Cardio: Getting Started

Photo: John Springer Collection; via twotoneatl.

Pretty much everyone agrees that for good health, you need to do some sort of exercise. But does that mean everyone has to do aerobic exercise? The kind where you get all sweaty, breathe hard, and struggle to keep your heartrate in its picky little "target zone?"

Well, I'm not prepared to do an exhaustive research review, but I do know a couple things:

(1) There are many, many studies that point to major health benefits from regular aerobic exercise, and for this reason, mainstream health experts all seem to recommend you do it. (See, for example, a good article over at Mayo Clinic.) Heck, even the Federal Government thinks you should get off your ass. For best results, they say work up to the point where you're doing 150 minutes a week of "vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity."

(2) And yet I know plenty of people who've lived to a healthy old age by walking, gardening, and just generally puttering around. Many of these folks would never intentionally sign up for a fitness class, nor would they consider "going for a run" unless something with large teeth and claws were chasing them.

Surprisingly Effective Exercise Motivator
(Photo: Orin Zebest)


So what to make of this? Do you have to do cardio?

My take: you'll maximize your chances for a healthy, vigorous, disease-free life if you suck it up and do regular aerobic exercise. Particularly if you have a crappy family history when it comes to chronic disease. But it's also really important just to keep moving. There are huge health benefits you get from not being sedentary, no matter slowly and gently you decide to approach physical activity.

But at least give vigorous cardio a shot someday, you may be surprised how much better you feel! Many of us find that aerobic exercise helps us sleep better, have more energy, catch fewer bugs, have less anxiety, crankiness and depression, and just generally feel more smug and special and awesome than people who don't.

Now obviously I'm not going to cover all the things you need to know about aerobic exercise in one post, but here are at least a few tips to get you moving. Or if you're already pounding out marathons, it's an opportunity to laugh at how lame my suggestions are help the cardio newcomers by offering your wise suggestions in the comments.

1. Pick an Exercise You Don't Abhor


There are a huge number of exercises that will get your heat rate up to aerobic levels; the tricky thing is finding one that doesn't make you want to puke, tear your hair out, or break down into a sobbing heap of misery five minutes into your workout. Of course Murphy's law dictates that the sort of exercise that sounds the most fun will be the least practical given your lifestyle, and the most convenient option will likely suck.

But with that in mind, at least here are a few cardio ideas:

Running; race-walking or power-walking; cycling; swimming; skating; rowing; cross-country skiing; exercise machines like ellipticals and steppers; fitness classes like boot camps, turbo-kick, functional fitness, etc; dance classes or dvds like Zumba, hip/hop, bellydancing, country dancing, or swing dancing; fitness video games; sports that keep you constantly moving like basketball or raquetball or soccer; hiking; climbing; surfing; or more exotic activities, like parkour, cheese rolling, or bog-snorkeling.

And I'm probably forgetting a whole bunch of other things.


2. Start Slowly:

Do you have medical issues, or are you coming off years of inactivity? These and other potentially risky scenarios mean you should check with your doctor first. Because having a heart attack is NOT a good way to start off an aerobic exercise program!

And don't try to go "all out" from the very beginning. People constantly make the mistake of giving it their all before they've built the physical foundations for intense exercise. So save some of your "all," you'll most likely be needing it for later.

Remember, you have a whole lifetime ahead of you to overdo it and injure yourself. Don't blow those crucial first weeks of habit-building momentum by getting burnt out, exhausted, or hospitalized.

3. Track Your Exertion Level and Gradually Build Up

Learn how to measure your pulse and find your target heart rate. Or hell, buy one of those nifty gizmos that calculates everything you can think of for you. And if you don't want to get too fancy, you can often find decent heart rate monitors on sale for $50 or less.

(Update: turns out Charlotte at the Great Fitness Experiment has a post all about heart rate monitoring today, be sure to check it out!)

And be sure to warm up with some easy walking or whatever before you start, and then cool down after you stop. Don't just go from huffing and puffing to plopping down in your car. You also probably want to do some stretching after you're done too.

While exercising, aim to spend increasing amounts of time in that target zone, working up to about 30 minutes or more a session (though recommendations on this seem to vary. Some say 20 is fine as long as it's vigorous). And use common sense; "target" heart rates are approximate. Your perceived level of exertion can be a very handy indicator of whether you're taking it too easy or whether you're killing yourself and need to dial it back. You want to be breathing heavily but not gasping for breath. (Later, when we get around to discussing high intensity intervals--that's where the gasping comes in).

The good thing about being totally out of shape when you start? It will be way easier for you to get you in your target zone than someone who's already fit.

For people considering going from walking to running, there are some more specific training suggestions for getting started: like the Couch to 5k program or this handy guide from the American Council on Exercise. Another general rule of thumb I've heard is not to increase your distance by more than 10% a week.

4. Find Support:

Many people find companionship to be very motivating, and finding a buddy, class, or group to be an excellent way to stay accountable. And even if you're the loner type while you exercise, it can be really nice to get helpful hints and encouragement afterwards. You may want to subscribe to a sport-specific magazine, or find blogs, forums, and other websites where like-minded others hang out, and where people love to give new exercisers plenty of advice and tips.

Some blog examples: runners may enjoy Caution Redhead Running or Marathon Mama; those who like exercise and healthy eating challenges should check out Living Healthy in the Real World; those who try to exercise despite injuries should check out I'm Not Superhuman; and, with excellent timing, the Fit Bottomed Girls are having a special Beginners Week this week.

5. Think About Cross Training:

One of the most annoying things about pursuing a lifetime of aerobic fitness is that once you finally find an exercise you really like? You need to go out and find another one. Or two. Or three.

You can find additional activities early on, and enjoy the improved fitness, variety, and increased sense of accomplishment you get with having more than one cardio option. (Plus--each sport usually has it's own nifty outfits and gear and gadgets!)

Alternatively, you can just do your favorite thing over and over, year after year, until you get injured, or discover your favorite class has been canceled, or you just become sick to death of doing the same thing all the time. In any event, you will probably find at some point that you need alternatives. Finding them earlier rather than later may help you prevent injuries, so keep an open mind about fitness options.

6. Be prepared for ups and downs:

It can be extremely motivating to see yourself make progress towards greater aerobic fitness. Over time, you will be able to go further, and faster!

On the other hand, if you get too invested in specific performance goals, you may end up totally discouraged by this perplexing fact: sometimes, for no apparent reason, your performance will suck! And not just for a workout or two--sometimes it will be hard for weeks. Why? Who knows? But this mysterious lack of connection between the work you put in and the progress you make can drive some folks crazy. Sometimes you just have to focus on the process, and how awesome you are for getting out there day after day, and not worry too much about the numbers.

So, do you do cardio, or are you just thinking about it? If you're a veteran, do you have any tips for the new kids?

[Note: this post also appears over at Blogher's 10x club. And you can check out the forum there for daily challenges and rewards]

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