Many People Are Confused About What 'Cardio' Really Is

David Liira

Even personal trainers get this wrong! Here's what you need to know.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Cardiovascular exercise is one of the most misunderstood aspects of health and fitness. No, it’s not limited to your hour-long bike rides or 10km road races. Cardio activity is so incredibly accessible to everyone, regardless of one’s fitness status or time availability. In fact, you’ve probably done far more cardio work this past week than you’re giving yourself credit for.

Too often we get into this mindset that only organized, endurance-based activities like running or swimming count. It’s high time we realized that cardio training is far more flexible than that, including your activities of daily life and, yes, even weight training. So, let’s tear away the layers of misinformation that we’ve been exposed to, and finally get to the real definition of cardiovascular exercise!

What exactly is cardiovascular exercise?

As mentioned above, many individual’s understanding of cardiovascular activity is very limited. Simply put, it can be defined as any activity that requires an elevated heart rate/breathing rate. Using this definition, it’s pretty clear that nearly every moderate-to-intense activity technically falls under this category. This includes but is not limited to…

  • running
  • biking
  • swimming
  • HIIT circuit classes
  • rowing
  • landscaping
  • walking
  • various house chores
  • weight lifting
  • stair climbing
  • the list goes on…

For whatever reason, many people have a hard time accepting that weight training is also cardiovascular exercise in its own way. Sure, it’s not entirely focused on the aerobic energy-generating process, but you’re still training your heart and lungs. Why is this the case?

“Our muscles require oxygen to function, so when we start using them hard enough and for long enough, we start breathing faster to get more oxygen into the system and our heart starts beating faster to pump that oxygen out to the muscles for them to use. Anything that engages this process is cardio. It can be climbing a fight of stairs, hiking up a mountain, running a marathon, getting after it on the elliptical, and countless other activities.” — Matthew Boutte

When we lift weights, we’re requiring the musculoskeletal system to work on overdrive, thus increasing the demand on the cardiovascular system to deliver the necessary fuels to sustain this level of activity. Next time you go lift weights, just feel your pulse after the session.

It’s hard to argue that weights = cardio training when you feel your heart racing!

Now, a valid argument to this perspective is that some activities are more cardio-based than others, and are thus officially categorized as ‘cardio’. For example, a 20-minute jog is naturally going to be more effective than a weight lifting session if you’re looking to consistently maintain an elevated heart rate. While this is technically true, it’s absolutely absurd to think that these ‘other activities’ aren’t training the cardiovascular system at all.

Whether your goal is to do more cardio or strength work as an individual, know that they are inseparable to some degree! As you’re exerting your body, the heart and lungs will naturally follow suit.

Why is this important for us to hear?

When we get obsessed with one method of exercise, there is always a risk of burnout and injury. For many athletes, it's understood that running is the ‘end-all-be-all’ to cardiovascular training and that doing anything else would be settling. If more people would realize the fact that cardio training is essentially how you move through life, it would open the door to a wider scope of training and habit creation.

No, you don’t need to run every day to maintain your cardiovascular fitness.

Whether you’re running to stay healthy and avoid chronic disease, or you’re serious about performance, please understand that doing other forms of cardio will help you and not hurt you. Instead of solely running, try finding one or two other activities like biking, swimming, or hiking to do during your offseason or to fill the gap between training sessions. Most importantly, remember that micro-decisions throughout your day, such as taking the stairs or parking further from your workplace, will make an enormous impact on your long-term health.

If you’re intentional, you can design your entire life to be a cardiovascular training exercise!

In closing,

Contrary to popular belief, cardiovascular exercise is far more than running or biking. If you perform an activity that increases your exertion beyond a resting state, you’re technically doing cardio training. Now the key is to organize your life so that you’re exposed to many sources of cardio exercise, appropriately balancing light, moderate, and intense activities based on your goals and fitness levels.

If you start viewing cardiovascular work as an everyday challenge and not just the thing you do while running, you’ll be a much more versatile, healthy, and happy athlete moving forward!

You got this!

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Kinesiologist & Blogger. 15k+ followers. Dedicated to writing relevant, up-to-date pieces on health and the human condition. My job (and joy) is to save you time and money by delivering the tools you need to take control of your own wellbeing.


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