What Exactly is Cardio and Why is it Important?

When we think of cardio we usually think of running.  Running is certainly a form of cardio but is not the only form and to fully understand this you must understand the reasons why we do cardio in the first place.

Cardio, in simple terms, is literally anything that gets your heart rate up.  Some of the more popular ways to get good cardio in are running, swimming, dancing, and hiking (the full list of ways to get cardio in are almost infinite).  Getting in even just a single 30 minute session of good cardio exercise a week has been proven to help keep your heart, lungs, and blood vessels healthy and help prevent serious conditions such as Type II Diabetes and depression.  

The big mistake that a lot of people make though is overdoing it on their cardio workouts with the belief that it will help them lose weight.  Cardio does NOT make you lose weight!  To lose weight you have to do a combination of weight training, cardio, and healthy dieting.  You can't just run your way to skinniness so don't waste your time!  Overdoing it on cardio is also seriously harmful.  If you run, swim, dance etc. for too long without hydration and nourishment, it will lead to bad side effects that completely take away all the benefits that you were striving for such as reduced metabolism (makes weight loss almost impossible), psychological problems (makes your depression worse), and hurt your lungs because they're not getting enough oxygen.  

To ensure that none of these bad side effects happen to you, try to start out aiming for 30 minutes of moderate cardiovascular exercise about 1-3 times per week and slowly work your way up to 45 minutes and then an hour.  An hour should be your limit though because even marathon runners who are in the best shape of their lives can experiences bad side effects from going too hard for too long. Also remember to not do long cardio workouts on consecutive days.  Take a day or two off in between every tough cardio workout because the body needs time to recover in order to grow stronger.

Alternatives to Regular Cardio

Let's face it.  A lot of people hate cardio. The fact is though, running on the treadmill or doing the stair master for 45 minutes isn't the only, or the best, way to go.  

When it comes to keeping healthy, the trick is not to always do the same basic things over and over, and cardio is no exception. Running and swimming are great ways to stay in shape If you love it but most people would choose another option if given to them. The number of alternatives to running and swimming are almost infinite as long as you reach outside the box a little bit and maybe use a little imagination.  

If you are an outdoors person but don't feel like going on trail runs all the time, try hiking and you can work your way up to hiking at higher and higher elevations for more of a challenge.  Or you can also get great outdoor cardio playing sports such as ultimate frisbee, flag football, soccer, tennis, and even skiing and snowboarding.  Plus, these are all more engaging than just regular running and swimming as well as more a of social activity that you can do with friends or use to meet new people.

If you are more of an indoor person, you can get into martial arts classes such as Karate, Muay Thai Kickboxing, and Taekwondo.  You can also get into sports such as basketball and hockey or even become a basketball or hockey referee if you enjoy that more.  

Basically, what I'm trying to get at here, is that cardio doesn't have to be like a chore.  It can be put into activities that are more fun, engaging, and social which will help your mental health as well as your heart health.

Mountain Biking For Cardio

If you love the outdoors, want to do something more adventurous, love little rushes of adrenaline, and are looking to work on your cardio then look no further than mountain biking. Just like 14er hiking, mountain biking can become kind of an addiction (in a good way of course) for some because of the enjoyment from riding the bike itself to the beautiful landscape and wildlife you could witness.  

Mountain biking is one of the easiest ways to get a good cardio workout in for many reasons.  For one, it takes a lot of energy to climb your bike up steep hills.  Also, in areas that are full of rough rocky terrain, you might be forced to have to do a lot of sprinting in order to get enough speed to roll your way over obstacles that would stop you in your tracks if you were to be going too slowly. This combination of endurance from both hill climbing and sprinting are guaranteed to give you the cardio workout of a lifetime (while having a blast being out in nature as well).

Obviously there are some risks that come with this activity which is why you should try and always bring a friend or group of friends along with you incase you were to crash really hard and get seriously injured (which unfortunately is reality all mountain bikers must accept and prepare for).  Getting injured out on a mountain in the middle of nowhere with no one to help is not such a good scenario. That is why it is a smart idea, if you are mountain biking alone, to do it on open trails closer to civilization where it is likely to run into others who could help you out if you were injured badly.  

The better you get at mountain biking, the faster you can go, the steeper the hills you can climb and descend, and the better the cardio workout you will get.

Skiing And Snowboarding For Cardio

Skiing and snowboarding aren't just exercise for most people. They are a lifestyle.  When you go to major ski resorts, you will see skill levels ranging from beginners on the bunny hill, to experts going down double black diamond runs with moguls. The people that are at those expert levels aren't just there because they are fearless and have been doing it for years.  They are also in really good physical condition.  Not being in good cardiovascular shape and skiing/snowboarding black and double black diamond runs do not mix well.

Skiing is great for cardio because it takes a lot of energy to keep the whole body stabilized going downhill quickly, plus being at high elevations forces your heart rate to go up and lungs to work harder. Some people are already in good cardiovascular condition from training in others ways such as running and mostly have to work on their actual skiing/snowboarding mechanics.  Others are able to use skiing/snowboarding as their main training source for getting into good cardiovascular condition. You can accomplish this by starting out doing green (easiest difficulty) runs and blue (moderate difficulty) runs first. That way, you are not only helping yourself master the mechanics of skiing/snowboarding itself before going big, but also are giving yourself a great cardio workout in the process.

It will all eventually become easier and easier and make you want to look for more challenging runs to go down as your cardiovascular system gets stronger and your skiing/snowboarding mechanics improve.


Martial Arts For Cardio

Martial arts such as Karate, Muay Thai Kickboxing, and Taekwando are great for many reasons including getting a great cardio workout. If you choose to do these types of workouts you can get in the best shape of your life (if you stick with it and keep your nutrition under control of course) and earn extra benefits on the side that you might not even notice at first. 

It has been proven that these practices help release stress as well as teach good self-control and discipline.  Then, on top of that, martial arts can give you a great aerobic workout in as short as 30 minutes that can burn more calories than you might burn in 60 minutes of running. 

Just be careful that you don't go too hard too early because if you haven't developed your leg, arm, and core muscles enough, the impact your body takes consistently hitting those punching bags can be a bit much for your body to handle and can lead to muscle tears and shoulder dislocations.  

14er Hiking For Cardio

A lot of people don't love the gym.  A lot of those people who don't love the gym also are convinced that they don't have a choice and force themselves to go to the gym anyways or just don't go at all.  The fact is, like I've said previously, there are so many alternatives to every kind of exercise (weight training and cardio) that I can't even list them all off the top of my head and no one kind of exercise is right for everyone. Some don't even need to be done in a gym or require any kind of workout equipment other than water, food, some sunscreen, maybe a hat, and your own two feet (which hopefully are all things you already own).

The kind of exercise I'm talking about specifically is called "14er Hiking".  14ers are what hikers refer to mountains that are over 14,000 ft in elevation as.  In Colorado there are 53 of these 14ers (Mt. Elbert being the highest at 14,439 ft in elevation) and are a great way to stay in shape for those that are adventurous and driven to keep pushing their bodies to the limit.

For some people, hiking 14ers becomes an addiction because, not only are the views stunning from the top of the peaks, but there is also a very strong feeling of accomplishment that comes with making it to the top of a tall mountain.  

Getting lots of good hiking in (especially at high elevations), along with staying well hydrated and well nourished, gets your legs stronger, keeps your heart and your lungs strong, and even is known to release mental stress which all help lead to a longer healthier life.

Just don't push yourself too hard and make sure to give your body time to recover from hard long hiking expeditions.  I don't suggest hiking everyday of the week.  Also, if you are a beginner to hiking, train at lower elevations first because, no matter how good of shape you are in, elevation sickness can happen to anyone not used to the thin air.