Whether you prefer a morning jog in the park, a midday Tabata-style workout, or an after-work weights session, exercise plays a critical role in supporting your health, well-being, and brain function.
Research suggests that aerobic—also called cardiovascular or simply cardio—exercise helps create new brain cells via a process called neurogenesis. Neurogenesis occurs in the hippocampus and striatum, improves the way the brain works, and is essential to learning and memory. Studies have found that even a single bout of acute exercise can significantly positively affect our cognitive function. Like high-intensity interval training (HIIT), vigorous cardio workouts can boost decision-making and higher thinking. Cardio has also been proven to boost our moods, alleviate stress, and foster creativity. Overall, working out makes us happier, healthier, and more resilient humans.
If you’re interested in reaping the benefits mentioned above, consider these four tips for incorporating cardio into your exercise regime.
#1 Start with a warm-up and end with a cool-down
Before each cardio workout, plan to warm up for five to 10 minutes with a low-intensity version of your planned exercise. For example, if you’re planning to go for a run, warm up with a brisk walk or jog. Doing so will ignite your cardiovascular system and increase blood flow to your muscles.
After your cardio workout, be sure to cool down for five to 10 minutes, as well. Stretch your major muscle groups, including calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, lower back, and chest. An after-workout stretch allows your heart rate to return to its normal rate.
#2 Aim for 150 minutes of cardio exercise per week
As a rule of thumb, healthy adults should aim to exercise five days a week; three days should be cardio-focused, and the other two should incorporate weight training, as well. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (such as a brisk walk) or 75 minutes of cardio (e.g., running or jogging) at a vigorous-intensity level per week.
#3 Monitor your maximum heart rate
According to the CDC, your target heart rate for moderate-intensity physical activity should be between 64% and 76% of your maximum heart rate. To estimate your age-based maximum heart, subtract your age from 220 to arrive at beats per minute rate. Then, calculate 64% to 76% of your maximum heart rate to gauge where your heart rate should be during moderate-intensity cardio.
Fitness trackers and smartwatches—and their accompanying apps—can help you monitor your heart rate in real-time, but you can also do so the old fashioned way. During a break in your workout, find your pulse (at your wrist, preferably) and count the number of heartbeats in 60 seconds.
#4 Switch up your cardio for optimum benefits
Remember: your workout doesn’t have to be lengthy to be effective. An eight-minute Tabata-style or a 20 minute HIIT workout are efficient workouts that you can do when you’re short on time. Free weights can also up the cardio ante. A kettlebell cardio workout, for example, helps increase your heart rate while also building strength—and counts for one of the two weekly combined cardio and weight training workouts the CDC recommends.
In the words of heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, “Exercise not only changes your body, it changes your mind, your attitude, and your mood.”
1 Choi, S. et al. Science. 7 Sep 2018:361 (6406)
2 Brain Plasticity. 28 March 2017;2(2):127-52
3 How much physical activity do adults need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm, retrieved Jan 21, 2021
4 Target Heart Rate and Estimated Maximum Heart Rate. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/measuring/heartrate.htm, retrieved Jan 21, 202