Cardiovascular exercise – What, why and how?!

As discussed in previous blogs there are many different components of fitness, with one of the most familiar and popular areas of interest being cardiovascular exercise. This blog aims to arm you with knowledge surrounding what cardiovascular exercise is, how much you should be doing, why we need cardiovascular work in our exercise programmes and give you some ideas you may not have thought of to help you get it done!

What is cardiovascular/ ‘cardio’ exercise?  

Aerobic or cardiovascular fitness is the ability to take in, transport and utilise oxygen. In everyday terms, it can refer to someone’s stamina when performing activities such as walking, running or cycling. We may also refer to cardiovascular fitness when discussing our breathing or shortness of breath when performing such activities. The word ‘cardio’ relates to the heart and this type of exercise can help with heart health and support it’s efficiency at pumping blood around our bodies. For this reason, cardio activities are those that typically get our heart beating faster!

Why should we do it?

There are very many benefits to performing regular cardiovascular exercise, many of which are well known in terms of our health. Reduced blood pressure, reduced resting heart rate and decreased incidence of conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis and depression are just a few widely researched areas of health that can be affected. Regular cardio exercise can support an increase in red blood cells (which transport oxygen around the body), increase in capillarisation (improving delivery of oxygen and other nutrients to our muscles and removal of waste products) and an increase in stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped from the heart in one beat), therefore helping the body to work far more efficiently to support our optimum health and wellbeing.

Of course, regular cardiovascular exercise can help us to build stamina and cardiovascular fitness meaning that we can exercise aerobically at higher intensities (more on this later) and we may find that we get less out of breath the more we train this component of fitness. This can be useful for everyday activities such as walking, climbing stairs or cleaning and is particularly important if we have a cardio-related fitness goal such as a walking, running or cycling event to work towards.

Last but not least, cardiovascular exercise can help to decrease our body fat percentage. It is a useful tool in weight loss and whilst other types of training are important for various reasons (see previous blog on resistance training), cardio activities tend to burn more calories in the same amount of time than other such as resistance and flexibility. For this reason it can help to address the ever important ‘calories in vs calories out’ equation which is crucial for weight loss. 

How much should I be doing?  

As discussed in the ‘Component of Fitness’ blog, government guidelines state that adults should be aiming for 150 minutes of moderate intensity cardio activity a week. This equates to around 30 minutes on 5 days per week and can be broken down further into shorter bouts for example 3 x 10 minute bursts on 5 days of the week.  This is for general health and fitness and depending on individual goals and circumstances we may be advised to do more or less. It’s important to remember that this is an AIM and people with certain medical conditions or mobility issues or simply at different stages of life may struggle to meet this whilst others may do more. Children are advised to do at least 60 minutes a day. It’s worth noting that the intensity of the activity counts too and generally the harder you work the less you need to do. More on this below.

Is all cardiovascular activity the same?

Essentially, cardiovascular exercise can be categorised as either ‘aerobic’ or ‘anaerobic’. This is all to do with how the body makes energy whilst exercising and there is plenty of science behind it that I won’t go into here! The most common types that you may see or hear of in the gym or amongst friends and family include:

Long Slow Distance training (LSD) and Low Intensity Steady State training – Whilst these are different, for the purposes of this blog (keeping things simple and easily understandable), they both involve working at a relatively steady intensity for an extended period of time. Due to the typically longer length of the workout, the intensity of the work is lower than other types of workout (see below!) These activities could include walking or jogging over certain distances, steady cycling or distance swimming. It’s important to note that exactly how long sessions last and exactly how intense any given exercise is will vary from person to person. See below for tips on how to know where you are on the intensity scale.

High Intensity Training – Typically done in interval format and commonly referred to as HIIT, the high intensity of these exercises mean that they can only be maintained for shorter periods of time before a rest is needed, hence the use of intervals! The length of the intervals and the rest periods inbetween is again individual and based on factors including level of fitness and specific goals. This type of activity is suitable for many people and often preferred due to the typically shorter length of sessions but it can be particularly good training for activities that are intermittent such as football, relay races and even just going about your everyday life, particularly for those who are deconditioned. Many modern-day gym classes make use of this format and whilst to technically classify as HIIT there are  specific work and rest periods, a modified version has become a popular basis for many gym classes.

How do I know how hard I’m working?

Heart rate monitoring – With the abundance of smart watches and other gadgets on the market nowadays, this is something that many of us are more familiar with than ever before. Again, there is science behind calculating your target heart rate and several different heart rate zones I could discuss but for many of us it’s all a bit confusing and will have you snoozing faster than your Monday morning alarm. If you want to know more, there’s plenty of information on the internet to help you calculate your heart rate statistics but if you want to invest in a gadget they quite often take all the hard work out of it for you!

If you’re new to cardiovascular exercise and prefer not to invest or get too technical just yet – the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) method is for you! The modified scale would have you imagining a scale from 1-10 in your mind and placing yourself on that scale at any point during exercise, with 1 being very light activity/feeling nothing at all and 10 being working very, very hard/at maximum intensity. The Talk Test can also help you to assess this as during light activity you should be able to talk easily and be breathing lightly despite a heart rate increase. Vigorous intensity would leave you unable to carry on a conversation due to shortness of breath. Moderate activity would be somewhere between the two.

Whilst there are pros and cons to the different methods of monitoring intensity, it’s important that you learn to listen to your body and try to be honest with yourself and your trainer if you’re using your own perception. 

Want to up your cardio? Have you tried…?!

If you’re keen to up your cardiovascular activity and are looking for ideas of what to include, below are some of my favourites. 

At home/out and about: Walking, running, dancing, skipping, climbing stairs, boxing, swimming, star jumps, burpees, rebounding/trampolining 

In the gym: Treadmill, rower, cross trainer, arm bike, stairmaster/climb mill, exercise bike or spin bike, assault bike

For further advice and information on setting your own cardiovascular goals and prescribing the correct exercise intensity and form, contact Mike at Hamers360fitness. Hopefully this blog has given you some knowledge and motivation surrounding what cardiovascular exercise is and why it’s important and maybe even some ways to include it that you’re keen to try out. As always, any questions or feedback are welcome on Instagram ?

Bev Meakin – Personal Trainer/ Exercise Referral Officer and Complementary Therapist. Instagram : @bevs_life