Aerobic exercise can seem fairly straightforward on the surface: Just get your heart rate up, and keep going. However, there is a confusing array of “rules” many of us fall for—like that cardio has to leave you panting to count, or that you can only get it in through vigorous activities like running or riding an indoor cycle until you feel like your legs are going to fall off.
In reality, many of these cardio training “rules” are more along the lines of cardio training myths that ultimately hold us back from getting any exercise at all.
To get some clarity, Joseph P. Galichia, MD, FACC, renowned for his work in the field of treating heart disease and host of the podcast Heart Health, broke down where the truth lies within some of the most commonly-held beliefs about aerobic exercise and cardiovascular health.
Myth 1: Aerobic exercise has to be vigorous and complex
Many people think they need to get to the gym to use an exercise machine or take an expensive indoor cycling class to get in their cardio. While these can certainly provide a good workout, Galichia says we shouldn’t overlook the simplest form of aerobic exercise: walking.
“Walking is the easiest form of exercise to engage in,” he explains. “It costs nothing, but provides the best health protection, and adds the most to one’s longevity. Walking is associated with a lower risk of heart disease and high blood pressure.”
When you can’t get to the gym or don’t feel up to high-intensity movement like running, just lace up your sneakers and get in a quick walk.
Myth 2: Cardio is all you need to do
As important as aerobic exercise is for your overall health, you should supplement it with strength training. “A combination of aerobic exercise with lifting for even 5 to 10 minutes using light weights adds a great deal to your body strength,” says Galichia. Resistance training can help prevent injuries, lower blood pressure, and improve other cardiovascular disease risk factors, especially when combined with aerobic training.
Myth 3: Aerobic exercise has to be a hard grind
Galichia says that many people hold the incorrect belief that aerobic exercise has to be tough, painful, and hard to see results. This is far from true.
“Biking, climbing, and swimming are all good forms of exercise, but it has been shown that if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, your chances of staying with the program diminish greatly,” says Galichia. “So it must be fun.”
If you’re counting down the minutes until your workouts are over, consider trying a different form of exercise. Other aerobic options include rowing, hiking, jumping rope, the elliptical trainer, Zumba and cardio dance workouts, cross-country skiing, climbing stairs, and rollerblading. Don’t be afraid to try something new. We often get stuck in the same routine, but variety keeps things fresh and challenges our muscles in new ways.
Myth 4: You have to work out alone
Some people struggle with motivation to exercise, but fitness buddies can make the experience much more fun and engaging, Galichia says. They can also hold you accountable—when you’ve planned to meet a friend for a workout, it’s much harder to bail.
Myth 5: Unless you exercise for an hour, you won’t benefit from it
We often fall into an all-or-nothing mindset or set an arbitrary amount of time that we must work out for it to be worth it. So we think that if we don’t have 45 to 60 minutes available, there’s no point in getting a sweat sess in.
However, Dr Galichia says even short workouts can be beneficial for your cardiovascular health. “Any form of exercise that lasts from 15 to 30 minutes—even if it is not full, flat-out exhausting exercise—is worth the time and greatly beneficial,” he says. Something is always better than nothing.
Myth 6: You don’t need to see a doctor before you jump into exercise
If you’re eager to get started working on your cardio fitness, the first step is to check in with your doctor first, especially if you’ve been inactive for some time.
“Don’t avoid getting a good physical exam. Knowing your blood pressure, the status of your heart, arteries, heart rhythm, and breathing capacity are great things to know before starting your exercise program, and are an absolute must for people over the age of 50,” says Galichia. “Knowing your family history and risk factors is paramount.”