You’d Be Surprised At What Actually Counts As Cardio

You know the recommendations to get regular cardiovascular exercise—but what does that really mean?

Cardio exercise: It makes you sweat. It makes you breathe heavy. It might even mess up your hair. Love it or hate it, cardio helps you stay fit and healthy.

Whether you relish a heart-pumping run to help “clear your head” or curse every sweat-drenched moment of a spin class, you can’t avoid cardio if you want the benefits of a well-rounded fitness program.

(Related: Your Guide to the 10 Best Cardio Machines)

But what is cardio, exactly, and why do we need it?

To shed light on these and other cardio questions, we turned to Dr. Michael Bracko, a Calgary-based exercise physiologist and chair of the Health & Fitness Summit for the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). What we found out might surprise you.

Best Health (BH): In a nutshell, what is cardio?

Michael Bracko (MB): Most people think of cardio as a long, slow distance activity like running, biking, hiking. But in reality, any form of exercise is cardio exercise: long, slow distance is cardio; weight training is cardio; boot camps are cardio. Cardio is anything that raises your heart rate and makes you breathe heavy. (Not sure what your heart rate should be? Here’s how to become an expert at reading it.)

BH: Weight training or even really vigorous vacuuming can be cardio?

MH: Sure. When you weight train you increase your heart rate and respiration — it’s almost the same thing as doing interval training or going for a long run.

BH: Why do we need cardio?

MB: Cardio — and not just the traditional type of long, slow distance cardio — helps you burn calories, improve metabolism (even one workout makes a difference!) and strengthen your heart and lungs.

BH: Even with all its benefits, some people still dislike cardio. Why?

MB: A lot of people don’t want to do traditional cardio like going for a long run — it’s too daunting. They don’t have time or it’s too uncomfortable or hard on their joints.

The misconception is that you have to do 30 or 40 minutes of traditional cardio exercise. I don’t think you do. You can do weight training or a boot camp or interval training and get just as many benefits from that as if you went for a long walk or run. (Here are the benefits of walking for just 15 minutes.)

BH: So the idea is to reevaluate what counts as cardio rather than skipping it altogether.

MB: Yes.

(Related: Why Exercise Can Be the Most Effective Way to Relieve Stress)

BH: With so many exercise choices, how do you know when you’re doing cardio?

MB: It’s simple: Your heart rate goes up and you breathe heavier. You must engage the major muscle groups – for example, your arms or legs or both. When you involve the large muscles in the body, they need more oxygen, which increases your respiration and heart rate.

BH: How often do you have to do cardio to get the most out of it?

MB: To get the maximum benefit, try to do it at least three days a week. For example, most people have more time on the weekend, so do it on Saturday and Sunday and again in the middle of the week. It doesn’t have to be all on weekdays. And if you can fit more into your schedule, go for it.

Next: How to Stop Worrying and Have a Happier Life