How much cardio is too much?

Hi friends! How’s the morning going?? Hope the start of your week is going well. We’re having an amazing time in Tucson, especially since we don’t have a lot of official plans. We’ve hit up the pool, got to meet up with some friends Monday night, and last night, we had an incredible dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house. For today, we’ll probably swim for a while and see what my dad is up to. Also, huge congratulations to the winner of our Bitsy’s giveaway: Katie S. The lucky winner has been emailed. 

For today, I thought it would be fun to tackle a very popular reader’s request:

How much cardio should I be doing?

How much is too much?

What’s the bare minimum?

Let me dust off my cardio queen badge and tell you a long tale.

How much cardio is too much

Back in the day, I thought cardio was the “end all be all” of health, fitness, and (what my goal was at the time) weight loss. I figured that more was better as far as cardio goes. Little did I know, I was burning my precious muscle away as I pounded the treadmill and was striding along on the elliptical. It’s equally tragic and amusing to consider the amount of time I spent doing cardio, thinking I was throwing myself a solid to only later find out that it was overkill. I cardio-ed my little heart out, and there was a time when I was going an hour + of cardio, almost every day of the week. (This is also when I screwed up my metabolism years ago. I discuss that a bit in this post.) Thankfully, I started to work in the fitness industry, became certified to teach group fitness and train clients, and learned a lot about the cardio balancing act. It takes a little time to find out the amount and types of cardio that will propel you towards your goals, while providing endorphins, SWEAT, and performance gains (including endurance, speed and agility).

I was doing way too much cardio.

It wasn’t until I cut down my cardio duration and really made the exercises count that I noticed a difference in my fitness gains. I also felt a major boost in my gym joie de vivre, as I was no longer using cardio time to read books and gab with friends. (<— which is still fun, but it opened doors as far as new classes, HIIT methods, and cardio modalities go!)

Here are some cardio FAQs, plus my tips for finding your own personal cardio sweet spot:

(As always, check with a doctor before making any fitness changes. If you have medical conditions or have a sedentary lifestyle, it’s especially important to start a cardio program with the guidance of a physician. As always, honor your body.)

1) What the heck is cardio exactly? Does strength training count as cardio?

Cardiovascular fitness is a critical aspect of health, which involves the intake, transportation and usage of oxygen during exercise. Your heart, lungs and muscles work in harmony as you’re jogging, sprinting, or even vacuuming throughout the day. We measure cardio through VO2Max, which is the maximum amount of the body’s oxygen consumption. It’s not easy to measure, so usually we’ll determine cardio intensity as a percentage of your maximum heart rate. (An easy way to estimate max heart rate is 220 minus your age. If you’re trying to hit 60% of your max heart rate, take this number and multiply it by .6. For example, I’m 31 so my estimated max heart rate is 220-31= 189. If I want to hit 80% of my max heart rate, 189 x .8 = 151.2. So in that case, I’d aim to hit around 152 if I was wearing a heart rate monitor. Usually for low intensity cardio, I’ll recommend anywhere from 65-75% of max heart rate, 75-84% max heart rate for moderate cardio, and 85% + for high intensity. This is in line with NASM recommendations, which where I earned my personal training certification.)

As far as strength training counting as cardio, it certainly can. It really depends on consistently elevating your heart rate. If you’re doing traditional hypertrophy training (3 sets of 10-12 reps, resting in between sets), there’s a good chance that you will not elevate your heart rate and sustain it during your workout. If you’re doing move circuit-style workouts, or supersetting multiple exercises, your heart rate will likely remain elevated! This can definitely count as cardio. Sometimes for circuit workouts, my heart rate is higher than it would be if I were jogging on the treadmill, depending on what I’m doing.

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(Photo: James Patrick)

2) What are the recommendations for cardio?

I don’t ever recommend doing over an hour of cardio, unless you’re training for a specific event. If you just really love cardio that much, make sure that you have some off days (yes, more than one! especially in this case) to let your body recover. If you are consistently training the same muscles, especially if you perform the same types of cardio each day, you will not give them the chance to grow back stronger and recover. Also, this can set you up for overuse injuries <– not a picnic. Make sure that you are giving your body the chance to heal in between sessions, and be sure to alternate cardio intensities. I always like to throw the reminder out there that the heart is a MUSCLE, and a pretty dang important one. It needs rest, just like your legs, shoulders, chest, back, etc. all do. 

Here are general recommendations for cardio:

At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiorespiratory exercise, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity, or a combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise per week. The weekly recommendation for resistance training is 2 or more days per week with exercises for all the major muscle groups (minimum of 1 set of 8-12 repetitions for each muscle group). Flexibility and neuromotor exercises (balance, agility, coordination) are also recommended at least twice per week.

I think that 150 minutes a week of moderate cardio is a great goal. If you’re working out 5x a week, that’s 30 minutes each day. As far as the bare minimum goes, I like to recommend to walk for 20 minutes every day. That’s it. You can break cardio sessions into blocks if you need to, which leads me to the next question.

3) I don’t have a lot of time to do a solid cardio block. Should I just skip it altogether? 

Split it up!! I used to be guilty of thinking that if I didn’t have the time to do more than 10 minutes, it wasn’t worth it. It IS totally worth it and can be beneficial. After we work out, our body has to work hard to replenish its stores and regulate tissue temperature. This is called EPOC (Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) and burns extra calories. By getting in multiple short workouts each day, you get bonus EPOC sessions. So do what you can, when you can. If you only have 20 minutes to work out, here are some ideas.

Some tips for cardio:

-Start slowly and build up from there. It’s smarter to start out with less and build up from there.

-Focus on quality over quantity. Really focus on making the time count, and getting the most out of your workout.

-Your personal cardio magic number may be different than the recommendations above, depending on the types of cardio modes you do, how often you strength train, and your daily activity level. You may find that you need way less “traditional cardio” and more strength. It’s all a matter of experimentation and finding the magic number according to your unique goals and circumstance. This number may also change week to week depending on what’s going on. Cardio is a critical aspect of health, so if you can, try to walk a bit and be active each day.

-If you hate it, ditch it. There are so many cardio fish in the sea, you are destined to find something you love. Don’t be afraid to try out different classes, modes, and instructors until you find your perfect match. If you decide traditional cardio isn’t for you, get it through circuit training or something else that will increase your heart rate. Don’t forget the bonus of unintentional exercise (also called NEAT: non-exercise activity thermogenesis), and that you’re burning calories and increasing your heart rate through everyday activities like household chores, gardening, errands, intimate activities, etc. 🙂

So tell me friends, how much cardio do you do in your routine right now? When I was teaching at the resort I was doing crazypants amounts, up to 2 hours per day. My knee also hated me. Now with medical break, my doctor recommended walking until my post-op checkup (2 weeks, baby!!) but nothing strenuous. I’m so stoked to HIIT it again!

xoxo

Gina

Some resources:

35 cardio-based bodyweight exercises

HIIT It!! (my book baby, available via Amazon and Barnes and Noble)

What does cardio fitness mean?

Hail HIIT, the cardio king

More reader’s request posts

Building muscle while burning fat

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Comments

  1. I try to hit my step goal (10k steps) at least 3-4 times a week before I even step out the door. So about 80 minutes, it’s usually me walking and watching Netflix so it’s not super high interval unless I’m feeling ambitious!

  2. Donna Boudreau says:

    It’s funny that you posted this today. I took up road cycling about 9 years ago after suffering a stress fracture in my hip from running. I immediately loved it! I was actually really good at it and I was fast. I started training with a group that took our bikes inside and trained in the winter, I live in Massachusetts and as soon as it got nice out we were always outside. Over the years I’ve done fund raisers where I’ve had to ride 150 miles plus, century rides for fun and many, many group rides. When I started riding I had a core group of women and some men that I rode with and I loved the social part of it. Over the years our group dynamic has changed and it’s really become more about the racers and triathletes and my core group of women disappeared and moved on to do other things. They still ride but sporadically and some have just become beasts and are training for iron mans and such. The past two years I’ve found that I just haven’t been that into it. The thought of working all day, rushing home to get dinner ready for the family and then rushing to a group ride and getting home 3 hours after that just started appealing less and less to me. This is already getting too long, ugh! Long story short, I decided to take a Zumba class last night and I had so much fun. I’m already looking at taking a kettlebell class tomorrow night. I think I’m just ready to get into some group exercise again. I do spend 3 days/week lifting weights and other than that, the treadmill and elliptical a couple of days a week and always over an hours worth of cardio. Thanks for posting this and making me realize that it’s ok that I don’t want to ride my bike for hours and hours a week. Looking forward to branching out and trying new things now.

    • Fitnessista says:

      that is amazing. happy to hear you’re branching out and doing what makes you happy! that’s one of the beautiful things about fitness: you can easily change and adjust to what makes you happy and what works for your lifestyle at that time

  3. I used to do a lot of cardio and nothing else. While I still love it I ‘ve opened up to other types of exercise and I love it! I know more now than I did about fitness so I lean towards a variety of workouts 🙂 It was one of your posts actually that made me start to think that cardio wasn’t the only solution to everything though it took some time and more information for it to sink in 🙂

  4. I’ve been recovering from adrenal fatigue – achy body, exhaustion – for over a year and am finally ready to try some more cardio. I’m also gearing up for my September wedding. What’s a good way to start m?

    • Fitnessista says:

      how much cardio are you doing right now?

      • I walk about 30 min to and from yoga class three times a week and 15 min to and from barre. I go on slow walks w my fiancé and every other week or so I do a 45 min Kenpo video

        • Fitnessista says:

          are you cleared to do any speed type intervals (even walking intervals would be great)?

          • That’s a great idea. Speeding up and slowing down, right? For how long?

          • Fitnessista says:

            yep! try it on your shorter barre walk days. 1 minute slow, 1 minute faster and see how that feels. maybe even just do a few and see how that goes.

  5. I don’t do much cardio anymore. I usually lift weight then will jump on the elliptical or stairclimber for 15 minutes after or on leg day I do interval training using the spin bike 10 minutes intervals 2-3 times. I do swim twice a week, but I don’t do other cardio those days. Swimming is enough of a workout.

  6. These days my cardio is just lifting weights faster! Although I suppose there’s also running, burpees, and rowing mixed in… but they are always combined with strength moves. I love the crossfit workout format!

  7. Right now I usually run 3-4 days a week anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and strength train about 3 days a week. It works out well for me if I take the time to stretch!

  8. I’m in a rut so I just did the contact form to try a free Orange Theory class near me. I’m scared. LOL

  9. This is something I’m constantly trying to figure out. I come from a running background so I’m used to doing a lot of cardio all the time and consider myself a cardio junkie. It’s been an adjustment for me, that’s for sure. Now I am following the TIU weekly schedule and add in my own cardio each day (either running, biking, hiking, or swimming). Do you think I’m doing way too much? I never know if I’m doing more harm than good. I would love to tone up and lose the last bit of weight I put on while going through chemo but I also love doing cardio, it’s a social thing for me since I ride/hike/run with a group of friends. Our life kinda revolves around doing those things and going on trips to explore new areas while running/hiking/biking. Just curious what your two cents are 🙂

    • Fitnessista says:

      it sounds like you’re doing a lot, but if you’re not seeing any negative effects from it, it sounds like it’s ok. (i like the TIU plan, but think that it sometimes has too much cardio)
      if you want to visibly tone up, you may want to cut back some of the cardio and do some dedicated muscle group splits. let me know if you need any help!

      • Thanks for the response Gina! Basically I want to tone up and do cardio (it’s my first true love). I like how the TIU girls do a daily schedule so I don’t have to think about what I’m doing. I just didn’t know if this is going to hinder my weight loss progress. I’m also attempting to cleanup my nutrition to see if that helps.

        I would say an average day for me looks like this:
        30 minutes TIU
        30-60 cardio (ranges from an easy swim to a fairly intense mountain bike ride)

        • Fitnessista says:

          it sounds like a lot. are you doing circuit or weight training every day for the TIU workouts?

          • Yea, I believe that’s what you would call them. The daily workouts also say to include cardio (20-60 minutes) 5-6 days a week. I’m definitely trying to figure out what the “sweet spot” is for me when it comes to doing weight training and cardio so that I’m not tired all the time. On the weekends I typically get in a longer run (6 miles) and bike ride (90-120 minutes) and don’t do any weight training.

  10. Great post. Wondering what your take is on Bodypump? Do you think it counts as cardio, weightlifting or something in between? I love it and take a class 2 to 3x per week. But I have friends who insist it’s really just cardio in disguise. Interested in your take. Thanks!

    • Fitnessista says:

      i think it’s a combo of both! some of the tracks have definite cardio benefits (especially the squat, lunge, and back tracks with the clean and presses). i would recommend doing some cardio in addition to it, but i think certain tracks will elevate your heart rate to a cardio zone

  11. This question might be relevant to other people: when you say you can split up cardio into blocks does this count? I walk 5 minutes from my apartment to the subway, then 5 minutes from the subway to work, and back again come home. So 4×5 minutes = 20 minutes of walking. Does this count as bare minimum of 20 minutes a day or is it too split up? I need to get myself to the gym!

  12. I never got an email about the giveaway… unless it was a different Katie S?!

  13. My current cardio routine consists of walking but when I’m not pregnant, its running outside and hiit. Hiit is the best… I can get in a quick workout that has both cardio and strength. I also wear a fitbit and try to hit my step goal everyday to keep up that “non-exercise” movement all day.

  14. Love this post!

    I became a runner after separating from my husband. I needed something to get me out of my head and I had moved to a new city so I had time to fill. I now have run multiple half marathons, a marathon, and am about to run a second marathon. The kicker – I have gained 25 pounds!!

    At first I think I felt as though I deserved to indulge, plus I needed to gain back a bit from some unhealthy weight loss post divorce, but since then, I can’t get it off. I keep running more thinking it will help but the pounds won’t budge, even when I’m at a calorie deficit and running 2 hours a day. The second I eat normally, I start to gain weight again.

    Anyway, I run a marathon this Sunday and I think I will try to mellow out and stick with circuit training for a bit. I’m really hoping it will heal my metabolism. Would love if you would write another post on this. I feel at a loss when it comes to the extra pounds I am carrying around.

    • Fitnessista says:

      thank you so much!
      i have seen this so much, and it could be a variety of factors. if you want to email me, maybe we can set up a Skype chat when your marathon is over?

    • This hits home!
      I also gained about 20 lbs when I trained for a marathon last year. I cannot get it to budge. I drop 5 and then put it back again and again. I don’t eat poorly. I just recently have not been motivated to do anything consistently. 3 months ago, I started working full time and I am just so tired. I’ll have a week where I work out 5 times (usually 21 day fix workouts) and then the next week I get in one workout. Grrrrr…
      I’ve got to figure this all out.

  15. I used to do way more cardio than I do now. I usually only plan 1 day a week of dance cardio and then play tennis 1-2x per week. I also spend a lot of time walking. These days, I’m much more into strength training like barre and pilates!

    • Fitnessista says:

      i’ve really noticed a turn since my cardio has been cut way down. i look forward to strength training and barre classes more than ever

  16. I don’t do a lot of cardio, mostly strength training. I use to do a lot of cardio but I have since seen the error of my ways. LOL

  17. I really wish I didn’t like cardio so much more than strength training! I could do cardio all day but it’s like pulling teeth to get me to do weight work–which I know is a huge mistake and most people are the opposit! I do a walk-run combination 5 days a week and go on 30 minute hikes both Sat & Sun. My dog appreciates my love of cardio, that’s for sure.

  18. I love this topic and appreciate your knowledge and experience! Back in the day (pre baby), I definitely had points where I did too much cardio as I was almost always training for some marathon or big endurance event. Now, I run several days a week, but take 2 days off, do shorter runs overall and do some yoga + strength training as well. When I used to be a little obsessive about needing to run, it helped when I read your post about your heart being a muscle too that needs rest. Funny how certain bits of info just sit with you differently than others. And just last week I did one of your old winter shape up workouts and dang, it was tough! I was sore a few days after. Fun to mix up the routine sometimes. 🙂

    • Fitnessista says:

      thank you!
      and yes, i agree. switching it up again is great for results, and also for keeping boredom from kicking in

  19. This is such a difficult lesson for me to learn. I’m in love with cardio….& I love the feeling of pushing myself.

    Until I wore a heart rate monitor & saw that I was usually working out around 190-200 bpm (im a 36 yr old female).

    Does anyone else have this problem? I just go, go, go….quite often feeling awesome, as long as I listen to my muscle/knee soreness.

    I do 30 min workouts & ive scaled it back to 3-5x/ week….before was 5-7x/week.

    I’m in pretty great shape (but still over weight cause my eating regime is a work in progress….), but i don’t want to do long term damage…..

    • The ‘220 minus age’ thing might not estimate max HR well for you. It doesn’t for me. It’s nothing to worry about. Estimate your true max HR (highest you’ve seen it in tough cardio) and then calc your zones from there. And/or use a perceived exertion scale to see if you’re overdoing it.
      https://www.verywell.com/perceived-exertion-scale-1231117

    • Fitnessista says:

      it could be a few different things, but overtraining is a culprit of elevated heart rate. what is your resting heart rate like? there are a few calculations that take that into account
      i like what mary said to go by perceived exertion instead of heart rate. it’s usually a great indicator of how hard you’re working

  20. I was just wondering about this topic the other day and am so glad you posted about it! I can get pretty cardio-heavy in my fitness routine, so this was a good reminder to switch it up. I’ve always wondered about optimal heart rate zones, which you talked about a little, for fat/weight loss in particular. Do you believe in the “fat burning zone” and what do you think are the best ranges to stay within if fat/weight loss is your goal?

    • Fitnessista says:

      i do believe in the fat burning zone, but there are other efficient ways to burn fat. in my opinion, the best method is to mix it up between low-intensity steady state, high intensity intervals, and moderate cardio. i think one long steady state day, 2 moderate cardio days, and 2 days of hiit are a great way to do it

  21. Great post!!! So much information + I’m super glad things are moving along with your recovery.

    I’m a self-proclaimed former “skinny-fat” cardio queen, myself. I used to spend hours running, or on the elliptical as well. I pretty much never do any formal cardio anymore – save sprints with the stroller 2-3 times per month! All of my cardio is lifting weights fast, burpees, box jumps, jump rope, etc. It’s never boring and always challenging! When I do run, I feel great.

    I love that you’re busting through a lot of these common myths! 🙂

    • Fitnessista says:

      thank you, friend! yes, it’s fun to see what easing back on the steady state will do. i think circuits and intervals are a lot more fun too

  22. Gina:

    Thanks for this great post. It was very timely as I was JUST discussing this with some friends of mine. I think your information is spot on and I appreciate you sharing. I have passed this post along to my girlfriends so we call can learn!

  23. My daughter and I were just talking about this recently. She has taken up running, but was thinking she needed to run almost everyday to improve. She is now learning the importance of taking days off and cross-training.

    • Fitnessista says:

      that is awesome. it’s easy to get carried away when you’re just getting started and really enjoy it

  24. Love this one, Gina! Great tips! I too, was once a cardio girl. Now I only exclusively do cardio once a week when teaching BODYATTACK. But I definitely feel the cardio during BODYPUMP too. Thanks for spreading the word with this post!

  25. I love this post since its always the question I seem to ask myself daily (is it enough, not enough?) I used to run for about three years at least 5 days a week. I really used it for stress reduction and losing weight. However I thought just by running, I would get a runners body. Well that didn’t happen I actually gained a few pounds. I got burn out and started walking 5 days a week in the morning for about 45 minutes. After my an on Mon, Wed,Fri I do 100 squats and on Ties and Thursdays I do about ten minutes of arm weight exercises(5pd weights). I don’t think my arm workout is ling enough because my arms never get sore and I’m really not seeing any change. I always feel like my workouts aren’t challenging enough. Any advice?
    Maybe hiit? How long should I spend working my arms (20 min) and how much should my hand weights weigh?

    • Fitnessista says:

      yep you may definitely be able to lift heavier! maybe try 8s if the 5s are too easy?
      i would recommend switching up your exercises a little and see if that helps. maybe a squat and lunge combo on the leg days, and what are you doing on your upper body days?

      • I have just been doing walking and then a arm routine I made up, lol. 3 sets of 10 of the following: bicep curls, overhead press, triceps kickback. Do I need a better plan,lol, it’s weak I know,lol. On leg days should I walk or do hour. Or hour on arm days?

        • Fitnessista says:

          i think an hour is a LOT. if you change up the exercises that could make a huge difference! even if you do hammer curls, upright rows, and overhead triceps extensions instead

  26. I am pregnant so my cardio has slowed to walking and spinning and I started doing body pump- which I love!!! But normally, I love cardio! Do you have a post about your weight loss journey? I always worry about slowing down my cardio and gaining weight (when I am not preggers). When I do more weights and less cardio, I don’t seem to see a different in my body, maybe I am not doing the right things? I guess I just haven’t found what works for my body.

  27. I think this is such an interesting topic and absolutely depends on what your goals are and how your body responds (also, what type of cardio you are doing). As a cyclist, I am on the bike anywhere from 7-12 hours a week and that is all considered “cardio”. Granted, there are many easy days in there, so it is not all “balls to the wall” all out cardio. But I am training for races that last 40 minutes to 3 hours and are often all out efforts for that long so endurance must be built. I also run 1-2 times/week for cross training and increasing bone density.
    I dont use cardio for weight loss and actually only fluctuate about 1-2 pounds at a time.
    In addition to cardio, I lift weights 3 times a week to rebuild muscle mass to increase power output.
    It’s a good thing I love exercise 😉

  28. Great post Gina! I am a cardio baby(also termed runner MVP), my running love started in March 2014 and has seen me do 2 marathons, several half-M, 15k and 5k. I lost appreciable weight that got friends screaming, so recently I have changed my routine to easy runs(rather than 15-20k, i do 10k for an hour 30 minutes as oppose 58 minutes), learnt how to cycle after 6 classes and also strength train at least 2ce a week.

  29. I LOVE reading articles about cardio myths, and how doing too much cardio is ineffective, because I really don’t like cardio! It’s so boring! I discovered strength training about two years ago and I actually enjoy going to the gym now. I can also really tell the difference, I look & feel so much better. I now only do some light cardio 4 times a week for 20 minutes, because I still think it’s good for my health. In that sense I really envy people who enjoy cardio, because even 20 minutes feels like an eternity for me!

  30. Melissa says:

    This post is so timely, Gina! I am a cardio Queen as well! I’m really trying to cut back and focus more on the strength. I know I am overdoing it on all fronts. Over the last 6 months, I dropped 30 pounds (weight i love to gain and lose) and I vowed it would be the last time as it was different this time: I did it for health and happiness and not for a specific event. I’ve been a runner now for 15 years so extra weight is uncomfortable. I appreciate this reinforcement as I know I need to reduce my running (unless training for a race) and increase strength while realizing breaks are okay and needed! I only take one day off a week and most days I double up with cardio (3-6 mile run) and yoga, Hiit, kettlebell or strength DVD and I know that’s bad. There’s always a fear of gaining the weight back. Logically, I know you are very right and I am glad to have read your post today!

  31. Hi Gina,

    You’ll almost never see me on “cardio” equipment. Forget that! Get me outside please. When it’s not raining, I get my cardio by being a bike commuter. I fully recommend it to anyone. Why try to fit in time to “do your cardio” when you have to fit in time to get to and from work anyway?

    As a side note, if you’d like to give your readers a more accurate way to determine their heart rate zones, they can use these formulas:

    Males: 210 minus 1/2 your age minus 5% of your body weight + 4
    Females: 210 minus – 1/2 your age minus 1% of your body weight + 0

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