This content is brought to you in partnership with OrthoCarolina, one of the nation's leading orthopedic practices with offices across the Southeast. 

We've all heard it time and time again: aerobic exercise, or cardio workouts, are important for your physical health. 

But why is cardio excercise so crucial? And does aerobic exercise have to translate to running, in particular? We asked OrthoCarolina's Courtney Phillips, a certified physician's assistant, for the answers.


What Defines A "Cardio Workout," & Why Should You Incorporate Them Into Your Fitness Routine?

"A cardio workout can be defined as any workout in which the end goal is to elevate the heart rate. This should be differentiated from strength workout in which the end goal is to build stronger muscles," Phillips explained. 

And while both types of workouts are important for maintaining and improving overall health, there are some benefits offered by cardio exercises that aren't necessarily achieved through strength training. 

"When you engage in a cardio workout, the muscles of the body demand more oxygen. Increased oxygenation is accomplished by breathing more deeply and by elevating the heart rate. Ultimately, if performed consistently, this type of workout will improve the overall functioning of the heart by increasing the size of the heart’s chambers (ventricles) and increasing its muscular strength," Phillips said.

Aside from the obvious benefits of weight management and improved heart health, there are plenty of other great reasons to incorporate cardio exercises into your fitness routine, like improved cognition and decreased anxiety.

Aerobic workouts can also result in a decreased risk of developing chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, and many cancers such as breast, colon, lung, and kidney. Some cardio exercises can even help to strengthen your bones, thus decreasing the risk of fracture.


How Often Should You Be Doing Cardio Workouts (& At What Intensity)?

In terms of how often and for how long you should engage in cardio workouts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes the following recommendations:

- Kids (ages 2-17): ≥1 hr/day at least 3 days/week of “moderate-to-vigorous” activity

-Adults: Either 30min/day ≥ 5 days/week “moderate-intensity” activity OR 75 min/week “vigorous-intensity” activity OR a mix of “moderate- and vigorous-intensity” activity ≥2 days/week

-Pregnant women: 30min/day ≥ 5 days/week of “moderate-intensity” activity

"Defining the intensity of a cardio workout can be challenging, as every person responds differently to physical activity," Phillips added. "For a workout to be considered 'moderate-intensity,' you should be able to have a conversation, but could not sing. On the contrary, during a 'vigorous-intensity' workout, you would have to pause to say more than a few words."


Can I Get In An Effective Cardio Workout Without Running?

When we talk about adding more cardio to our fitness routines, running is often one of the first activities to come to mind. But we asked Phillips: are there effective no-running cardio workouts out there, for those of us who just can't get into running?

"Running can be seen as efficient and 'user friendly' due to lack of required equipment. But while running is a wonderful option for many, it is not necessarily an ideal option for all given the impact on the joints of the lower body such as the knee, ankle, hip and lower lumbar spine," Phillips explained.

She advised that if running causes a significant increase in joint pain or swelling, you should stop the activity and consider a more low impact alternative.

By the same token, she added that if running does not cause a significant increase in joint pain or swelling, it can be part of a well-balanced exercise program.

"Any balanced cardio workout program should include some form of cross-training or varying the activity. Too much of any one workout performed repeatedly can also lead to orthopedic overuse injuries," Phillips cautioned. "If you have a favorite workout, you should still pick one day a week to switch it up and choose something new and challenging. Not only will this give overused joints a rest, but you may also note a more efficient calorie burn."

Effective Moderate Intensity Cardio Workouts That Don't Involve Running

When considering moderate intensity aerobic activities, Phillips recommends the following for an effective cardio workout:

-Fast walking
-Water aerobics
-Biking on flat ground
-Hiking on flat ground
-Dance fitness (such as Zumba)
-Mowing the lawn

Effective Vigorous Intensity Cardio Workouts That Don't Require Running

When considering vigorous intensity aerobic activities, Phillips recommends the following for an effective cardio workout:

-Biking inclines
-Hiking inclines
-Elliptical machines
-Row machines
-Plyometric training (think burpees)

"The most important factor here is not the type of activity but rather the intensity of the activity and ability to elevate the heart rate as mentioned above," Phillips said.


Learn More About Making Healthy Choices From the Experts at OrthoCarolina

Whether you've recently experienced an injury, need help with recovery after tough workouts, or are simply experiencing chronic pain and need help managing it, OrthoCarolina can help. Make an appointment at a location near you to start getting the treatment you need.