Running got me through shelter in place. Not only was running a great way to complete the stress cycle, but it was one thing that felt normal. Even once the restrictions were lifted, I kept up running three or four days a week. Not only have I noticed that running made me feel better physically and mentally, I’ve also been challenged by my new role as Medical Fitness Director for Sharlin Health and Neurology to rethink how cardio fits into a workout plan for the body and the brain.

Do I need to do cardio to be healthy?

I’ve always said weights first. Partly because you can get your heart rate up when you do complex movements like squats and push-ups and partly because people often rely too much on cardio for weight loss. I’ve soon too many women suffering from muscle loss and a damaged metabolism from endless cardio, restrictive dieting and a lack of strength training. Seeing those side effects along with my own passion for weight training put  cardio coming at distant second place in my workouts.

But the more I learn about the brain and exercise as medicine, as well as my own cardio conversion, the more I am rethinking the exercise prescription.

While strength training is still a very important part of my personal workout plan as well as the programs I write for others, cardio is no longer last on the list. The science on brain health is clear – you need cardio.

exercises for new runners
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What kind of cardio do I need to be healthy?

The good news is you don’t have to take up running, unless you really want to. The bad news is walking probably isn’t going to give you the brain benefits and metabolism boost you may be looking for. For optimal results for brain and body, you need to build your workout plan foundation with the basic cardio recommendation outlined in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

“For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Preferably, aerobic activity should be spread throughout the week.”

For the brain, doing cardio on a regular basis is important because:

  • It improves blood flow to the brain, bringing vital nutrients and oxygen that keep cells healthy.
  • It reduces levels of inflammation, which may be the source of many of our health problems.
  • It lowers stress hormones, like cortisol, that impair memory and may decrease brain volume.

I’ve always advocated for vigorous intensity (think a HIIT workout) over moderate intensity cardio workout. The more I learn, the more I understand we need to find a middle ground and regularly do cardio exercise that puts us at the higher end of moderate intensity.

kettlebell swing
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Moderate intensity vs vigorous intensity exercise

You can gauge your exercise intensity in two ways: how you feel (rate of perceived exertion) or your heart rate.  According to the Mayo Clinic, here is how you can gauge exercise intensity by feel.

Moderate exercise intensity – Moderate activity feels somewhat hard. Here are clues that your exercise intensity is at a moderate level:

  • Your breathing quickens, but you’re not out of breath.
  • You develop a light sweat after about 10 minutes of activity.
  • You can carry on a conversation, but you can’t sing.

Vigorous exercise intensity – Vigorous activity feels challenging. Here are clues that your exercise intensity is at a vigorous level:

  • Your breathing is deep and rapid.
  • You develop a sweat after only a few minutes of activity.
  • You can’t say more than a few words without pausing for breath.

If you want to use your heart rate to determine intensity, you can click here to find out how. I recommend using the Heart Rate Reserve (HRR) method because it takes in account your fitness level based on you resting heart rate.

I still recommend a minimum of two days a week of strength training with three being the sweet spot for most goals. But you also need to make sure you are doing some sort of cardio most days of the week. It could be an interval session at the end of a strength day (think interval sprints on a stationary bike) or a rowing session or kickboxing on a non-strength training day. At a moderate intensity you may need to go a little longer but at vigorous intensity your cardio session may only need to be 15 minutes.

Finding your middle ground may mean a brisk walk to warm up for 10 minutes with 15 minutes of running followed by a cool down. Or it could mean 10 minutes of a steady pace on your stationary bike before you do hill intervals for 15 minutes and then another 10 minutes at a steady pace.

If you’re ready to rethink your workout and want a fascinating review of the science, I recommend reading the book Spark: The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain. For more tips on how to optimize your workout, join the FREE Sharlin Health Nuero Fitness Facebook group today.

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