When you're new to exercise, having a road map that tells you what to do, how to do it and how often can make the difference between throwing in the towel after one session and crushing your workouts for months — and years — to come. And cardio is one of the easiest ways to start your fitness journey.
The best part? You can do it just about anywhere. We asked three top trainers to share a few basic cardio workouts, along with their top tips for beginners.
The Basics of Cardiovascular Exercise
Sometimes the most challenging part about exercise is getting started, especially if you're not sure what to do. But there are general guidelines you can follow to help you determine the frequency, duration and activities that work best for you. And if what you start with doesn't end up working for you, you can always switch things up.
What Is Cardio? Which activities do and don't count as cardio depends on you, specifically, your heart rate and how long you do said activity. Anything that gets your heart rate up above resting for at least 10 minutes at a time is a good starting place.
Frequency and Duration: To start, beginners should aim for three to four cardio workouts a week for 20 to 40 minutes each session. Over time, your goal is to meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which recommends 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity or 75 to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise.
Type: If you're new to exercise, certified personal trainer, Tim Hampton, CSCS, ACSM-certified personal trainer of elevate Health & Performance, recommends starting with something simple like walking, which you can do just about anywhere.
At the gym, consider using the treadmill, stair climber, elliptical or rowing machine. At home, Katrina Pilkington, NASM-certified personal trainer, says activities like yard work, playing a recreational sport, chasing your kids at the playground, jumping rope, doing body-weight movements or going for a light run all count as cardio.
Read more: What Activities Actually Count as Cardio?
Start Your Cardio Workouts on an Elliptical
If you have access to a gym, the best cardio workout for beginners is starting on the elliptical. It gives you a full-body, low-impact cardio workout and is an excellent way for beginners to get comfortable with doing aerobic workouts.
Fitness expert, Nikki Kimbrough of Get Fit With Nik, Inc, says it's great for beginners, since it gets your arms and legs moving at the same time. It's also gentle on your joints.
20-Minute Elliptical Workout for Beginners
Here, Kimbrough shares a 20-minute beginner low-impact cardio workout.
Do: After an easy five-minute warm-up, perform the following intervals.
- 3 minutes: Increase the elevation 1 to 4. Keep your baseline resistance at 5 to 6.
- 2 minutes: Increase resistance 6 to 7. You should be working at a little more than a conversational pace.
- 3 minutes: Decrease resistance back to a baseline of 5 to 6.
- 2 minutes: Increase resistance 6 to 7.
- 5 minutes: Decrease resistance back to a cooldown pace of 4 to 5.
Then Move Your Cardio Workouts to a Treadmill
Walking on a treadmill not only boosts your cardiovascular fitness, but if done with incline intervals, it also targets your glutes and hamstrings.
Incline Treadmill Workout for Beginners
The duration of this workout will vary based on the incline. For example, if you reach a maximum incline of seven, the workout will be 24 minutes total, including the warm-up. If you aim for an incline of 15, the workout will be 40 minutes, including the warm-up.
To maximize your results, Kimbrough says to pump your arms back and forth, up and down, as if you were jogging rather than holding onto the rails, even if that means decreasing your speed.
Do: Warm-up with a brisk walk for 10 minutes. Start at a very low pace and increase intensity gradually each minute until you're working at more than a conversational pace.
- Walk at a speed between 3.0 and 4.0 mph.
- Increase the incline every minute, starting at zero and ending at 15. This is the maximum incline you should go, but it's also okay to stop at an incline that's comfortable for you, which could be anywhere between seven and 10.
- Once you reach your maximum incline, go back down every minute until you reach zero.
- Cool down with a five- to eight-minute easy walk, followed by stretching.
Or Do Your Cardio Workouts at Home
Even if you don't have access to a gym, you can still get a great cardio workout at home. This body-weight circuit from Kimbrough incorporates strength training as well as increase your heart rate.
Do: Each exercise eight times. Then, follow the directions to repeat and rest.
- Jumping jacks
- Step-out burpees
- Repeat two times, then rest for one minute.
- Repeat three times, then rest for two minutes
- Repeat four times, then cool down.
Move 1: Jumping Jacks
- Stand up straight, hands by your sides.
- Jump your feet a few feet apart and raise your hands over your head.
- Jump your feet back together and lower your hands to your sides.
Move 2: Squats
- Stand with feet hip-width apart.
- Bend your knees and hinge your hips back as if you were sitting in a chair, keeping your weight heavy in your heels.
- Lower until your thighs are parallel to the floor (or as far as your mobility allows).
- Stand back up, squeezing your glutes (butt) at the top.
Move 3: Step-Out Burpees
- Stand up straight with feet shoulder-width apart.
- Place your hands on the ground between your feet.
- Step your feet back, one at a time, until you're in a high plank (top of a push-up), balancing on hands and feet, body in a straight line from head to heels.
- Step your feet back to your hands.
- Stand up and reach your hands over your head.
Move 4: Push-Ups
- Start in a high plank, balancing on hands and feet and body in a straight line from head to heels. Start on your knees for a modification.
- Bend your elbows at a 45-degree angle to your body and lower your chest to the floor.
- Press through your hands to return to a plank.
Tips for Effective and Safe Cardio Workouts
1. Choose wisely. When you're starting out with cardiovascular exercise, Hampton says to make sure and choose an exercise that you're capable of and don't perform it at an intensity that may cause injury. "If you start on the easy to moderate end and build up over time, you're much more likely to avoid injury or overtraining which can diminish results," Hampton says.
2. Stay hydrated. Make sure you are drinking plenty of water. Kimbrough tells her clients to work their way up to three liters to a gallon of water a day.
3. Plan your week. In order to stay safe and maximize each workout, Pilkington says it helps to plan out your week. As a beginner, you'll want to start by doing non-consecutive days of cardio to allow your body to slowly acclimate to the activity.
4. Consider a heart rate monitor. Pilkington recommends wearing a heart rate monitor to measure your heart rate ranges for intensity, which is a smart way to keep your body safe and improve your workouts over time.
Combine Cardio and Strength Training
When it comes to your fitness routine, cardiovascular exercise is only part of the equation. For optimal health, you also need to include resistance training. The number of days you can devote to exercise will determine how you structure your workouts.
If your goal is three to four days a week, you can divide your workout in half and do 30 minutes of cardio and 30 minutes of weight training. But if you can commit to five or six days a week, Kimbrough says splitting the days are great. For example, perform cardio on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and weight training on Tuesday and Thursday.
On days when time is an issue, you can combine both into one workout. "Interval-based training is an efficient and effective way to add in small bouts of cardiovascular activity into a workout," says Pilkington.
To build an interval-based training workout, you can perform 30-second bouts of cardio such as jump rope or a cardio machine between resistance training exercises. For example, do 12 repetitions of squats, followed by 30-seconds of jumping rope.