What exercise is the best cardio?

This is a tough question to answer, actually. It’s certainly a question that needs an individual answer, as each person has their own unique needs, abilities, and goals.

Spend any time in a gym, or reading a health and fitness magazine, or really in any way having an interest in fitness or weight loss, you’ll probably have heard the term “cardio” being tossed around. But what exercise is actually the best pick for you?

Cardio is short for cardiovascular, and refers to the normal increase in heart rate that occurs with it. This whole body exercise is characterized by repetitive movements that use many or all of the large muscle groups in the body, and is often considered full-body exercise. By increasing your heart rate, you’ll help your heart to beat more efficiently when working out and when at rest, so it will take fewer beats to deliver the blood, oxygen, and nutrients that your body needs. Long term, this is less wear and tear on your heart and body.
Walking, running, cycling, and swimming are common types of cardiovascular exercise, but there are many others that provide the same effect and benefit. Most of the time, you can do one or any combination. We’ve listed some of the benefits and drawbacks of some of the most common types of cardio exercise to help you figure out what type might be best for you.

Walking

Walking along coronation drive in Brisbane

Benefits:
No gym requirement / travel friendly – you can go for a walk pretty much anywhere.
Low impact – low risk of joint pain or aggravation.
Low intensity, so if you go walking for exercise, you’ll be able to maintain it for a longer time than almost any other type of cardio exercise.
Easy to add into your day, as you can sneak in a walk at lunch or get off the bus a stop or two early and add some steps to your total count.

Drawbacks:
Low intensity, so doesn’t raise your heart rate as high as other cardio options (this can also be a benefit, if you have a health condition that requires you to maintain a lower heart rate)
Takes the longest to build fitness, and has a lower maximum benefit than other cardio options, though will still be enough to provide health benefits for most people.

Running

jogging or running in Brisbane park

Benefits:
No gym requirement / travel friendly – running can be done almost everywhere.
Needs minimal equipment, just a pair of shoes you are comfortable in.
Variable intensity without significant loss of benefit – whether you run fast or run slowly, you’ll reap the rewards.
Relatively quick increase in fitness levels – regular sessions will give you a big boost.

Drawbacks:
Physically demanding to start with – many people struggle with fitness and endurance levels when they start.
High impact forces for the body to deal with, which can cause joint issues for some, though this can usually be easily prevented with good recovery methods like massage and stretching.
Higher injury risk, especially for overuse injuries of the lower body (calf strains, plantar fasciitis, knee pain), though you can easily decrease injury risk with the correct combination of recovery methods and strengthening exercises for your body.

Cycling

ride bicycle and cycle in Brisbane

Benefits:
Low impact – low risk of joint pain or aggravation.
Less fitness needed to start cycling for exercise, especially compared to running.
Often feels like less physical work than it is – unless you have a lot of hills on your ride!

Drawbacks:
Cost of bicycle and equipment purchase (i.e. helmet, etc.), though you don’t have to set yourself up with the fanciest gear just to go out for a ride.
May increase chances of lower and upper back pain, depending on the specific set up of your bicycle. This is often caused by gripping handle bars too tightly, or being hunched over the bars for long periods without a break.
If road riding, may need to share the road with cars and other vehicles.

Swimming

Swimming in an outdoor pool in Brisbane

Benefits:
No impact  – low risk of joint pain or aggravation.
Uses more upper body than other cardio methods listed here, which increases the energy cost of the exercise and makes your body work harder in a given period of time.
Different strokes allow you to focus on different movements, providing variety and preventing boredom.
Water can provide support for the body, which can help exercise for longer period when starting out and building fitness.
A relatively short workout (in time spent, or total distance covered) can provide as much benefit as longer land-based workouts, due to the higher use of upper body muscle groups (as above).

Drawbacks:
Cost of pool membership, if you don’t have a pool readily available at home or work.
Convenience of pool location – convenience has repeatedly been shown to make or break exercise efforts. If you have to go out of your way to do something, it’s less likely that you’ll do it regularly.
Swimming can be physically demanding to start with – many people struggle with fitness and endurance levels when getting started.
Can be particularly hard on the rotator cuff and other shoulders muscles if swimming a lot, though this is easily managed with good recovery methods like self-massage or remedial massage and stretching.

This is by no means a complete list of cardio exercises, or of their benefits or drawbacks, but it may help you decide what might be best for you. And if you want an expert opinion on what will be best for you, you can meet with a HealthFit Coach in person if you are in Brisbane, or via Skype or Facebook messenger anywhere in the world.

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