By Susie Reiner, PhD
Cardio: whether you love it or you hate it, it’s a key component that should not be left out of your fitness plan–for good reason.
Heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death in the United States, but up to 80-percent of premature heart attacks and strokes are preventable with lifestyle changes, like cardiovascular exercise. And the benefits don’t stop with just the heart.
Here is a breakdown of how the body benefits from a cardio routine that will get you sweating in no time.
Cardiovascular exercise is well-established in reducing resting blood pressure and total cholesterol levels. But, there’s more to it than that. Regular cardio also increases your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol—the ‘good kind’ that clears circulating cholesterol in the bloodstream. At the same time, regular exercise reduces low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels which tend to stick to your artery walls, causing plaque build-up and potential blood clots.
Cardio increases your heart’s efficiency, so it pumps more blood with each beat. This explains why your resting heart rate tends to decrease when you improve your aerobic fitness. With more robust heart function comes more elastic blood vessels. Research shows regular aerobic exercise over a lifetime helps prevent age-related arterial stiffness.
The heart-healthy benefits of cardio are a bit harder to spot in everyday life but lacing up your sneakers and getting your heart pumping most days of the week may reduce your risk of a future heart attack or stroke.
When you improve your cardiovascular fitness, everything starts to feel easier. Building an aerobic fitness base increases your VO2max, or the amount of oxygen your body uses at maximal intensity. The higher your VO2max, the higher your tolerance to challenging aerobic activities will be. In turn, you won’t fatigue as easily during everyday activities–going up stairs, carrying groceries, or that hike that felt impossible before.
Even down to the cellular level, challenging your aerobic system improves mitochondrial function, the part of the cell responsible for producing energy from the food you eat. Between creating more energy and using oxygen more efficiently, you’ll experience a new-found stamina that improves the quality of your workouts and life.
Healthy blood vessels and a strong heartbeat make for a thriving brain. Cardiovascular exercise boosts blood flow to the brain, or angiogenesis, carrying with it much needed nutrients and oxygen. But the real benefit of cardio affects your neurons.
Studies show exercise increases the size of the hippocampus and enhances the function of the prefrontal cortex, hubs of learning, memory, and problem-solving. Cardio even stimulates the release of specialized proteins, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which increases neuroplasticity–when your neurons make new connections.
The neural changes from your workout not only increase cognition in the short term, but they can reduce your risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. So while exercising won’t completely prevent or cure normal cognitive decline due to aging, or a genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease, working out consistently can help reduce or delay the onset of these cognitive changes.
You don’t need specialized equipment or a smart outfit to reap the benefits of cardio, all it takes is a little motivation and maybe some comfortable shoes. Going on a brisk walk, finding a group exercise or dance class you enjoy, joining an affordable community fitness center, playing a sport with friends, or streaming workouts from home are all great low-cost ways to incorporate this form of exercise.
Aim for at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity, or 75 to 90 minutes of high-intensity cardio per week. Don’t fret if you’re not quite there yet, research shows some physical activity is better than none and every little bit counts.
The bottomline: Cardiovascular exercise exponentially improves heart and brain health, and gives you more energy. The best part? You can do it virtually anywhere—making it a no-brainer as an addition to your daily routine.