Importance of Cardio (Cardiovascular Exercise)

The quickest way to look like you have packed on 10lbs muscle is to lose 10lbs of fat! Its a really cool bodybuilding illusion. Cardiovascular exercise helps you lose fat and look better! It can take a years to add muscle but in a month you can look more muscular just by losing weight, it’s because bodyfat makes the body round and shapeless which hides the muscles. Just check my video comments over the last 6 weeks, I dropped 7lbs of bodyfat with carb cycling and everyone keeps commenting how much more massive I look even though I haven’t gained an ounce of muscle. So if you don’t do cardio for your health, do it for your appearance!

Cardiovascular exercise (“Cardio” for short) is more important for your general health than weightlifting, its not just about cosmetic appearances! Cardio is a confusing topic to many so I cover it in detail here. I discuss how much cardio to do, when do cardio, and how to know what is good cardio.

The Importance of Cardio

If you don’t have time to do cardiovascular exercise, then skip weightlifting so you can do it – its that important. Cardiovascular exercise should not be boring, it should be fun! If you have to do cardio at the gym then find a good book, listen to the radio or books on tape – find a way to make it interesting and enjoyable. Better yet, find a sport you love and do it with a spouse or friend and the time will fly by. Walking, jogging, cycling, soccer, skateboarding, or whatever excites your passions. If you don’t have much time then jog to the gym, walk you kids to school, walk your dog, or start using your bike for transportation. If you don’t belong to a gym, and don’t have a thousand dollars for a good stationary cardio machine, buy a jump-rope! Jumping rope is an amazingly intense aerobic workout, in fact, you will probably have to start with just a few minutes and work up to 20-30 minutes a day. Jumping rope is not only an amazing aerobic workout but is great at increasing coordination. Contrary to popular belief, jumping rope is not monotonous either if done properly and takes a lot of concentration. One drawback is that you need a room with high ceilings to jump rope or you need to do it outside. Here are some great reasons to do cardio:

  • To lose fat! – want 6-pack abs, only way is to lose fat thru cardio and nutrition.
  • Cardio can improve your mood and significantly reduce depression. Its been proven by study after study, cardio can make you happier!
  • Perform better at school or work! Daily cardio reduces mental fatigue and gives you more energy. A recent study from the U of G showed that daily cardio reduces fatigue by 65%
  • Tons of other health reason –
    • reduce risk of heart disease
    • reduce blood pressure
    • reduce risk of diabetes
    • live longer – 2hrs longer for every 1hr exercise

How much cardio?

If you are happy with your body fat percentage and just want to keep your heart healthy then follow the American Heart Association‘s guidelines and do 30 minutes of light exercise (walking, gardening, etc) a day. If you want to lose body fat then try and do 30-60 minutes of strenuous cardio (swimming, running, fast biking) every day.

If you are lacking in time then find some part of your week where you can bike for transportation instead of driving, to work, the gym, or the grocery store perhaps? Time sitting in your car is not only expensive but it is a waste of time, try and find some way of biking instead of driving the car. If you are overweight enough that you don’t feel comfortable biking then walking is a great option. Try walking as transportation, beats wasting time sitting in traffic.

When should you do your cardio?

There is a lot of confusion about when to do cardio, I get asked this question all the time! As many of you have heard, doing cardio before you eat in the morning burns off more calories so is that the best time? Lots believe that the right time to do cardio is before a weight workout to provide a warmup but just as many believe that the right time is afterward. Who is right? None of them! All of them!

The right time to do cardio is when you are most likely to do it! Cardio is very important and its 100x more important that you actually DO your cardio than when to do it! Lets look at some of the pros and cons of doing cardio at various times.

Doing Cardio And Weight Workouts Separately

Its optimal to do your cardio and weight workouts completely separately, that is, with four or more hours of rest between them. This way, neither workout interferes with the other and you can give each 110% effort. For those of us who workout at home, this is easy to do. For those who go to gyms, its not as easy if you depend on the stationary equipment for your cardio because then you need to make a second trip to the gym. Now lets look at the non-optimal compromises.

Doing Cardio Before Breakfast

Yes, studies have shown that you burn off more calories if you do cardio before breakfast, but its a lousy time to do cardio in my opinion because you wont do your cardio for nearly as long. Who can focus on cardio when your stomach is growling and you feel faint from lack of food? Not me! Besides, doing cardio before breakfast isn’t the most convenient time for most folks.

Doing Cardio Before A Weight Workout

The fans of doing cardio before a weight workout point to its ability to help warm up your muscles to prevent injury, true it does this. For those who significantly overweight or are fitness beginners, walking or light jogging is the recommended cardio. For these people doing their walking or light jogging before their weight workout is perfect, it warms them up and doesn’t interfere with their weight workout. On the other hand, intermediate to advanced athletes need to push themselves much harder in their cardio workouts – they get their heartrate higher and keep it elevated for longer. Cardio workouts of this intensity will exhaust the body to the point where the weight workout will be lackluster at best reducing potential strength and mass gains. If you are an intermediate or advanced athlete whose time is at a premium and don’t feel its important to add more muscle mass then doing cardio before the weight workout is ok, otherwise find a better time to do cardio.

Doing Cardio After A Weight Workout

Doing cardio after a weight workout is my personal favorite, its not optimal but its a very good use of time if you are doing your cardio at a gym because it eliminates the need for a second trip to the gym. I always find that even after an intense weight workout, I still can give cardio the intensity it needs. One thing I always do though is make sure to eat a small meal after lifting weights before starting the cardio. Meal timing is important and its important to get a meal right after weight lifting and waiting till after you do 45min of cardio, shower, and get home is too much of a delay. If you do your cardio after your weight workout, you need to find some alternative way to warmup your muscles before the weight workout, not a big deal.

Cardio Is NOT Boring!

If you find cardio boring then you are doing something wrong and you need to fix it. How can you do this? Well, try doing your cardio outside in the real world if you can. Go for a bikeride thru the park, go jogging alongside the river. Join a soccer team or play ultimate frisbee, team sports have a way of making your cardio time fly by. If you are stuck indoors because of weather, you can still make those dreary stationary machines exciting. Watch your favorite TV show while you are doing cardio or read your favorite trashy magazine. Another way to make cardio engrossing is to download lots of interesting podcasts or music to your iPod/iPhone. An iPhone remote can make your iPod/iPhone much easier to use while doing cardio and makes it much less likely you will drop it.

This is your chance to get away from the stress of everyday life and have fun!

What is “good cardio”?

Its clear that there is a lot of confusion about cardio, its really quite simple. Lets start with the basics. The purpose of cardio is to elevate your heart rate and keep it (in the purple zone) there for at least 20 minutes. How elevated does your heart rate need to be? Depends on your goal, your age, and your health. If you have medical conditions, ask your doctor what is appropriate for you. If you are in good health, you can use these charts from the AHA


Target HR Zone
50–85 %

Average Maximum
Heart Rate
100 %

20 years

100–170 beats per minute

200 beats per minute

25 years

98–166 beats per minute

195 beats per minute

30 years

95–162 beats per minute

190 beats per minute

35 years

93–157 beats per minute

185 beats per minute

40 years

90–153 beats per minute

180 beats per minute

45 years

88–149 beats per minute

175 beats per minute

50 years

85–145 beats per minute

170 beats per minute

55 years

83–140 beats per minute

165 beats per minute

60 years

80–136 beats per minute

160 beats per minute

65 years

78–132 beats per minute

155 beats per minute

70 years

75–128 beats per minute

150 beats per minute

So if you are wondering if a particular activity is good cardio, its simple to find out. Do it for a minimum of 20 minutes then measure your heart rate (15sx4) and compare it to the above chart. If your heart rate is in the target zone, then its good cardio – simple as that. With many forms of cardio, like cycling or walking, its easy to get lazy and just lolli-gag along. Its important that you monitor your heart rate during the cardio to make sure that you are not slacking off. Just a note, walking has the lowest dropout rate of all forms of cardio – probably because its so enjoyable.

OK, now lets talk about cardio equipment. I get lots of questions asking if a particular kind of cardio equipment is good. First of all, I don’t recommend buying ANY equipment. I’d much rather see you get exercise outdoors by cycling, jogging, or playing soccer, its cheaper and more enjoyable. If you have to workout in your home, I would recommend a cheap jump rope. Having said that, if you are determined to spend money on equipment for indoor use, here is how you can tell if a piece of equipment is good.

First of all, good cardio equipment is very expensive and typically costs over a thousand dollars and has three main characteristics

  • It gets your heart rate into the target zone
  • adjustable speed, very impt
  • sturdy = heavy, never seen anything sturdy under 50lbs most well over a hundred
  • sufficient adjustable resistance

OK, some common questions I get about cardio. Many people seem to be looking for shortcuts to cardio. What if I sprint, can I just do 1 mile? NO! You must do your cardio a MINIMUM of 20min, preferably 40-60min. What if I do interval training, can I just do 15min – NO! You must do your cardio a MINIMUM of 20min, preferably 40-60min. I get questions about interval training all the time so lets talk about that a moment. Interval training is alternating bursts of speed followed by short rests, for example in running you might sprint for 60s and walk for 30s. Studies have shown that exercising in this fashion can burn off more calories than steady cardio. If you want to do interval training

  1. you still need to do it for a min of 20min daily
  2. don’t rest so long that your heart rate drops below the target heart rate zone (purple)
  3. Be mindful of injuries, make sure to stretch – you are much more likely to get injured sprinting than

Wow, I’m really groggy myself. Time for me to do cardio before I fall asleep.

Some important references: