Breaking a sweat a few times a week can do wonders for your mind and body. Aerobic exercise, also known as cardio, involves repetitive and rhythmic contraction of large muscle groups, challenging both your heart rate and lungs.
There are all different types of cardio exercises, and you may be wondering what the best cardio workout is for you. Ultimately, the best cardio is the type you enjoy and will do consistently! Any movement is better than none, and whatever type of cardio fits into your lifestyle is the one worth doing.
If you're just starting out, 15 minutes of cardio may be all you can do and that is perfectly fine. You'll want to try to work up to 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity as recommended by the American Heart Association.
Editor's Note: You should clear any long-term changes to your fitness routine with your primary healthcare provider beforehand. Weight loss, health and body image are complex subjects — before deciding to switch up your exercise and fitness levels, we invite you to gain a broader perspective with our exploration into the hazards of diet culture.
The Benefits of Cardio Workouts
More than just helping you lose weight and build muscle, cardio has some serious health benefits that impact longevity and overall wellness. Some of the many benefits of cardiovascular exercise include:
- Increase energy and stamina
- Strengthen the heart and respiratory muscles
- Lower resting heart rate
- Reduce cholesterol levels and arterial blood pressure
- Improve mental alertness, increase wellbeing and reduce tendency for depression and anxiety
- Increase lean body mass and metabolic rate
- Decrease risk of chronic diseases including obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes
Before you start any exercise program, it's important to speak with your healthcare provider. Here are the best cardio workouts of all time, according to our fitness experts.
1. Power Walking
Starting a power walking program can help you stay active, improve longevity and assist with weight management. By picking up the pace and walking with a purpose, you can cover several miles in this low-impact form of cardio. You may notice significant improvements in just two weeks of a power walking routine, ranging from benefits like decreased blood pressure to stronger leg muscles. Beginners should start with just 10 minutes per day, then slowly increasing the time you walk by 5 minutes until you're able to get up to 30 minutes per day.
Some tips for power walking:
- Maintain good posture by keeping your head upright with your chin in neutral position. Engage your core and glutes with each step.
- Focus on quick smooth strides rather than longer strides.
- Start with your heel striking the ground first, then rolling onto the ball of your foot and finally pushing off the toes.
- Recruit your arms for a total body exercise and up to 10% more calorie burn. Bend your arms at the elbows and swing them in step with your feet.
A popular entry into exercise for beginners, running is free and doesn’t require any fancy equipment. Both running and jogging are excellent forms of aerobic exercise. Research even shows that running can reduce risk of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and more. If you’re a beginner, it’s important to start slow with brisk walking, then progress to jogging and ultimately advance to running. Give yourself at least six weeks to build up to regular running, and make sure to warm up thoroughly before you head out and do some light stretches to cool down after your run.
Some tips for running:
- Focus on maintaining short, quick strides. Keep your head in a neutral position and gaze forward. Focus on running on the balls of your feet rather than your heels or toes.
- If you are running longer distances, our fitness experts recommend gently rolling your shoulders forwards and backwards every mile to alleviate stiffness.
- Invest in quality running gear, like a good pair of running sneakers. Workout clothing and accessories with reflective accents on the front and back are essential if you are running outdoors to increase your visibility to drivers and other pedestrians.
- Since running is a repetitive movement in the same plane of motion, it’s important to incorporate rest days to avoid overtraining and to also compliment your running regimen with other activities like strength training.
- Track your progress with a motivating running app and download some great music for your workout.
A fantastic low-impact form of cardio, rowing is a full body workout that provides an efficient way to break a sweat. Indoor rowing machines are becoming increasingly popular and utilize nearly every muscle in the body. Since you push with your legs and pull with your arms, this form of cardio is even more efficient than cycling or running. It's a great entry point too for individuals who have joint issues.
Some tips for rowing:
- Keep your knees straight with each stroke and don't let them bow out to the side.
- Avoid hunching your shoulders. Sit up straight with your shoulders relaxed and away from your ears.
- Keep a secure grip on the handle so it doesn't slip out of your hands but don't over-grip as this can lead to unnecessary forearm burnout.
- Proper rowing technique demands core engagement, so be sure to engage this critical muscle group with each stroke.
Both indoor and outdoor cycling are phenomenal low-impact forms of cardio that are great for all different types of fitness levels. You can change the intensity with both speed and resistance, allowing for workout variety to keep things fun and efficient. A great addition to any home gym, exercise bikes range from more high-end smart bikes with guided classes to standard recumbent bikes for a fantastic workout. Indoor cycling has been shown to improve aerobic capacity and blood pressure too.
Some tips for cycling:
- Positioning is key for a comfortable and efficient ride. For indoor cycling bikes, handlebars should be positioned high enough so you don't feel any strain on your back.
- Seat positioning should ensure that legs are slightly bent during the pedal stroke. For seats that adjust horizontally, position the seat so your front pedal is directly below your knee.
- Raise your seat if you feel pain in the front of your knee and lower your seat if you feel pain in the back of your knee.
- Elbows should be slightly bent, and your back should be straight with core engaged.
- Our experts say that investing in a good quality pair of cycling shoes allows you to become one with the bike and have a more smooth and controlled pedal stroke.
Moving your entire body against the resistance of water makes for a fantastic cardio workout that's fun too. Swimming can help build endurance, tone muscles and keep your heart rate up all while minimizing joint impact. It's also a relaxing and peaceful form of exercise that research shows can help alleviate stress and improve mood. Individuals with arthritis may have difficulty with many forms of cardio, but swimming can actually help improve use of affected joints without worsening symptoms.
Some tips for swimming:
- Be sure to have a quality sports swimsuit and a good pair of googles.
- Focus on a neutral head position, keeping your head in line with the rest of your body and looking down at the bottom of the pool as you swim.
- Aim for small, steady kicks during your swim session. When your hand and arm move through the water, make sure they don't cross the midline of your body.
- Make each breath count and fully exhale all the air from your lungs before taking a quick full breath on the side.
6. Jumping Rope
While you may think of jump roping as a childhood sport, it's an affordable and easy way to work up a great sweat. Benefits of jump roping include enhancing muscle strength, boosting metabolism, improving coordination and more. A good quality jump rope is compact and the ultimate workout accessory.
Some tips for jumping rope:
- Properly size your rope by standing on the middle of the rope with one foot. Bring both handles up to your shoulders. The rope should come up to your shoulders, no higher and no lower. Make sure to buy a rope that you can either cut to your size or one that comes according to height.
- Remember that practice makes perfect. Try taking a video of yourself to check out your form. Keep your chest up, core engaged, and arms close to your body. Recruit your wrists to do the work instead of moving your arms.
- Try a weighted jump rope for an even harder workout once you get more advanced.
From improving balance and coordination to even helping manage stress, this effective workout boosts endurance and builds full-body strength. Boxing can be done at home or in the gym, and works wonders for the mind-body connection. You'll get a fantastic high-impact cardio workout that incorporates strength building and interval training too. You can find boxing classes at your local gym or on different fitness app platforms. Try this 30-minute HIIT Style Boxing Workout curating by our in-house fitness experts and boxing professionals.
Some tips for boxing:
- Take time to master basic skills of boxing including the boxer's stance, the jab, the cross, the hook and uppercut punches too.
- Ensure that your elbows don’t flare out on jabs or crosses. Focus on keeping your punches tight to the body.
8. Stair Climber
This cardio powerhouse machine is a staple in nearly every gym and provides a fantastic workout. Not only is the stair climber great for strengthening some of the body's largest muscle groups, but it can really get your heart rate up. The exercise is low-impact and very natural, making it an amazing form of cardio for beginners. Plus, you can increase intensity as you get more advanced.
Some tips for using the stair climber:
- Stand tall and keep a neutral spine. You want a light but secure grip on the handrails to balance yourself. Avoid leaning your bodyweight onto the rails.
- Avoid climbing on the balls of your feet. Think about how you would climb a regular flight of stairs and plant your entire foot on each step.
- As you get more advanced, try adding a leg extension with each step for some fine toning.
This cardio workout imitates running but in a much more joint-friendly way. A low-impact exercise, using the elliptical also provides a full body workout. Most machines have pre-programmed workouts that can add variety to your elliptical session.
Some tips for using the elliptical:
- Avoid slouching during your elliptical session. Engage your core, keep your shoulders down and back and your gaze forward.
- Utilize the hand grips on ellipticals to track your heart rate during your workout.
- Increase your incline in intervals to enhance muscle engagement of the glutes and hamstrings and elevate your heart rate.
- As you get more advanced, try going in reverse to work your calves and hamstrings in a different way.
10. Cross-Country Skiing
A great introduction to winter sports for beginners, cross-country skiing makes for a fun and amazing cardio workout. Essentially if you can walk, you can cross-country ski. This form of exercise involves large muscle groups of both the upper and lower body, making it extremely effective in terms of boosting cardiorespiratory fitness. Since cross-country skiing involves repeatedly shifting weight from one leg to the other, it's excellent for working on balance too.
Some tips for cross-country skiing:
- Dress in layers because you will generate warmth as you move. Wool and synthetic fabrics are ideal, as well as a moisture-wicking base layer. Be prepared for cold, snowy and windy conditions, and a hat and gloves are a must too.
- The right equipment is key in cross-country skiing. Most nordic centers will size you for skis and provide rental options for everything you'll need including boots and poles.
- Start with flat, easy terrain. Shuffle forward with small strides and take a lesson if you're able to.