How Much Cardio Do You Really Need?

cardio tips
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It’s something cardio junkies will never understand, but a lot of guys just aren’t into sweating out a five-mile run or an hour-long spin class. Some find that kind of steady-state exercise boring, and others would rather hole up in the weight room where the work happens in quick bursts—which is why your gym’s mirrors are so crowded.

But here’s the bottom line for the treadmill-averse: You need cardio. Aerobic exercise can help decrease the risk of heart attack, stroke, and myriad other health issues. But the amount itself is pretty minimal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week (in addition to two strength-training sessions that hit all the major muscle groups). That’s two and a half hours of any activity that bumps up your heart rate to 60 percent of its maximum, explains Nader A. Ayub, DO, primary care sports medicine physician at Houston Methodist in Sugar Land, Texas. And while an exercise physiology lab will give you a more accurate reading, he says you can estimate your max heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. So, for example, the average 38-year-old guy has a maximum heart rate of 182 beats per minute (BPM). Therefore, he’d want his heart rate to hover around 109 BPM during moderate exercise.

But, there is a shortcut. You can cut the time requirement in half—just 75 minutes a week—if you dial up the intensity to vigorous exercise, swinging for a heart rate up to 80 percent of your max. Also, Ayub explains, you can spread out the work in 20- or 30-minute increments throughout the week, or squeeze it into just a couple days, weekend-warrior style. “They’re starting to show in newer studies that this is actually just as effective in reducing risk of heart attack or stroke as it is for someone who does exercise consistently but at a lesser amount each day,” he says. A recent study conducted in the U.K. and published in Jama Internal Medicine analyzed 18 years of health survey data from over 63,000 respondents, including self-reported weekend warriors. Based on their findings, researchers concluded that just one or two lengthier sweat sessions per week may be enough to reduce health risks like cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Something to keep in mind: Those numbers are your goal in order to be a baseline healthy person. But what if your goals go beyond general health? If you’re looking to drop a few pounds or improve your overall athletic performance, set out to double those weekly recommendations. “For someone who is looking to not just maintain what they have right now but get results—maybe having a better physique cosmetically or conditioning themselves to engage in sports that require a lot more aerobic activity, such as soccer or basketball—then I would say that following those guidelines of 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 150 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, as well as muscle strengthening, would be more beneficial for them,” Ayub says.