The benefits of cardio exercise – improved heart health, mental wellbeing and more 

Cardio exercise has many far-reaching benefits – and it’s easy to get started.

Any form of exercise is good for you. Building flexibility, improving health and increasing longevity are all benefits you see from getting a bit more active in your day-to-day life.  

Broadly speaking, exercise can be separated into cardio exercise and strength training. The NHS recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity (cardio) exercise per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous (cardio) exercise, for the many benefits that cardio brings. We’re also advised to do strength exercise at least twice a week – check out our guide tothe benefits of strength training.

Older man swimming in pool, wearing cap and gogglesCredit: Shutterstock / Ground Picture

Types of cardio exercise

Cardio is classed as anything that works the cardiovascular system – the heart and lungs. This usually means something that makes you at least mildly out of breath, and you might sweat too. It varies in extremes and could include any of the following:  

The benefits of cardio exercise

Improves heart health and lowers blood pressure

It makes sense that if you’re regularly working the heart and lungs, their condition will improve. The heart is a muscle just like any other, and it needs to be exercised to work more efficiently.  

Fitness instructor and personal trainer Julia Buckley adds that improving heart health brings added benefits: “Cardio exercise plays a vital role in improving heart health and reducing blood pressure. Engaging in regular aerobic activities such as cycling or swimming strengthens the heart muscle, enhances blood circulation, and promotes the efficient delivery of oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. This, in turn, helps to lower blood pressure and decrease the risk of cardiovascular diseases.” 

Can aid weight loss

The basic principle of weight loss comes down to calories in versus calories out. If you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight. How much depends on many variables, including how much you eat and how much you burn.  

Any form of movement burns calories, even walking from the kitchen to the living room. If you’re trying to lose weight, the process can be enhanced by adding cardio exercise into your daily routine. That doesn’t mean you need to run for hours on end or go on 20-mile bike rides. You could add a brisk, 10-minute walk each day, or take up a gym membership.  

Remember, though, that exercise works best for weight loss when combined with a healthy diet. 

Couple walking in parkCredit: Shutterstock / Milatas

Reduces pain

“Cardiovascular exercise can also be a powerful tool in managing and reducing various types of pain,” Buckley says. “When we engage in aerobic activities, the body releases endorphins, which are natural pain-relieving chemicals. These endorphins act as natural painkillers, alleviating discomfort and promoting a sense of wellbeing. Additionally, cardio exercise helps to improve joint mobility, strengthen muscles, and enhance overall body flexibility, all of which can contribute to reducing pain associated with certain conditions.” 

Flexibility is something that tends to decrease as we get older. This can be for many reasons, such as joint stiffness, becoming more sedentary, or injury issues. Taking up yoga or Pilates can be a great way to increase mobility, and although they’re not classed as a form of cardio, both activities focus on breathwork, which will also help benefit the cardiovascular system.  

Lowers blood sugar levels

Exercise can help lower blood sugar levels and boost the body’s insulin sensitivity, which in turn can help manage or even reverse type 2 diabetes. All forms of exercise – whether cardio or strength based – are good for this, and the results can be life-changing.  

The continued rise in obesity is linked to the rise in type 2 diabetes, since it often results from inactivity and weight gain. Exercising more can also encourage you to eat better, resulting in more effective weight loss. The NHS offers a nine-month programme to help those at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, delivering exercise and nutritional advice. Sessions take place in-person (if available in your area) or remotely.  

Better sleep

You might know the feeling of falling into bed at the end of a long day – that kind of satisfying tiredness. Before you know it, you’re sound asleep. You might also know the flip side of that – tossing and turning and waking repeatedly.  

The good news is that cardio can help you get to sleep faster and stay asleep. Your body needs to rest and recover after its exertions, and so it naturally falls into a deeper state of rest. Exercise produces serotonin, which aids good sleep, and helps balance your circadian rhythm. Cardio also warms the body, and then you cool down. This can help prepare the body for sleep (since it likes to be cooler at night) if done around two to three hours before bed.

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Boosts mood

“One of the remarkable benefits of cardio exercise is its positive impact on mental and emotional wellbeing,” Buckley says. “When we engage in aerobic activities, our body releases neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, often referred to as ‘feel-good’ chemicals. These chemicals contribute to improved mood, reduced stress, and increased overall happiness. Regular cardio exercise has been linked to decreased anxiety and depression symptoms, enhanced self-esteem and cognitive function.” 

Being active and social at the same time is also proven to be good for health and longevity. You could try cycling with a friend, or joining a gym or a walking group

Anyone can do it

“One of the most appealing aspects of cardio exercise is its accessibility to people of all fitness levels and age groups,” Buckley says. “Whether it’s going for a brisk walk, dancing, or group fitness classes, there are numerous options available for everyone.” 

“Cardio workouts can be tailored to individual preferences and capabilities, making it an inclusive and adaptable form of exercise. Furthermore, cardio activities can often be done without any equipment, making them easily accessible to individuals regardless of their location or financial constraints.” 

If you’re looking for ways to get started, why not take a look at our gym workouts for beginners, or learn more about how the couch to 5k app could start your running journey.  

Becky Fuller

Written by Becky Fuller she/her

Published:

Becky Fuller is a fully qualified Personal Trainer, specialising in strength and conditioning for over 50s. Becky’s focus is helping people to become stronger both in body and mind, and to move well without pain. Becky also has many years’ experience working as a freelance journalist, writing for a wide variety of publications such as Screen Rant, Geek Feed, and Daily Actor. She also regularly reviews theatre productions for UKTW.

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