What is Cardiovascular Exercise and Why is it So Effective?

If you've been around the fitness world awhile, or even if you haven't, you've most likely heard the term “cardio.” Often, someone might say they need to get their cardio done or it's their cardio day. Cardio is the abbreviated lingo for cardiovascular exercise. So if you're new to working out, you might be wondering why cardio is so essential and what the top effective cardiovascular exercises are that will burn the most fat.

Cardiovascular exercise is any exercise in which an elevated heart rate is maintained throughout the workout. It's called cardio because it works the entire cardiovascular system by strengthening the lungs and heart. Cardio exercise also conditions the musculoskeletal system.

Some of the most popular types of cardiovascular exercises include but aren't limited to running, cycling, rowing, aerobics, and circuit training. Typically, a healthy cardio workout lasts between 30 and 40 minutes and is done 3 to 4 days a week. Here are a few examples of cardio exercises for beginners.

The targeted heart rates for cardio workouts vary depending on the goals, condition, and age of the individual. On average, your heart rate should never exceed 226 minus your age per minute. Meaning, if you're 26 years old, your maximum heart rate should remain below 200 during your cardiovascular exercise.

To sum it up, any exercise or workout routine that elevates your heart rate for a sustained amount of time is considered cardiovascular exercise. In addition to conditioning the cardiovascular system, cardio workouts have many other amazing benefits that make it essential for your fitness routine.

The Incredible Benefits of Cardiovascular Exercise


Cardio isn't only critical for weight loss and strengthening muscles. Scientific studies have demonstrated the many amazing benefits of cardiovascular exercise that would motivate just about anyone to get started.

Fat burning and weight loss

Cardiovascular exercise is extremely effective at burning calories and fat. A study that looked at the effect of cardio and weight loss in obese and overweight individuals showed that the groups that did cardio five days a week lost weight, compared to no weight loss in the group that didn't.

So if your goal is to lose weight and reduce body fat, then cardio will be an essential part of your overall fitness plan.

Getting Rid of Belly Fat 

The belly is easily one of the most frustrating areas to lose fat from. But the great news is that cardiovascular exercise is very effective at burning belly fat.

Multiple studies done on cardiovascular exercise show that a certain amount of cardio is effective at abdominal fat loss.

Improves Brain Health

Did you know that cardiovascular exercise is not only good for your body but also your brain?

According to Harvard Health Publishing, regular cardiovascular exercise can improve your brain health. Multiple studies have found that aerobic exercise increases the size of the hippocampus, improving memory and learning compared to exercise from resistance training alone.

In other words, get moving and you'll get smarter.

Strengthens the Cardiovascular System

Cardiovascular exercise definitively improves heart health and reverses some factors of heart disease, according to the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission.

By regularly elevating the heart rate, the heart begins to pump more blood throughout the body, with less stress. Additionally, regular cardio reduces the resting heart rate, lightening the load on the heart.

Alleviates Depression and Anxiety

In addition to being great for your body and mind, cardio is excellent for your emotional and mental health.

Cardiovascular exercise has been shown to initiate changes in the parts of the brain that manages stress and anxiety. During exercise, the brain becomes more receptive to serotonin and norepinephrine - the hormones that alleviate depression. One study on 156 participants experiencing depression showed participants got as much relief from their symptoms with cardio exercise as with medication.

Elevates Energy Levels

Studies show that cardiovascular exercise not only boosts energy, but it can improve the symptoms of those who have chronic fatigue syndrome and other persistent fatigue.

Whether you're starting a cardio routine for physical fitness or overall health, it's sure to give your stamina and energy a significant boost.

Reduces the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

Surely physical inactivity is a recipe for poor health. But did you know that regular cardiovascular exercise significantly lowers your risk of diabetes, too?

One 8-week study showed that regular aerobic exercise improved insulin sensitivity, reduced body composition, and improved blood pressure in people with type 2 diabetes.

Many other noteworthy benefits of cardiovascular exercise include improved sleep and relaxation, healthier-looking skin, and a robust sex drive.

Hopefully, you're now inspired to begin your cardio routine. Now let's talk about ramping up your cardio workout to get the most fat-burning and muscle-toning results.

Fat-Burning and Muscle-Toning Cardiovascular Exercise


If you're going to commit to a fitness routine, then you'll definitely want the most out of your workout. Why do steady-level cardio for 40 minutes when you can get maximum calorie-scorching, fat-burning, and muscle-toning in just 30 minutes?

For some time, it has been accepted that low-intensity cardio was the best for burning fat. However, this has recently been disproved. As a result, a better and more exhilarating way to perform cardio has gained popularity. And it's called HIIT.

High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, alternates between high-intensity, all-out effort and low-intensity resting periods. One example is sprinting for 30 seconds, then walking for 60 seconds, and alternating between the two for up to 20 to 30 minutes. Here are 4 of the best HIIT routines we recommend.

The beauty of HIIT is that it doesn't need to happen in the weight room. You can do HIIT aerobically with your preferred cardio exercise, too. High-intensity interval training works with sprinting, jump-roping, cycling, aerobics, circuit training, you name it. If your exercise elevates your heart rate, you can make it a HIIT workout.

The key is to push through the high-intensity intervals and reduce your heart rate during the low-intensity intervals. As a result, your body will increase speed, power, endurance, and metabolic rate, helping you burn fat faster.

Another big bonus from HIIT training is that it increases your resting metabolic rate for 24 hours after your workout. In other words, you will continue to burn fat long after your cardio workout is over.

Because HIIT training elevates the heart-rate into the 80-90% maximum zone, it contributes to more fat-burning, more weight loss, and more power. It also increases aerobic capacity, lactate threshold, improves insulin sensitivity, and helps with the anabolic effect that puts on muscle.

Here's the formula for a HIIT cardiovascular exercise routine with running as an example:    

  • 5-minute warm-up, walk or slow jog    
  • 30 Seconds Sprint or Fast Jog to maximum heart-rate intensity – 80 to 90%    
  • 60 Seconds Walk or Slow Jog to slow down the heart-rate    
  • Repeat throughout the entire workout, up to 30 minutes    
  • Cool down and stretch    

This formula can be applied to the treadmill, rowing, jumping rope, kettlebell swings, the elliptical machine, or any cardiovascular exercise.

The work/rest ratio is generally 1 to 2 (30 seconds to 60 seconds). You can repeat it for 5-10 cycles, depending on the intensity of your workout. With a 5-minute warmup and 5-minute cool down, your total HIIT workout time is 30 minutes. More fat-burning and muscle-building in less time? Yes, please.

The following exercises are the most effective cardiovascular exercises for fat-burning and overall health.

The 5 Best Cardiovascular Exercises for Fat and Calorie Burning

Whether you plan to do an extended steady-state cardio session or want to ramp it up with HIIT, the following are five of the most popular and effective cardiovascular exercises.


No equipment is necessary for running. Whether outside on the track or the treadmill, running and sprinting is one of the toughest and most fat-burning forms of cardio. Not only does it burn significant calories, but it strengthens all the muscles in the lower body and core.

Alternate sprinting with jogging or walking to transform your workout into a HIIT routine. Running burns an average of 500 calories per hour.


If you love the water and staying cool, swimming is the perfect low-impact cardiovascular workout. It works and strengthens the whole body and doesn't place any impact on the joints and ligaments.

On average, one hour of swimming burns about 446 calories, with the calorie-burn increasing during more challenging moves like the butterfly stroke.


Grab your bicycle or get on a stationary bicycle for a massive calorie-burning cycling workout. To turn your stationary bike workout into a HIIT routine, try hill repeats by making the gear harder and standing up out of the saddle. You can also add in sprints for your high-intensity intervals.


Cycling at a moderate pace burns up to 650 calories per hour.

Elliptical Machine

The elliptical machine is another excellent form of low-impact cardio that's easy on your joints. Targeting muscle groups in both the upper and lower body, this whole-body cardiovascular exercise strengthens the hips, legs, upper back, shoulders, and core.

Alternate “sprints” with resting periods for HIIT training. The elliptical burns an average of 500 to 600 calories per hour.


You might be wondering why jumping is on this list. Jumping is surprisingly a powerful way to elevate your heart rate. Plus, it doesn't require much space or equipment.

You can easily design a HIIT workout that alternates jumping and plyometric exercises with intervals of rest. This may include jumping rope, box jumps, squat jumps, jumping lunges, burpees - the list goes on. Not only will jumping workouts elevate your heart-rate, but you will build explosive power and strength.

An active 30 minutes of circuit training will burn an average of 285 calories. That's a whole lot of power in a short time.


Getting Started with a Cardiovascular Exercise Routine

Launching your cardio routine on the right foot is essential to long-term success.

Keep high-intensity cardio routines to only 3 or 4 days a week maximum. Avoid boredom by trying a variety of machines and exercises on your workout days. Or you can even alternate between the treadmill, elliptical machine, and stationary bike during one cardio workout if you prefer.

Always begin with at least a 5-minute warm-up period doing your chosen exercise at a light to moderate intensity. Your high-intensity workout period should only total 15-20 minutes. If you're maintaining a steady-level heart rate in the 60-70% zone, you can sustain it for about 30 minutes after the warm-up.

Allow your heart-rate to slow down during the recovery periods. And always take a few minutes before completing your workout to cool down to promote recovery and decrease muscle soreness. Also, it's ideal to close with stretching, especially of the muscles you worked the hardest.

Enjoy incorporating these fat and calorie-burning cardiovascular exercises into your fitness routine.

Want to know more of the top effective cardiovascular exercises? Visit the Movements and Drills page to learn a variety of cardio workouts for the ultimate fat-burning and weight loss.