The secret to effective cardio

If you’re trying to get fit, you need to know that your workouts are effective. You can do this by monitoring the intensity…

Either by watching how hard you’re breathing, monitoring heart rate or by going by how hard you feel you’re working (Perceived Rate of Exertion – PRE).

Monitoring your heart rate is the simplest and most effective way to make sure that the exercise you’re doing is at the right intensity for you. The other two are more subjective methods that rely on judgments. For example, a common maxim is to train so you’re slightly out of breath — so you can still just about talk but not sing :-)

Most gym CV (Cardio Vascular) equipment, such as bikes, treadmills etc. can monitor heart rate. You can either hold on to the metal strips on the machine or ask the instructor for a chest strap which is a bit more accurate. The CV machine (bike, treadmill etc) picks up the signal transmitted by the strap.

If you workout at home, the heart rate monitor chest straps and watches (see image) to go with them can be bought quite cheaply.

So, now you know how to monitor your heart rate, what do you do with that information? Well that depends on your specific goals. When you’re training your heart and lungs it’s good to know a couple of facts and figures…

“Maximum Heart Rate” — MHR is an estimate of the fastest your heart will beat and is dependent mainly on your age. There’s quite a few methods around for working it out but a simple way of estimating it that’s most often used is:-

MHR = 220 – age

So a 40 year old will have an estimated maximum heart rate of 180 beats per minute (bpm).

“Target Heart Rate” — THR is the actual figure you’re aiming for whilst training. Often it’s written as a range of figures. The aerobic training range is usually given as 60% to 85% of MHR. So for our 40 year old example, the range would be 60% to 85% of 180bpm. Simply multiply your MHR by 0.6 and then 0.85 to give your aerobic training range. In our example the range is 108 – 153.

Now this is a very big range! But it’s usually narrowed down depending on your fitness levels and goals. So a beginner may start off with 10 minutes at 60-65% of MHR and then go to 15 minutes at 65-70% of MHR and so on.

To have a training effect on the heart and lungs and for general health, it’s generally recommended that we aim for at least 20 minutes of aerobic exercise 3 times per week at 60 to 85% of maximum heart rate.

If you’re a beginner of course, you’ll need to work up to that. Start at a level you feel comfortable with.

I think for good all round fitness it’s great to vary your workouts and have some more intense 20 minute sessions, and some longer sessions at lower intensity to build endurance. More variety can come from ‘interval training’ where you vary the intensity within a single session. I prefer to aim for five aerobic sessions per week, for 30 minutes, with the occasional long one.

If you’re new to exercise, then lower intensity workouts such as walking may be best for you. This allows you to train for much longer, and so burn more calories.

You can train long and you can train hard BUT you can’t train long AND hard… as an old gym-mate used to say :-)

Is this the “fat burning zone?” Well, it’s true that the body gets more of its energy from fat at lower intensity, but what ultimately matters in the weight-loss equation is calories eaten and calories burned, not what “zone” you’re in.

At higher intensity training zones, more fuel from carbohydrate stored in muscles means this will need to be replaced at the next meal and so less will be stored as fat! So, if you’re an experienced exerciser you should continue with varied intensity programs.

To progress your fitness levels you can increase F.I.T. — either the Frequency, Intensity or Time (duration).

Frequency — Do more sessions.
Intensity — Increase the Target Heart Rate range, e.g. from 60-65% to 65-70%.
Time — Have longer sessions at the same intensity.

As your fitness improves, your resting heart rate drops, due to the increased efficiency of your heart. Five time successive Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain had a resting heart rate around 30 bpm!

Great ways to train your heart and lungs include walking (use hills to increase intensity), jogging, treadmills, cross-trainers, rowing, steps, step machines, cycling and many sports such as soccer, badminton, tennis…

I think intense walking (up hills) is hard to beat because it’s the most natural movement and is low impact. Sports for me are more fun though, and I tend to work harder as I’m thinking about winning and not how hard I’m working.

For rainy days, a simple step is my favorite, a great workout… low impact (doesn’t jar the joints), high intensity, takes up little room and is easy to store.

You can also get a decent workout from a dance mat for the Playstation which makes a fun change.

So, good luck with your fitness training! Don’t forget to warm up and short stretch beforehand, and cool down and stretch after your main session.

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Michael Kinnaird is the author of Happy Guide, the result of a 20 year exploration into what works for health and happiness.

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5 thoughts on “The secret to effective cardio

  1. I think this is among the most important info for me. And i’m glad reading your article. But want to remark on few general things, The website style is great, the articles is really nice : D. Good job, cheers


  2. is it enough to warm up 5 mins then run on a treadmille for 20 min then stretch for 5 mins at about 5;30 pm,or i have to do sth more ……


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