Getting to the top of your game requires cardiovascular health. A strong cardiovascular system can boost overall fitness health by improving endurance and strength. When your blood is pumping efficiently, you’ll have “improved endurance, less fatigue and less perceived exertion,” explains Dr. Anthony Luke, assistant professor of primary care sports medicine at University of California, San Francisco. “Your breathing and heart rate will also become more proficient, which improves blood flow to your body.”
Better blood flow, in turn, helps the body more efficiently “deliver oxygen and nutrients to muscles and the organs, and removes excess waste products,” says Ben Hendrickson, a personal trainer in New York City. The faster this happens, the faster you can recover from intense workouts and the harder you can train. Choosing the best cardio exercises for you, though—ones that you look forward to doing—is almost as important as getting your lungs pumping in the first place. Here’s how to choose your cardio workout plan:
Swimming and Cardio Machines May Provide the Best Cardio
If you regularly experience pain in your legs, especially the hip, ankle and knee joints, have a lot of free time, prefer to work out alone and enjoy the process of learning, then swimming and cardio machines are good choices for your cardiovascular health.
Swimming provides a medium-intensity cardio workout with very low impact on your joints. It’s an ideal activity for “someone who has an injury or a painful joint,” says Luke. It does require some time commitment, though, since the better you get, the longer you have to do it in order to burn the same number of calories. Plus, the time necessary to change clothes and shower can be frustrating. It also takes a lot of practice to properly learn the technique, though props, such as kickboards, are nice alternatives. Swimming also provides significant upper-body strength training, which contribute to overall fitness health.
Cardio machines such as the elliptical trainer and the stair master can provide intense cardio exercise with minimal impact on joints. Elliptical machines can be set to programs that focus on specific areas, but since your feet are locked in you may not be working in the correct alignment for your body. “Stairmasters have the potential to be more of a cardio workout, because they’re more functional—a little bit less abstract than the elliptical trainer,” says Craig Berman, a physical therapist based in Las Vegas. Treadmill-type stair machines are ideal, but if you only have access to the machines with pedals, remember that correct movement is a full stride, not short pumps.
Running and Jumping Rope Could be Your Best Cardio Exercises
If you rarely experience joint or muscle pain, have little free time, enjoy working out alone as well as with groups of people, have a lot of energy, and have a short attention span, try either running or jumping rope for your fitness health.
Running requires a lot of effort, but that means you can burn a ton of calories in a relatively short amount of time. “If you run hard for 10 to 12 minutes, you may burn as many calories as jogging slowly for twenty minutes,” says Hendrickson. “If you run fast you can get your cardiovascular exercise done in a very minimal amount of time,” he continues. Plus, proper technique is easy to learn—if you can walk, you can run. The impact on your joints is high, though, especially on the hips, ankles and knees.
An advantage to running is that it can also be done anywhere, anytime. No matter where you choose to run (street, trail or treadmill), hills are a great way to boost your cardio exercise. Running alone, particularly at night, can be dangerous, however. In addition, running presents a greater opportunity for injury if you are tired than other cardiovascular exercise does.
Jumping rope, a low-impact activity with a medium level of cardiovascular health, can be tricky to learn, but once you get the hang of it, adding different foot patterns can be used to combat boredom. If you have any back pain you shouldn’t do it. It’s also self-limiting, which, as Hendrickson explains, is a good thing. This means that “when your postural muscles fatigue so that you cannot maintain proper posture you’re going to start missing your skip. With other exercises, as your postural muscles start to fatigue you can still push with your prime movers, which can cause injury.”
Cycling or Group Classes Could Provide the Best Cardio for You
If you have any arm or shoulder pain, have limited free time, prefer to do your cardio exercise in a structured manner, often feel bored at the gym, and rarely try new things, consider a cycling or a group class as your cardio workout plan.
Cycling is a low-impact activity that provides a medium level of cardio exercise. It’s a great activity for people who like to alternate between working out in a group (spinning classes) or be by themselves in the great outdoors (road biking). The latter, however, increases your chance of injury due to the possibility of collision falls. Cycling is great however, for “someone who is doing a lot jumping and pounding on the joints” in other activities, says Luke. Proper alignment will help strengthen hips, knees and ankles.
While aerobics and kickboxing require a good teacher for maximum benefit, the variety of movement in these types of cardio workout plans appeals to people who get bored easily. Proper technique is important to prevent injuries. One downside is that working out is entirely dependant on someone else’s schedule. You should also be mindful of technique, especially in kickboxing classes. “If you’re just throwing or kicking your joints blindly, you may not be properly decelerating the movement of the joint, and that can cause injury,” says Hendrickson.
The best cardio exercises for you should be fun, fit your personality and be something you look forward to doing. By being honest with yourself about your cardio exercise preferences you’ll keep your cardiovascular health in shape for years to come.