“Cardio.” This often-dreaded word can conjure up visions of boring hours on the treadmill or bike. We know it’s good for us and that we should do it, but just getting started can be difficult!

It helps to know a bit more about why cardio is important, the many different options you have and how to keep it engaging and fun so you can perform it regularly and reap the benefits.

The cardiovascular system: an overview

Technically, the cardiovascular system refers to your heart and the blood vessels that deliver oxygen and nutrients throughout your body. But when we talk about “cardio” with respect to physical fitness, we also include the lungs. This is intuitive, because we can see it in good, hard workouts when we breathe hard and feel the burn in our lungs.

The heart and lungs together (along with associated systems) are stimulated and strengthened when we perform strenuous movement. That’s the big picture. When we break it down into all the components that are working when we run, bike, circuit train or do anything else at an intensity level higher than a slow walk, there is a lot going on:

  • Heart tissue strengthens;
  • Blood volume per heart beat increases;
  • Lung capacity improves;
  • Oxygen carrying efficiency in the blood increases;
  • Muscular endurance increases (mitochondria);
  • Blood vessel elasticity and volume improve;
  • And much more!

Even without knowing the specifics of the phenomena above, you can start to tell how these changes improve your health, and quality and longevity. Cardiovascular exercise protects against age-related changes in blood pressure, heart and lung health, and general loss of function.

This is why it is so important—movement is the fountain of youth!

Cardiovascular training options

There are two general classifications for cardiovascular training, and you’ve likely heard of them before and experienced them in classes at the gym and in your own workouts.

  • Steady state: Also called “Long, Slow, Steady/Distance,” where you maintain a specific intensity level continuously for a period of time. This can include walking, jogging, biking, using the Stairmaster and so on. Basically, any activity that gets your heart rate up and stays up for the duration.
  • Interval training: Also called “High-Intensity Interval Training,” where you are active for a certain amount of time and then spend some time recovering/resting. This includes any activities where you vary your efforts in circuits or rounds, either for a few seconds or several minutes, then lessen your intensity for a particular amount of time.

Both classifications make improvements upon your cardiovascular system with some similar, and some different, effects.

In general, steady state work typically improves your heart and blood volume capabilities and muscular endurance, while interval training improves your use of oxygen (VO2max). But both have been shown to improve health markers such as lowering blood pressure and fat loss.

When it comes down to it, it’s really what you prefer to do. Steady state work can involve more total time at three to four times a week for 30 to 60 minutes a session, whereas intense interval work is done one to two times a week at 15 to 30 minutes. So for those on a time crunch, interval training can help keep you on track even during your busiest weeks.

But interval training can also be much more intense and less enjoyable (depending on what you prefer), making it easier to skip if you aren’t feeling up to it. This is a real concern, because regular movement is key to health and fitness.

Bottom line? Choose a method that you know you can perform consistently. Also, remember that you don’t have to do one exclusively! You can mix it up and choose whatever makes the most sense for you that day.

Bodyweight cardiovascular routine you can do anywhere

For cardiovascular work, it’s best to use as much of your body as possible to get your heart rate and breathing up. That’s why running, the elliptical, stairs and the like are so effective and commonly used. You can also perform great bodyweight movements that don’t require equipment or a whole lot of space. And they don’t need to be endless jumping jacks or running in place!

Some repetition is required—that’s just the way it works—but breaking up movements and cycling through them makes it less monotonous, and provides a rhythm that helps you continue moving for the desired amount of time.

The following routine is a combination of movements that challenge your total-body strength and endurance, in an engaging and interesting way.

The routine

  • Three squats performed in between the following movements:
    • Jumps forward and back (three times)
    • Alternating single leg jumps to the side (three times each side)
    • Weight shifted push-ups (three times each side)
    • Alligator rolls (three times)

The movements

Squats: This is a staple move and one that is guaranteed to get your heart rate up! In this routine, this will be the base movement that is performed in between all the others. Keep your form impeccable by staying as upright as possible in your upper body, dropping your hips right between your legs and keeping your weight in the middle of your feet. Go as low as you are comfortable, while maintaining good form.

Jumping: Control is the name of the game here, especially when you start feeling fatigued. Don’t force yourself to jump fast or far, and always land as softly as possible with great control. To do this, err on the side of feeling you could jump higher or further if you wanted. The goal here is to keep moving, but to feel in control for the entire duration of your workout.

Weight shifted push-ups: This is a great push-up variation that provides some good increased resistance to one side of the body if you are ready for it. This is the first step into one arm push-up territory! But since both hands are on the ground, you can adjust your weight shift to suit your capabilities and complete the repetition count that you desire. If this is too much for you at the moment, then you can certainly perform regular push-ups (or on your knees as needed).

Alligator rolls: A fun core exercise, the alligator roll works not just your core, but your whole body in motion. Take your time on this one, working on keeping your body tight, but don’t hold your breath!

How to do the workouts

You can either do cardiovascular training in a steady state manner or in intervals. Here are a couple of options for you to try!

Steady state

The intensity level for steady state work is generally measured at 60 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. A simple measure of your maximum heart rate is 220 minus your age. If you don’t have a heart rate monitor you can use the “talk test” method, which is that you should be able to talk relatively normally as you are working, but not so easy that you can sing. But in general, don’t worry if you are being “intense enough” in this method. Keep moving and you’ll likely be in the right zone with the above routine.

You’ll want to work up to 20 to 30 minute sessions here for the most benefit. Take breaks as needed, but soon you’ll be constantly moving the entire time.


Interval training has endless variations with many different “work” and “rest” ratios at varied intensity levels. Most commonly, shorter work times mean higher intensities, and conversely, the longer your work intervals, the less intense you make the activity. You can also make things more difficult by shortening the rest periods.

Since this circuit is a relatively longer one, a good starting point is resting twice as long as you worked, and then gradually taking the rest periods down to the same amount of time, and perhaps even down to half the duration of your working periods.

Using the example of the routine we’ve given, if you do the entire circuit in 90 seconds, you’d then rest for three minutes before you perform it again, then repeat that sequencing for the desired number of rounds. This may seem like a long time but I’d start there for a couple of workouts and then reduce your rest period slowly over time. It’s better to start off easier and progress than to start too intense and have to back off!

You can also break the routine up if you’d like shorter periods of “work time.” Do the squats, and then one movement, and end with squats. Or do two of the movements; whatever you feel is best for you. Then you can perform them more intensely at a higher speed or force. Don’t be afraid to play with it!

Cardiovascular training is incredibly important for improving and maintaining our health and fitness, and it’s unfortunate that many people associate it with drudgery and boredom. It doesn’t have to be that way! It may not necessarily ever be “fun,” but it can be interesting and engaging enough to keep you consistent in your routine. Try the routine we’ve shared above. Start slow and focus on finding the method that works best for you and reap the benefits!

Photo credit: Ayo Ogunseinde, Unsplash

Video credit: Courtesy of GMB Fitness