» Blog
» What Is Cardiovascular Exercise?
What Is Cardiovascular Exercise?

Your heart beats faster. You breathe more rapidly and deeply. And you sweat. Well, that’s probably because you’ve been moving the large muscles in your legs, arms and hips over a sustained period of time. When these major muscles are involved in exercise, there is increased rate of respiration to produce energy. In turn, the need for more oxygen leads to increased breathing and heart rate. And such a form of activity is called cardiovascular exercise—or cardio in short.

What is cardiovascular exercise?

Also called aerobic or endurance exercise, cardiovascular exercise is any form of activity that uses aerobic metabolism. That is, during the activity, oxygen is heavily involved in the cellular reactions that produce the energy necessary to sustain the activity. Your heart rate increases and you breathe more deeply to maximize the amount of oxygen in your blood and help you to use more oxygen efficiently. Hence, you feel more energized and do not get tired quickly.

Cardiovascular exercise is any vigorous activity that increases heart rate and respiration and raises oxygen and blood flow throughout the body while using large muscle groups of the body repetitively and rhythmically. Such activity progressively challenges your most vital internal body organs and improves the function and performance of the heart, lungs and circulatory system. Cardio improves many aspects of health, including heart health, mental health, mood, sleep, weight regulation and metabolism.

Actually, the heart becomes more efficient with every beat as it pumps oxygen-carrying blood, the lungs more effective in taking in oxygen, and the muscles more equipped to use more oxygen. Still, as the breathing and heart rate increase, the surge is should not be so much as to make you feel that you need to stop and rest. In the course of cardio such as speed walking, cycling, swimming, running or speed climbing, if you experience a strong urge to stop and rest, unusual pain or alarming symptoms, then you have to stop immediately and seek medical attention.

But for an exercise to be considered cardio, it must raise your heart rate and breathing rate into the moderate to vigorous intensity level (at least 50-percent of the normal rate) for a minimum of 10 minutes. That is why activities undertaken to improve strength, such as resistance exercise, using weight machines, lifting weights, and core workouts are NOT considered as cardio because they do not raise the heart rate throughout the period of exercise.

Which are the most common cardiovascular exercises?

  • Brisk walking
  • Running
  • Jogging or jogging in place
  • Burpees
  • Bear crawls
  • Swimming
  • Water aerobics
  • Cycling/bicycling
  • Dancing
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Race-walking Volleyball, basketball, soccer or racquetball
  • Rowing
  • Kayaking, paddling or canoeing
  • Circuit training
  • Jumping rope
  • Stair climbing
  • In-line skating
  • Martial arts
  • Golfing
  • Hiking
  • HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)
  • Mountain climbing
  • Jumping jacks, squat jumps, split jumps
  • Roller blading
  • Kickboxing

The most frequently used machines for cardio exercises include:

  • Treadmill
  • Stepping machine
  • Stationary cycles
  • Ski trainer
  • Rowing machine
  • Elliptical trainer
  • Recumbent bike
  • Upright bike
  • Stair climber
  • Upper body ergometer
  • Wave-trainer
  • Versa-climber
  • Precor AMT

What are the major categories of cardiovascular exercise?

Broadly, cardiovascular exercise can be classified into three categories—high-impact cardio, low-impact cardio and no-impact cardio.

High-impact cardio

Any cardiovascular activity that involves having both your feet off the ground at some point during the activity is called high-impact cardio. It is also called a weight-bearing exercise because you are supporting your own body weight with your limbs against the force of gravity. Examples include jumping rope, high-impact aerobic dance, and certain forms of advanced strength training.

Low-impact cardio

Any cardiovascular activity during which one foot remains on the ground at all times. But low-impact cardio should not be confused with low-intensity cardio since many types of low-impact activities are of high intensity. Low-impact cardio is still a weight-bearing exercise and good for maintaining healthy bones and conditioning the lungs and heart. Examples of low-impact cardio include walking, hiking and low-impact aerobic dance.

No-impact cardio

When cardiovascular exercise is performed in water, the activity is classified as no-impact because being immersed in water reduces the pull of gravity on the body. So swimming and water aerobics are no-impact cardio activities. Bicycling is also a no-impact cardio exercise because the tires and frame of the bike support most of the body weight. No-impact cardio such as cycling and aquatic exercise are ideal if you have arthritic condition or are undergoing injury rehabilitation as they eliminate most of the jarring and pounding associated with land-based cardio activity.

Why should you engage in cardiovascular exercise?

Cardio exercise uses the large muscles of your body in movement over a sustained period of time, keeping your heart rate to at least 50-percent of its maximum level. With regular aerobic exercises, you will have a stronger cardiovascular system, with more capillaries delivering more oxygen to the cells in your muscles. You will also enjoy increased stamina and endurance with each passing session.

Specific benefits of cardio exercise include:

Improved heart health

When you engage in 30-60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise daily, you are able to build stronger muscles, including those of the heart, that control your blood pressure, enhance HDL (good cholesterol), lower anxiety and stress, decrease blood proteins and fats that contribute to blood clots, prevent heart disease, and reduce blood sugar and manage diabetes.

Enhanced brain health

By engaging in cardio regularly, the regions of the brain that control memory and thinking skills grow in volume or size. Frequent cardiovascular activity also reduces the rate of shrinking of brain size in older people, improving their cognitive function. But cardio can also help you achieve a good night’s sleep, which is necessary for your mental health.

Increased metabolic rate

All types of cardio increase metabolism through the production of Fibroblast Growth Factor 21 (FGF21) hormone, which increases the body’s metabolism, suppresses appetite and causes more calories to be burned.

Weight regulation

By increasing the heart rate into the target heart rate zone, which is the zone where the body burns the most calories, cardio helps to burn excess calories and control weight. Exercises such as walking, swimming, running and jogging burn excess calories over time while moderate to high intensity cardio burn quite a lot of calories per exercise session. Examples of cardio exercises that are highly effective in cutting weight include jumping rope, running stairs, walking, rowing, cycling and high intensity interval training (HIIT).

Improved mood and energy

Cardiovascular exercise triggers increased secretion of endorphins—neurochemicals that cause a feeling of euphoria. Cardio also causes increased production of mood-boosting hormones such as dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. With improved mood, you feel more energized and ready to complete your routine activities. But the increased release of hormones also reduces stress, boosts stamina, increases energy, and improves memory and mental focus.

Stronger immune system

Regular exercise increases the release of antibodies and white blood cells, which improve your body’s ability to fight infections. The release of FGF21 also speeds up metabolism and boosts immune system. Actually, cardio protects the body against several illnesses, including hypertension, stroke, osteoporosis, diabetes and heart disease.

Management of arthritis

Cardiovascular exercise helps to reduce the pain associated with arthritis and minimize stiffness at the joint through movement.

How should you do cardiovascular exercise to get the most from it?

For maximum benefit, you will need to engage in cardio activity for at least three days every week. For instance, if you have more time during weekends, you can schedule the first two days to be on Saturday and Sunday, then look for one more day in the middle of the week. So you don’t have to squeeze all your exercises on weekdays—though if you can fit them into your schedule, then just go for it.

Big blocks of time are not required for cardiovascular exercise. With cardio, short bouts (as short as 5 minutes each) are just as effective as longer sessions, provided the intensity level and the total cumulative workout time are equal. For example, twelve 5-minute bursts of high-intensity cardio is as effective as a single 60-minute session. If you are worried about your tight schedule, then cardio is a great option for you. You also don’t need special equipment or gym membership to do a lot of aerobic exercises.

For a beginner, it is prudent to start with low-to-moderate intensity activities, such as walking, bicycling, swimming, dancing, jogging, martial arts, in-line skating, canoeing, golfing, and water aerobics. This will enable you to do them for long periods of time and gain more health benefits. But as you choose your activities, go for those that you enjoy so you can stick to them as you get along.

Besides, it is better to increase intensity over time than to increase the volume or length of an activity. Cardio is not something you should overdo and spending hour after hour at a low-to-moderate pace is not going to give you any further benefits. So after you are able to do 30-45 minutes of an activity 3-4 times a week, you should step it up a notch and go for its advanced principles.

The fundamental guidelines for successful cardiovascular exercise include:

Start slowly

Start simple. For instance, begin with a 5-minute walk in the morning then another 5-minute walk in the evening. After that, add a few minutes gradually and pick up the pace over time. In no time, you will be comfortably walking for 30 minutes a day. As you begin, make sure to consider activities that interest you and that you will do without financial or time constraints. Viable options include hiking, jogging, cycling, rowing, running, and elliptical training. Just remember, it is any activity that increases your breathing and heart rate!

Warm up

At the start of every session, take 5-10 minutes to gradually rev up your cardiovascular system and improve blood flow to your muscles. Warming up means you engage in lower-intensity versions of the cardio activity you intend to do. For example, if you intend to take a brisk walk, you can warm up by walking slowly.


Moving at your own pace, make sure you condition your body to be able to accomplish at least 30 minutes of cardio per day. In fact, for cardio to benefit you, then you need to develop your aerobic capacity by increasing your heart rate, depth of breathing and muscular endurance to the point you are able to comfortably do at least 30 minutes of your chosen activity.

Cool down

At the end of each session, take 5-10 minutes to cool down. You can cool down by stretching your calf muscles, upper thighs (quadriceps), lower back, hamstrings and chest. This post-workout stretch will enable your muscles, lungs, and heart rate to return to normal conveniently.

Cardiovascular exercise has been long known as the cornerstone of any effective fitness program and the key to living a longer, more joyful life. Its payoffs are impressive too—improved mood, better sleep and reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and some types of cancer, among others. At FYZICAL Lakewood Ranch, we have made cardio part and parcel of our physical therapy and orthopedic rehabilitation programs. We make sure to discuss cardio with our patients during consultation sessions and recommend the most appropriate options to each patient depending on condition, severity of condition and ability. For more information on our physical therapy and orthopedic rehabilitation services, visit our website or a FYZICAL location near you.

This material is presented for informational and educational purposes only. This information does not constitute medical advice and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. You should always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health care provider before beginning any exercise program. If you experience any pain or difficulty with these exercises, stop and consult your health care provider. FYZICAL MAKES NO WARRANTIES, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, THAT THE INFORMATION CONTAINED IN THESE MATERIALS WILL MEET YOUR NEEDS.