Everyone has their preferences. Some people prefer lifting weights and getting muscles, others love to meditate and stretch, while others still would much rather spend every day out on the road running or cycling. The truth is that there are benefits to each type of exercise and in order to experience all of the benefits that exercise has to offer we should be doing all three. So why is cardiovascular exercise (cardio) so important?
Cardio, as the name suggests, is any exercise that strengthens the cardiovascular system which consists of the heart and blood vessels. Strengthening is achieved by increasing ones heart rate through the repetitive and sustained contraction of major muscle groups1. Although an image of a treadmill often pops to mind when one hears the word cardio, there are actually dozens of cardio options out there which can be performed in a gym, outdoors or even within the comfort of your own home. Some of the more popular cardio workouts include walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, kickboxing, aerobics and rowing.
A stronger heart
As mentioned previously, cardio strengthens the heart, which is also a muscle. This allows the heart to beat more efficiently, decreasing your resting heart rate and improving blood flow2, 3.
Exercise and nutrition together form the cornerstones of weight control. Our weight is governed by the amount of calories taken in versus those expended. An hour of high intensity cardio will usually burn between 500 and 1000 calories. While a single workout may not provide immediate results, habitual cardio routines coupled with strength training to increase resting metabolism can make a valuable contribution to weight-loss provided that a balanced, energy-controlled diet is followed4, 5.
A better night’s sleep
For anybody that has ever experienced the horror that is insomnia or poor sleep, this should be reason enough to pull out those old takkies. According to a study published in the Journal of Mental Health and Physical Activity, 65% of people had improved sleep quality when performing 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week. Participants also demonstrated greater alertness and productivity6,7. Good sleep also conveys many health benefits of its own.
Cold and flu prevention
Cardio appears to have a stimulatory effect on the immune system, warding off minor viruses such as colds and flu2,8. Keep in mind that the immune system also requires the support of good nutrition and recovery practices.
Exercise, particularly vigorous exercise, improves our happiness and mental well-being. This is due to its ability to stimulate the release of feel-good neurotransmitters. It also reduces depression and anxiety and improves self-confidence and memory7,9,10,11.
Although many people will argue that they don’t have the energy to exercise, exercise actually makes you more energetic. Cardio exercise increases the number of mitochondria in your cells. Mitochondria are responsible for energy production. Oxygen supply within the body is also improved, increasing energy levels2,3,13,14.
Reduced disease risk
As I previously alluded to, cardio exercise works by various mechanisms to prevent heart disease; it also prevents osteoporosis and certain cancers, amongst others7,15,16.
A combination of those feel-good neurotransmitters and the body composition improvements that come from working out lead to an improvement in self-image and self-esteem7,17.
A LOOK AT THE GUIDELINES
Cardio exercise should be included as part of a training regime and not as a sole activity if you want to experience maximal benefits. The American Academy of Sports Medicine provides the following weekly exercise guidelines for training1,8:
- >30 minutes of moderate to vigorous cardio exercise 3-5 days per week, these sessions can be split into two or three shorter sessions if need be. E.g. walking, cycling, jogging, swimming or aerobics.
- 2-3 days performing 30-45 minutes of resistance training per week. Try to exercise all major muscle groups using weights suitable to you.
- 2-3 days of flexibility and balance exercises stretching all major muscles. E.g. Static stretching, yoga or Pilates.
Love it or hate it, cardio offers an array of benefits to improve your physical and mental wellbeing. Remember that the more you do, and the sooner you start, the easier it gets! So get up, and get going for better health and a better you!