How to ease into a cardio routine

Plus, why this form of exercise is not the be-all, end-all
Published April 16, 2020

If you struggle with cardio, you’re not alone. It’s something many of us have difficulty with, especially as beginners. But it doesn’t have to be a scary thing hanging over you – there are ways to incorporate cardio into your fitness routine that aren’t so daunting. In fact, you don’t even have to make cardio your singular goal.

For some advice on all things cardio, we talked to Jillian Michaels, health and fitness expert and creator of the My Fitness by Jillian Michaels app

“To be honest, you don’t have to do cardio,” says Michaels. “In fact, it’s far less effective than a complete workout that includes a three- to five-minute cardio warm-up, circuit training comprised of strength training and HIIT [high-intensity interval training] intervals, and then a three- to five-minute static stretch cool down.” 

“That said,” she adds, “if it’s just cardio you are after still, simply make sure you have the correct gear (proper shoes are really the key), and you can even start out just walking.”


How much should you push yourself? 


“The key is really heart rate,” Michaels explains. “Ultimately, you want to work at about 75 per cent [to] 80 per cent of your maximum heart rate or MHR.”

To figure this out, she says, simply subtract your age from 220 to get your MHR and then multiply that number by 0.8 to get the amount of times your heart should beat in a minute while you’re exercising. 

For example, Michaels calculates her target heart rate as follows: 220-46 = MHR 174 beats per minute. 174 x 0.8 = 139. 

“So, I should be working out intensely enough that my heart beats 139 times in a minute. Now, if you are wondering how to gauge your heart rate and you don’t have a device to track that, you simply pause during your workout and count your heartbeats for six seconds and multiply that number by 10.”

Using herself as an example, Michaels is aiming to be at 139 beats in a minute, so that means she is looking to count 13 to 14 heartbeats in six seconds.

If you are a beginner, Michaels says, start out slow and make sure you get your rest days. “You risk injury the first couple of weeks in particular, as your body (bones, connective tissue, muscles etc.) aren’t conditioned irrespective of heart rate. So, start out with no more than four training sessions in your first week and take a rest day in between the [training] days.”


Signs you’ve pushed too far


As much as it’s possible to not push yourself hard enough during a workout, it’s also possible to push yourself too far. Michaels shares some signs to watch out for:

“If you are pushing too hard during the workout you might feel lightheaded, extremely nauseous and dizzy while working out and you won’t be able to pass the talk test (essentially, be able to carry on a brief conversation while exercising).”

There are also some telltale signals that you’ve pushed too hard when you’re recovering from your workout. 

“If you are feeling sluggish, lethargic and extremely sore over the course of your week when you aren’t training, that’s a sign you might want to dial back the intensity as well.” 


How do you measure success in cardio?


As for measuring your success and progress in the cardio portions of your workouts, it’s again all about heart rate. As you progress, you’ll see a difference in what it takes to reach your target heart rate.

“You will notice that it requires more intensity in your workout in order to get to your target heart rate,” Michaels explains. “So, when you first started you might have hit the 80 per cent of your max heart rate by slowly jogging on flat terrain. As the weeks go by, after a month or so, you might notice you will have to add incline or jog more quickly to hit the target heart rate.”


How much cardio should you be aiming to do?


Michaels strongly encourages doing more than just cardio in your workouts. She only recommends standalone cardio training if it’s happening on an active recovery day. 

“This means that you have done your resistance training for the week and you want extra activity to burn more calories while letting the muscles rest and recover from their strength training session. So, for the majority of my workouts, I program cardio two days a week with resistance training four days a week.”

However, if you are not doing strength training and only focusing on cardio, Michaels suggests doing it no more than five times a week with two rest days.

“One of the things to be mindful of with cardio is that it’s repetitive stress – which basically means you are doing the same movement over and over and over. This in itself can cause what’s called an overuse injury. To avoid this, try different kinds of cardio – one day bike, one day hike, one day walk/jog, one day kick box.” 


How to get your cardio in during the pandemic


Like most of us, you may be stuck inside at home during the COVID-19 pandemic and might feel at a loss as to what you can do for exercise. But there are tons of options.

“Believe it or not, there is so much you can do at home or even just outside in your neighbourhood,” Michaels says. “For example, if you are fortunate enough to have a pool, you can always swim laps. If you have a bike, you can bike around the neighbourhood with your kids. You can walk the dog around the block or go for a jog in your neighbourhood. At home, you have your own body, which is really the best tool.”

She lists some classic exercises you can do at home to get your heart rate up without any equipment: jumping jacks, mountain climbers, burpees, butt kicks, march in place, jog in place, and high knees. Michaels combines these moves to create HIIT workout routines and notes that they are also great choices for warming up if you are doing a strength training session.

“And, if you just want cardio, you can pick five of these exercises and do them for a minute each at a moderate intensity five times through,” she adds.

For example, she shares this cardio routine:

  • 60 seconds: Jumping jacks
  • 60 seconds: Jump rope (simulated)
  • 60 seconds: Butt kicks
  • 60 seconds: Mountain climbers
  • 60 seconds: Jog in place
  • Repeat cycle four times.

As always, it’s important to listen to your body and incorporate your rest days so you don’t hurt yourself.

Michaels adds, “I would really stress that you consider doing more than just cardio, but if you aren’t interested, consider a program around cardio to help you get variety and rest to avoid injury.”