning on swimming outdoors, don’t forget to wear sunscreen!

Aerobic Classes & Dancing

From doing the salsa to breaking a sweat with Jazzercise or Zumba, there are many options available for people who love to get up and move! These cardio options, ranging from the fun to the funky, are usually taught by a trained instructor and take place at your local gym or studio. If you have previous injuries or certain limitations, be sure to let your instructor know before a class begins so she can help you with adapted movements and techniques.

These are just a few of the many options available for a great cardio workout. It’s easy to get moving both indoors and outside all year long. The YMCA Healthy Living Center offers equipment and classes for participants who are ready to boost their heart rate.