Cardio 101: How your cardiovascular health impacts your overall wellbeing

Aerobic exercise, endurance exercise, high intensity, steady state, low impact – there’s so much mixed information and confusion on whether we are doing the correct workout for our goals. I’m here today to explain why cardio doesn’t have to be a big, daunting thing. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by what we should be doing, we need to try to focus on lots of different types of movement that challenges you in different ways…

Cardio is essentially any form of activity that uses aerobic metabolism. That means, activity that increases heart rate and respiration and raises oxygen and blood flow throughout the body while using large muscle groups of the body repetitively and rhythmically. In short, keeping our heart rate at a steady pace where you are out of breath, but still able to respond to a question.

Examples of cardio include running; fast walking; cycling; hiking; swimming; dancing; climbing stairs; playing sports like hockey, football, tennis, ice skating, or basketball; doing jumping jacks, mountain climbers, or burpees; rowing; jumping rope; cross training; and kickboxing… the list goes on. Essentially, what cardio positively does is progressively challenges your most vital internal body organs and improves the function and performance of the heart, lungs and circulatory system.

Cardio health is important because it improves many aspects of health, including heart health, mental health, mood, sleep, weight regulation and metabolism. Today, I want to talk about cardio exercise in more detail – so here are some answers to common cardio questions I’ve had over the years:


What are some of the most common mistakes you see people making when it comes to cardio?

That depends on the cardio workout they have chosen to do, but usually people do cardio workouts to burn fat/sugars in the body e.g., for weight loss. If this is their focus rather than for cardio fitness goals, I would say there are more effective ways to do this.

For example, some people start running for long periods of time with the same effort, pace and terrain and then notice their weight loss goals are no longer giving them the results they once were. Our bodies are clever, so they learn to adapt to save energy being lost within their systems. We need to be constantly challenging our bodies to create proper changes within it. 

Other mistakes I see are inactive butt muscles, and this can lead to injury over time. The butt muscles are meant to drive our bodies forward, so we balance our muscular system as we run, power walk, or cycle. The glute Medius muscles (the side of our butts) are also important muscles to strengthen as they help with tracking the knee and supporting the alignment of the foot as we move .


In your opinion, how can people looking for results get more out of a cardio workout? E.g. is it about taking more rest days, adding in weights, etc? Is cardio really just about running on a treadmill for 30 minutes?

To get the most out of steady paced cardio, I would suggest you keep mixing it up. If you are on the treadmill change your gradient and pace throughout the workout.

If you are on the bike, do the same - up your resistance and if possible, stand to work the posterior chain of muscles more.

Adding in some slightly heavier weights as you lunge, or squat will also add extra challenge to your workouts. Try to avoid doing the same moves each time you do a weighted workout. Remember the body gets used to doing something and is less likely to change as it’s no longer as challenging.


For an average healthy person, what’s the sweet spot for cardio – how many sessions/minutes should you be aiming for every week?

This one does depend a lot on on what your fitness levels are and what cardio you are doing… but power walking for an hour in the fresh air 3/4 times a week, will not only work your cardiovascular system but the challengingly terrain and the fresh air will add many more benefits to your workout, e.g., Flood you with endorphins, muscular challenge and lower your stress levels .

If you have limited time in the gym , I would suggest you mix things, start on the bike for 10 mins then hop on the treadmill changing your levels constantly for 15 mins then for the remaining 15 or 20 mins go pick up those challenging weights and focus on power moves to keep the cardio system and muscles challenged constantly.

Try to do 2/3 longer cardio sessions a week, like power walking and then add in those shorter more challenging sessions 2/3 times a week. Always mixing your movements up to allow for changes in your body.

I love the efficiency and effectiveness of doing HIIT workouts as they are shorter in duration with maximum results. You torch fat and sugars and build greater fitness goals throughout your whole body plus you maintain your muscle mass therefore building a more efficient metabolism.


How much does heart rate matter during a cardio workout? Is there a sweet spot you should be aiming for if you want to improve your fitness levels?

This definitely depends on your health, weight, age and fitness levels. As you age it’s advised to keep your heart rate in your age’s calculated zone, but saying that, if you are fit, strong and used to working out, there is no reason why you shouldn’t push your cardio system a little more to challenge it, for greater fitness goals.

The sweet spot is in how you challenge your body each time, building greater fitness goals.


Can you talk a bit about the connection between cardio and cortisol levels? Does cardio always raise cortisol levels? If so, should very stressed people stay away from cardio if they want to see results? Do you have any good tips for bringing cortisol levels back down after an intense workout?

Exercise puts good stress on your body as it works to recover and repair the body’s muscles and cardio system after a workout. Emotional and mental stress is what raises our cortisol levels as our body is in flight or fright mode constantly. When this happens, our bodies are flooded with excess sugars to use ready for the “flight”. If we don’t burn those sugars, they get stored as fat .

Exercise can help burn off that energy instead of us storing it and leaving us in a calmer more relaxed state. Endorphins will also be released, and breathing will be deeper and more efficient, therefore lowering our heart rate and blood pressure.

So, if you are extremely stressed and your cortisol levels are already very elevated, I would suggest either a steady paced cardio workout for a shorter duration then adding on a slow stretch session to focus on release and breathing, but exercise is important to reduce stress levels therefore lowering cortisol levels.

When it comes to HIIT, if your body is in a highly stressed state with cortisol levels high, I would avoid pushing your body into a more stressed state that could have the reverse effect with your heart rate already so elevated and your body already in flight or fight mode.

HIIT does raise cortisol levels as it adds stress to the cardiovascular system and the muscles with its short bursts of challenging moves, therefore building better physical fitness levels and a more efficient metabolism, but you need to build in recovery days to allow your body to replenish and heal itself fully after these workouts.

After a HIIT session - the next day I would suggest you do a steady state cardio session e.g., power walk  then into a stretch or yoga session as we know movement will rid your body of toxins and any muscle soreness.