Do You Really Need to Run Five Miles For Cardio Every Workout?

running
 Image via Jordan Siemens / Getty

At some point in recent history, we all just accepted that an hour-long gallop on the elliptical machine, or some equally long exercise in repetition (and patience), was the gold standard for cardio. Skip those endurance workouts and you put your heart health and waistline at risk. right?

Nah, not really. You do need cardio, which you can think of as any activity that elevates heart rate. But there’s plenty of wiggle room in what you do to get your blood pumping—and for how long.

“Cardio doesn’t have to be all at once—it doesn’t even have to be 30 minutes, five days a week,” says Heather Milton, senior exercise physiologist at NYU Langone’s Sports Performance Center. To keep clients engaged, Milton breaks sessions into 10-minute intervals and rotates through activities like rowing, cycling, and body-weight exercises.

You can use weightlifting for cardio, too, though there are rules to follow. First, you need to train for strength endurance, which means the load is light so you can hit prolonged reps and tap into those cardiorespiratory benefits. “That doesn’t mean you hit eight reps, and you’re done,” says Milton; aim for a weight that allows you to do 15, 20, 25 reps. So instead of loading a barbell, you may want to opt for more nimble equipment— toss a 20-pound medicine ball against a wall for 30-second intervals, or use a 10-pound dumbbell for 20 reps at a time.

Also keep in mind that even if you’re using light weights to get cardio in, you still need heavier training days to build muscle and strengthen bones. The ideal weekly mix: at least two dedicated heavy strength workouts and three to four cardio-based routines. Doing all this becomes much easier after you shed that five-mile slog.