A Beginner's Guide to Workout Types - CARDIO


Here it is, the complete beginner’s guide to workout types! I’ve been an exercise enthusiast all my life--as boring as it might sound, when people ask what my hobby is, it’s working out!

But personally, I need variety in my exercise to stay excited and motivated about it. Plus, situational changes have made certain exercise options better than others at different points in my life. What all this means is that I’ve tried just about every workout type in the book--and I hope sharing my experiences helps you find the activities that work best for YOU!

This guide is NOT an everything-you-need-to-know-about-HIIT resource or a pep talk about why you need to exercise crazy-hard for 60+ minutes every day. I’d love to dive into the nitty gritty techniques or be an accountability buddy, but that’s not what you’ll find here (so if that interests you, shoot me a message instead!).

What you WILL find is a review and simple pros and cons comparison of the most popular fitness activities--from someone who’s tried them all. So if you’re looking to be more active but don’t know where to start, or want to try a new fitness activity, this guide is for you!

I want to emphasize that these are personal opinions based on my experiences (with the exception of the research-cited health effects). Every “body” is unique, with different physical capabilities and preferences. That’s the beauty of it--what I see as a downside, you might see as an upside!


A few quick notes...

  1. Don't let the unknown stop you from trying a new activity! It's happened to me, but I've found my favorite exercises by experimenting with new things, even ones that seemed intimidating at first (like swimming!). Plus, with the internet at your fingertips, a little bit of research and you can be on your way with any of the above. Or even better, reach out to me! I'd love to meet you, learn your goals and help you get started :)

  2. There are health benefits to changing up your workouts--like strengthening new muscles, keeping your mind stimulated and healthy, overcoming a weight-loss plateau, and preventing overuse injuries. BUT...

  3. The most important thing is that you move your body in the way that works best for YOU! It's OK for your physical activity not to be long or super intense, or if they don't happen everyday. Or, if you find that one activity you love and just stick with that forever. A 20-minute dance party a couple times a week is going to work better for some, while a 6-day heavy lifting + cardio program might work better for others. All that matters is you find what will get your body moving regularly--and if you're going to stay consistent with it, it's got to be something you enjoy!

  4. I love all things fitness, and doubly love helping people set and stay goals and stay motivated. So if you're looking for some exercise recommendations, an accountability buddy, or some help finding what works best for you, shoot me a message! :)

Since there’s so many workout types and this guide was getting pretty long, I broke it into two parts: 1) Cardiovascular Activity (“cardio”), and 2) Strength Training & Everything Else--Part 2 will be posted to the blog later this week!

Alright, who's ready to talk CARDIO?!

What is cardiovascular exercise and what are the health benefits?

Fyzical Therapy & Balance Centers gives a perfect simple definition = “Cardiovascular exercise is any vigorous activity that increases heart rate and respiration and raises oxygen and blood flow throughout the body while using large muscle groups repetitively and rhythmically”.


This repetition at an elevated heart rate challenges, and therefore improves the function of, the body’s heart, lungs, and circulatory system--all of which play vital roles in keeping us physically healthy and feeling our best.

The levels of heart rate and breathing that must be achieved (and for how long) in order for an exercise to be considered “cardio” vary according to different medical sources. But, because cardio = raising your heart rate for awhile, the more static strength exercises (like lifting weights) are not included in this category.


This is an oversimplification of the science here, but to give you a sense of a cardio workout's "effectiveness"--the higher your heart rate goes, and the longer your heart rate stays elevated, the more energy (aka, calories) you'll burn with the workout. (There are some nuances here, we'll talk more about them in Part 2 with HIIT workouts).

By engaging in cardio activities regularly, your health can benefit from:

  • An increase in aerobic capacity, which helps with daily activities (like not getting out of breath by going up the stairs, for example)

  • Strengthen heart function (including better prevention of high blood pressure and heart disease)

  • Building and strengthening muscles across the body

  • Increased joint flexibility (reducing arthritis pain and stiffness)

  • Getting a better night’s sleep--both falling asleep faster and the promotion of REM sleep

  • Maintain a healthy weight and appetite (including associated disease prevention, like diabetes)

  • Better prevention of high blood pressure and heart disease

  • Better brain function, including memory, and helps prevent stroke and development of Alzheimer’s

Plus, cardio exercise causes the brain to release endorphins, a mood-boosting chemical that leaves you in an uplifted mood even after your workout ends!

Cardio Workout Options

Running

Pretty self-explanatory here--running is on-foot movement fast enough to raise your resting heart rate. The line between walking and running is blurry--a brisk walk can closely resemble a slow run (or jog)--but running typically keeps the heart rate elevated for a longer time or distance (a 45-minute or 4-mile jog, for example) or spikes the heart rate to greater levels through faster speeds. Where you run can also make a difference on its effects--running up a hilly outdoor terrain results in greater energy expensed than running flat on a treadmill, for example.


My Experience

I have a love-hate relationship with running. I like running outside, so I sign up for summer/fall running events because it motivates my outdoor runs while satisfying my overly-competitive side. But I also get extremely bored trying to run any length of time or distance on a treadmill, which is my only option in the coldest parts of winter. For me, it’s best to be “into” running in spurts--plan for some fun running events to take advantage of the nice summer weather, but then choose other workout programs (like weightlifting) for the winter months. The variety keeps my body guessing, helps me stay interested in my workouts, and allows me to work towards a few different fitness goals for the year!



Pros

  • Running is about as natural of a movement as you’re going to get. While there are some form techniques to keep your joints safe if you’re going to get more serious about running, there’s no intimidating learning curve if you want to give running a try.

  • No equipment needed! Besides tennis shoes, of course. If you’re going to start running frequently or long distances, make sure you invest in proper shoes to give your feet and joints the support they need (reach out if you need suggestions!). But overall, you don’t need a gym membership or equipment to achieve a good running workout.

  • Running is a GREAT way to get some outdoor time. There’s so many proven health benefits of getting outside--like increased Vitamin D, anxiety reduction, improved mood and focus, and better sleep to name a few. And for me, nothing beats the mood boost and interest factor of an outdoor run in the sun with an upbeat playlist.

Cons

  • Running is a high-impact activity, and your feet pounding-the-pavement puts additional stress on your back, knees, and other joints. This is NOT an argument to avoid running, just a reason to do it safely--wear supportive shoes, don’t do it if you have arthritis or a problematic knee, etc.

Walking

Walking is about as intuitive as it gets, so no explanation necessary here. What IS important to note is that the fitness level achieved during a walk can vary greatly based on walking speed--the faster the walk, the greater the heart rate rises--and terrain--more incline makes the muscles and respiratory organs work harder, leading to greater energy/calorie burn.


My Experience

Walking is my favorite “light” activity option because it’s an easy way to move my body WHILE relaxing my brain with my favorite podcast. No matter how into exercise you are, you’re going to have days when you just don’t have the energy or time to plan a workout or get to the gym, or you’re too sore/tired to do the workout you had planned! This happens frequently for me during heavier lifting programs. Those days, I just plug in my audiobook and go for a brisk 30-minute morning or lunch walk--it’s such a wonderful refresh for both body and mind, especially if you can do it outside!


Pros

  • Walking has all the same pros as running (see above), plus:

  • It’s low impact! It obviously won’t give you as intense of a workout as running, but for those concerned about problematic joints, walking is a safer bet than running.

  • It’s easy to incorporate into your schedule. Typically, we all spend at least some of the day in front of the TV, or reading, or listening to music/podcasts, etc. Next time, download the show or podcast episode and take it while you walk!

Cons

  • Unless it’s high-speed or heavy-incline walking (like hiking), walking is relatively low intensity and doesn’t burn many calories. This is absolutely fine, but if your goal is to lose weight, leisurely walking won’t be as effective as other forms of cardio.

Biking

Similar to walking and running, biking workout intensity varies greatly based on your speed, terrain, and equipment. Biking faster or against increased resistance (i.e., outdoor hilly rides or raising the resistance settings on a stationary bike) forces greater muscle effort and respiratory challenge, resulting in more energy/calorie burn.


My Experience

The expenses behind purchasing biking equipment can be a deterrent for some, me included. I’ve trained for two triathlons--one borrowing my brother’s hybrid Trek bike and the other using a rental mountain bike (LOL)--and loved the biking portion, especially how frequently it got me active outside! But, I still don’t own my own bike. My small apartments haven’t been conducive to frequently and conveniently storing a nice bike. But while high-quality road or mountain bikes (and the associated clip-in shoes) can be pretty expensive, don’t let that keep you away from biking--check your local area for used or rental bike options so you can give it a try before deciding whether biking is a good regular activity for you!


Pros

  • You can adjust the intensity to your needs. Looking for a sweaty, heavy-breathing 20 minutes? Go hard on a stationary bike or find a good uphill terrain and push yourself. Want a fun, leisurely way to move your body more? Find a pretty trail nearby and enjoy the sights!

  • It’s a great outdoor activity, and it’s easy to find variety. With cities becoming more and more bike-friendly and allllll the awesome trails to choose from (check out the free AllTrails app to find some near you!), it’s easy to spice up your workout’s interest factor by simply choosing a new location!

  • Most biking is pretty low impact.

Cons

  • You need equipment--either a gym membership or home workout bike to engage in stationary biking, or a bike (and helmet!) for outdoor biking. Equipment also means you need space to store it--that seems trivial, but I’ve lived in tiny apartments with shared garages where I just didn’t have the space (or comfort level) of storing a bike.

  • There’s a chance of wiping out with outdoor biking. I obviously don’t want this to deter you, but since I’ve been on the end of the occasional, ungraceful bike wipeout, it’s just a slight injury risk to note.

Swimming

No definition needed here, right? If you’re in the water and not drowning, you’re swimming! But, there’s a big difference between doggy paddling around the pool on a hot summer day and swimming in a lap/training pool for fitness purposes. Swim training usually refers to using well-known, effective swimming motions (like the front crawl, breaststroke, you know, the Michael Phelps stuff) to move down and back the length of the lap pool. Similar to other cardio exercises, the intensity of swim workouts varies based on how fast you swim!


But on top of that, swimming is a highly effective aerobic activity because it requires full-body movements--meaning many of your muscles are getting worked simultaneously--which requires a lot of energy (hello, calories burnt!). Plus, it doesn't require weight-bearing pressure on the joints! But it benefits your health in other ways, too--like improved circulation and cardiovascular function, as well as stress-relief through focused, rhythmic breathing (like meditation!).

My Experience

I took some swimming lessons as a kid, but they were more about not drowning than learning how to swim long distances effectively. Between the lessons I could remember and many YouTube instructional videos, I was able to piece together a good-enough front-crawl to train for the ¼-mile swim for my two triathlons. And, I loved EVERY MINUTE of it! It was tough to get out of bed and to the gym pool 20 minutes away, 3 times a week, but every time I got into the water and started swimming, I loved it. It was such a freeing experience! No music, the water flowing around my body, drowning out the world around me, so much focus going to my breathing--it was simply meditative! It was difficult, and took at least 1.5 months before I started noticing real improvements in my endurance, but it was worth every minute.


Pros

  • Zero impact!

  • It can be very therapeutic. Of course, you have to get to a point of not constantly worrying about being able to breathe before it can be a “relaxing” experience. But once you get there, it’s a wonderful way to relax your muscles and mind all at once!

Cons

  • It’s not necessarily “natural”, like walking or running. To swim train even semi-effectively (like, going up and down a lap pool a few times), you need some basic instruction in strokes and breathing techniques. Luckily, there’s the internet! Because unless you’re ready to get serious, some web-based research can be enough to get you started.

  • You need access to a pool. What’s tougher, many gyms and clubs don’t include pool access, so you may have to travel pretty far to find one.

  • You can’t be “entertained” during it. Again, I loved the quiet, meditative nature of my morning swims. But for those who get bored easily during cardio or are only motivated to work out when they can watch their fav Netflix shows (which is A-ok!), swimming doesn’t let you do that.

  • You get wet (obvi). I only list this because, by completely soaking my hair and face (and any makeup ON my face), I can’t do a quick mid-day swim and be right back ready for work like I can with other exercise types. This probably isn’t a concern for some!

  • It’s typically only seen in competitive swimmers, but you may experience health effects relating to chlorine exposure. Chlorine is used in indoor pools to keep harmful bacteria away, but some studies show that frequent chlorine exposure can cause lung discomfort and problems--including wheezing, sore throat, and lingering cough--as well as worsen allergies and/or asthma. Again, this is more of a concern if you’re a really frequent swimmer, but for most the health benefits outweigh the potential risks anyway!

Cardio equipment (other than treadmills)

The variety of cardio workout equipment out there makes this a pretty wide-ranging category--even machines both deemed “ellipticals” can differ in their range of motion, muscles worked, and resistance levels. But, two of the most common cardio machines are stair-steppers and ellipticals, and despite the nuances of different brands and features, I think the pros and cons can be considered across the board.


My Experience

I typically use cardio equipment to supplement whatever exercise program I’m following. If I’m doing a 4-day-per-week lifting program, I might jump on a stair-stepper for on one of my off-lifting days, for example. Or, sometimes I just need a few weeks of “wake up and do whatever workout you feel like”, and those usually include a few days of 30-minute ellipticalling while watching House Hunters! But, I get bored of the repetitive motion pretty quickly, so my cardio machine workouts are usually short (20 to 30 minutes) but high intensity.


Stair stepper = you’re repeatedly moving as if you’re walking up a flight of stairs, with the ability to adjust the speed of the stairs moving beneath you (doesn't Christian look happy to be stair-stepping with me??)


Elliptical = machine enabling you to move your legs in a run-like motion (and often your arms too) against varying levels of resistance.


Pros (of both)

  • You can tailor the workout to your preferences by adjusting the resistance or speed (so even a short workout can have big effects if you push hard!).

  • On top of the cardio impacts, machines like stair-steppers work the leg muscles too--without the pounding impact of running.

  • If music or TV is what motivates you to get a workout in, you can easily do these things while using a cardio machine.

Cons (of both)

  • You need access to a gym. Unless you get a machine for your home-gym, which is a great option if you know what you like!

  • I personally think the repetitive movement of the machines gets boring. But just a personal preference!

Cardio classes

There are SO MANY different types of cardio classes! While I’ve tried quite a few, there’s so many differences in how gyms and trainers run their classes that there’s no way my reviews cover them all. Plus, trainers are coming up with great new workout combinations and styles all the time, which is exciting for those of us that like fitness variety!

To keep it easy, I’ve broken the cardio classes category into two types--gym classes, and home workout videos.

Gym Classes

Workout classes led by a trainer that you can attend through a gym or club membership, like Spin, Zumba, Kickboxing, HIIT/Tabata classes, etc.


My Experience

Love, love, LOVE these classes overall, especially Spin! Most of the cardio classes I’ve done have been Spin or HIIT/Tabata-based (which I’ll cover in more detail in Part 2 of the guide). But I love having the option to do a class on those days/weeks when I just don’t feel like following a strict workout program, and want to keep my workouts more fun and flexible based on my feelings that day. How much I’ve enjoyed the classes is often based on the trainer--for example, I personally don’t like when trainers talk too much or don’t play music. And sometimes a class just isn’t challenging enough. But when I’ve found classes of the right intensity with trainers I vibe with, there’s nothing more motivating and easy than showing up and being told what to do! Plus, many trainers know how to combine moves that provide full-body workouts. I’ve especially enjoyed Spin because of the communal feel, high energy, and music-centric movements, plus it’s fun to do with friends or family, but I sadly haven’t been to a class since our gym’s COVID precautions were put in place back in March 2020.


Pros

  • They can be so FUN and meet many people’s needs for workout variety because usually, even the same class has different variations each time.

  • There’s someone telling you what to do, which is great for people who don’t have strong workout preferences or want to pre-plan a workout--just show up and follow along!

  • You have a trainer (and maybe other classmates) pushing you to work harder, which can lead to more effective cardio workouts.

  • They can introduce you to a lot of different moves and equipment, all under the guidance of a professional who can make sure your form is correct (and safe)--they're great for workout beginners!

  • Great option for being active with friends!

Cons

  • You have to follow a pre-determined schedule--you can’t do the class if you’re not available at the time it’s offered.

  • You might not always “vibe” with the trainer. There’s been a few classes that I just haven’t liked because I don’t love the way the trainer teaches. Make sure to give trainers a few tries before writing off their classes, though--it might’ve just been an off day for you or the trainer. Plus, gyms often have multiple teachers rotate teaching the same class, so you could try to class with a different trainer.

  • There isn’t always the option to “up” the intensity. Some classes I’ve left feeling like I wasn’t challenged enough, even though I moved as fast or as hard as I could. Zumba is a good example - since you’re supposed to follow the music and instructor’s movements, there didn’t seem to be a way to increase the intensity (by moving faster, harder, etc.) during classes that I felt were too easy for me.

Home Workouts

These can still be trainer-led, but any workout routine you do at home--following a YouTube video, Peloton biking, P90X DVDs, etc.!


My Experience (& Tito's too!)

I’ve relied SO heavily on home workouts this year given the COVID gym closures and concerns. I used to only do them occasionally when I was in a time pinch, but for 4-5 straight months of 2020, I was doing them 4+ times per week! Overall, I’m incredibly thankful for YouTube workouts (looking at you, Sydney Cummings!) because I have a wealth of different workout options right at my fingertips at no cost. And I’ve found some trainers and workouts I really love through typing “no equipment home workout” into the YouTube search bar.


But, I still wouldn’t say these are my preference over going to a gym class, because I have only a very small space to work with and no equipment of my own--they’re great for squeezing in a quick workout (especially since I’m working from home, I can do a workout video over lunch), or to download to your phone while traveling, but with my space and equipment limitations, I don’t feel I’m always getting as good of a workout. I also like how going TO the gym puts me in a more focused mental state for my workout. Doing my workout where I also work, watch TV, eat, rest, etc. leaves me more distracted and feeling “cooped up”. But, maybe that will change when we move to a house with more space, because many of my friends use only home workout programs!


Pros

  • You can do your workout whenever it’s convenient for you--no needing to abide by a gym’s business hours or class schedule.

  • You don’t NEED equipment (although not having any means you’re limited to videos where no equipment is required).

  • You don’t need to leave home, which is super helpful in the Wisconsin winter months, or if you have kids you to keep an eye on!

  • They’re available anywhere with your smartphone, meaning you can access your favorite internet-based workout whenever you don’t have access to a gym (traveling, COVID, you get it).

Cons

  • There’s SO many options, and different trainers call their workouts different things, so it can be a long trial-and-error process to find workouts and/or sources you like.

  • If you’re limited on equipment or space (like me), it’s hard to do many of the home workout options effectively. That’s not to say you can’t do them, it’s just tougher when you don’t have enough floor space to fit in a full burpee!


---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


And that's my review of all things cardio! Stay tuned for Part 2 of my workout guide, where I'll cover Strength Training & Everything Else (weight lifting, HIIT, yoga, sports, you get it!).


What did you think? Do you have similar experiences with these workouts? Any Pros or Cons you disagree with? Any workout types I missed? I'd love to hear YOUR thoughts, experiences, and recommendations!



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