For some people, there’s nothing better than a good cardio session, whether it’s a sunrise spin class, a lunchtime run, or a long walk after work. Others, though, prefer to spend their workout time with weights in-hand, avoiding cardio at all costs.
But even the biggest cardio hater has got to wonder: Is skipping out affecting your health? Love it or hate it, here’s how much cardio we all actually need to do.
The Case For Cardio
Each type of exercise offers undeniable benefits. Strength training boosts our metabolism, slashes our risk for health problems like type 2 diabetes, and helps us age better. Meanwhile, cardio torches calories, supports our cardiovascular health (like blood pressure and cholesterol), improves insulin sensitivity, increases lung capacity, promotes better sleep, and combats anxiety and depression, says Mariel Schofield, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., of Florida sports therapy clinic Westlake Sports Therapy. Cardio also keeps our circulatory system working optimally—so we can recover from strength training faster—and improves our body’s ability to utilize oxygen, adds Erica Suter, M.S., C.S.C.S.
In the long run, regular cardio exercise—like walking, swimming, cycling, or stair-climbing—has been shown to protect us against premature cardiovascular-related death while reducing risk of some cancers.
The Cardio Sweet Spot
If you want to improve your fitness or stay in shape, you should work out about five times a week total—three strength training and two cardio, says Yusuf Jeffers C.P.T., C.S.C.S., head coach at Mile High Run Club NYC. The CDC’s recommendation is similar, at 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (about five 30-minute workouts) a week.
Research also supports the idea that it takes just a few cardio sessions a week to reap legitimate health benefits, with one study finding that one to two hours of jogging had the greatest impact on mortality risk, and another finding that three 20- to 40-minute walks a week reduced symptoms of depression.
And for all the weight room addicts who still aren’t sold: According to The American Journal of Cardiology, cardio is more efficient at improving your cardiometabolic health, which means it actually benefits your strength training, too. So choose a form of cardio you enjoy—and get moving.
Optimize Your Cardio For Your Goals
If you’re pretty new to exercise, perform your cardio at a moderate pace. You should be able to speak intermittently with a workout buddy as you go and your heart rate should be between 50 and 70 percent of your max (220 minus your age). Start with 15 to 20 minutes and work your way up to 30 minutes or more.
From there, how you spend your cardio time should reflect your goals. If you’re training for an endurance event like a running race, obstacle course race, or triathlon, keep your cardio steady but bump your heart rate up to between 70 and 90 percent of your max for at least 10 to 15 minutes of your workout. You should have a hard time saying more than a word or two at a time at this intensity. Up the amount of time you spend in that range as you feel more comfortable.
If you just want to burn as many calories as possible during your cardio sessions, swap steady effort for high-intensity interval training (HIIT), in which you alternate between bursts of all-out effort and low-intensity recovery. Alternate between sprinting and walking on the treadmill, or performing a few rounds bodyweight moves (like air squats and jumping jacks) and resting. These quick workouts (often 30 minutes or less) demand so much of your body that you continue burning calories long after leaving the gym.
Related: 7 HIIT Workouts That Incinerate Fat