For optimal health (and who doesn't want that?), you should be doing at least 30 minutes of some form of cardiovascular exercise (aka cardio) most days of the week. Whether you're old or young, naturally slim or have a few extra pounds to lose, cardio keep your heart healthy and helps you manage your weight.
But cardio doesn't always mean hopping on the treadmill or elliptical at the gym, and it doesn't have to be monotonous. There are tons of activities you can do to improve your overall fitness level and stay in tip-top shape. Choose one or two (or a whole bunch) you like and do them regularly.
That activity you do every day to get from point A to point B is also a great way to get and stay fit. Walking is especially suitable for people who are just getting into a fitness routine. It's also a good activity for people who do more intense workouts and want a gentler activity for recovery or cross-training days.
The key to getting a good cardiovascular workout while walking is to walk fast enough that you break a sweat and feel a little winded. Aim for at least 100 steps per minute up to 130 steps per minute (running typically starts about 140 steps per minute), according to a January 2019 study from International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.
You can walk almost anywhere, either on a treadmill indoors (set the inline to at least one percent, an often-cited study from the August 1996 issue of Journal of Sports Sciences) or on a trail in the great outdoors. Bonus: Hiking up hills challenges the muscles in your legs and glutes even more than walking on flat ground.
There's a reason you see so many people out running or jogging. Not only is it a great way to stay fit and trim, it's also linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and improved mood. As with walking, running and jogging are weight-bearing activities that strengthen your bones and can help manage and even help prevent osteoarthritis.
The only difference between running and jogging is the pace. A pace of about 4 to 5 miles per hour is average jogging speed, and anything faster than that is running or sprinting. You can run outdoors on a sidewalk or bike path, or indoors on a treadmill. You can also run on nature trails. The soft surface is easier on your joints.
To progress from walking to running, alternate a couple minutes of running with a couple minutes of walking. Continue to increase the time you spend running, until you can run for the whole time.
Read more: Everything You Need to Know to Start Running
3. Indoor or Outdoor Cycling
Cycling is another weight-bearing activity, but because you're sitting on the bike, your legs don't bear as much of the weight, making it a good low-impact workout for people who have knee pain.
Whether you like to take long rides outdoors or sweat it out at an indoor cycling class, you'll build muscle in your legs and glutes, as well as your abdominal, arm and shoulder muscles. Cycling uphill outdoors or increasing the resistance on a stationary bike increases the challenge for your muscles and your cardiovascular system.
Read more: How to Start Cycling to Get Fit and Strong
Swimming provides all the cardiovascular benefits of walking, running and cycling, but because your body is supported by water, there's a lot less stress on your joints, making it another low-impact option suitable for all ages, according to research from Swim England published in June 2017. From a basic dog paddle to the challenging butterfly stroke, swimming is easily modified to suit any fitness level.
Swimming uses nearly all of the muscles in your body, so it's a great way to build total-body strength and muscle tone. Plus, you can burn about 300 to 500 calories in 30 minutes, depending on your weight an intensity level, according to Harvard Health Publishing. You can swim laps in an indoor or outdoor pool or hit the beach, lake or pond.
Rowing is another low-impact activity that's challenging and fun. It uses all the muscles in your body and builds total-body strength and muscle definition, while improving your cardiovascular fitness.
"It is a phenomenal workout if you are looking for a heart-pumping cardio blast without the impact of, say, running," says Kat Wiersum, a rowing and interval training instructor at Studio Three in Chicago.
Rowing machines are usually harder to find at gyms than treadmills and stationary bikes, but more and more gyms are beginning to offer them. And studios are cropping up in major cities that offer group rowing classes. Similar to an indoor cycling class, an instructor guides you through a fun and challenging rowing routine.
Or if you prefer to row the old-fashioned way and live near a lake, you might be able to join a rowing team. Not only will you get a great workout, you'll also meet new people and be able to enjoy the outdoors.
Getting a great cardiovascular workout can be as easy and as fun as dancing. In most cities, you can find a variety of dance and fitness studios offering classes in a range of dance styles, from ballet to hip-hop.
Develop a new talent, as well as muscular strength, improved balance, a leaner physique and better cardiovascular fitness all at the same time. Plus, dance can decrease your risk of dying from heart disease, according to a June 2016 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
If you don't have a dance studio nearby, you can put on music and dance in your living room for a great workout (the music will also do wonders for your mood). Just do it vigorously enough to work up a little sweat. You can also find online or DVD dance classes to take in the comfort of your own home.
7. Playing Sports
If you like basketball, soccer, kickball, baseball or tennis, you can get a great workout and enjoy the camaraderie of team sports. Not only will you play games against opponents and other teams, but you also may meet for training or cardiovascular conditioning sessions in between competitive events.
Not all activities that are considered sports are good cardio activities, though. For example, billiards and bowling don't qualify. Look for a sport that gets your heart rate up and makes you sweat for at least 20 minutes at a time. Volleyball, softball, fencing, handball or gymnastics are a few other ideas, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Combining martial arts techniques with high-energy cardio moves, kickboxing classes are becoming increasingly popular in gyms and standalone studios. Kicking and punching burns calories, builds strength and increases your cardiovascular fitness.
It's also a great way to relieve stress after a long day at work. "I think it is the cheapest form of therapy out there," says Katalin Rodriguez Ogren, a four-time black belt and owner of POW! Gym Chicago.
You can set up a punching bag at home, or sign up for a kickboxing class. Classes will usually involve technique coaching as well as strength-building and metabolic conditioning.
9. Strength Training
While strength training is usually considered separate from cardio, it can get your heart rate soaring if you do it the right way. The key is to take little to no rest time in between sets.
Supersetting or circuit training are two ways to do this. Instead of doing all your sets of one exercise and resting in between sets, do one set of one exercise then move right to a set of another exercise without resting (that's a superset). Choose several different exercises and do one set of each (that's circuit training). Rest or do some sort of cardio — jumping jacks or jump roping, for example — in between rounds.
Plyometrics exercises (aka plyo), which involve jumping and explosive movements, are also great for building cardiovascular fitness. Examples include jump squats, box jumps, clapping push-ups and burpees. Mix some of these into your weight training circuit or do an entire workout of plyometrics and you'll see just how challenging it can be.
10. Climbing Stairs
Every time you take the stairs, your heart has to work harder to pump blood to your muscles. A long flight or several flights of stairs can get your heart rate up and make you sweat, burning 180 to 266 calories in 30 minutes in the process.
Stair-climbing as a cardio activity provides an excellent workout, building strength in your legs, burning calories and improving cardiovascular function. Put on your sneakers and climb stairs in your apartment or office building or hop on a stair climber at the gym.
There are plenty of other activities that qualify as cardio, even things you wouldn't necessarily think count.
- Mowing the lawn, especially if you have to mow hills or if your yard is large
- Raking leaves
- Chopping wood
- Cleaning gutters
- Jumping on a trampoline
- Hula hooping
- Doing jumping jacks or jumping rope
- Playing tag with your kids
Anything you do, the key is to do it vigorously enough that it gets your heart rate up for an extended period of time (remember the 20 to 30 minutes per day guideline).
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
- International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity: Walking cadence (steps/min) and intensity in 21–40 year olds: CADENCE-adults
- Journal of Sports Science: A 1% treadmill grade most accurately reflects the energetic cost of outdoor running
- Journal of the American College of Cardiology: Leisure-Time Running Reduces All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality Risk
- JAMA Psychiatry: Assessment of Bidirectional Relationships Between Physical Activity and Depression Among Adults
- Arthritis Care and Research: Is There an Association Between a History of Running and Symptomatic Knee Osteoarthritis? A Cross‐Sectional Study From the Osteoarthritis Initiative
- WebMD: Swimming
- Harvard Health Publishing: Calories burned in 30 minutes for people of three different weights
- American Journal of Preventative Medicine: Dancing Participation and Cardiovascular Disease Mortality
- Nature Neuroscience: Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music