Written by Lara Ceroni | Photography by Audra Oden

Ugh, we know—cardio is hardio. But new research suggests it can do wonders for your health in some surprising ways.

It’s true: Cardiovascular work can be a chore, both physically and mentally. Unlike resistance training where we’re constantly distracted by counting our reps and knowing we get a break after each completed set, cardiovascular work is a bit more monotonous, and trying to fit it in on the regular can come with confusion: What kind should I do? How often? For how long?

But the reality is we need it, and not just for calorie burn and cardiovascular health. Science has helped build a case in favor of this necessary evil, and it just might make a fan of you yet.

It improves our life support network

Cardiovascular exercise is one of the most important types of physical activity to do consistently. When we increase our heart rate and respiration, we are continually improving the performance of our vital internal life support network: our lungs, heart, and circulatory system. It can also help lower blood pressure, and keep your arteries clear by raising “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and lowering “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels in the blood.

It increases cognitive function

Researchers at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York tested the effect of aerobic exercise on cognition in adults, and while that sounds complicated, their findings were actually quite clear: Cardiovascular exercise can help to reduce some symptoms of cognitive decline.

The six-month study monitored adults between the ages of 20 and 67 (all of whom had below average aerobic capacity) and had them perform some type of fitness training four times a week, while monitoring different heart rate zones. At the start, they performed exercises that kept them within 55-65 percent, and each passing week they increased their heart rate zones from 65-75 percent and over. At the later stages of this study, participants were then tested for cognitive skills, like episodic memory, language, processing speed, attention, and executive function (the latter referring to our ability to manage our emotions and reactions to things around us). 

The result? It appeared aerobic exercise improved these functions in all age groups, and the effect was even more pronounced in the older adults in the study. “Cardiovascular activity helps in the stimulation of neurogenesis, which is the creation of new-born cells in the hippocampus, our part of the brain that is involved in the formation of new memories, learning, and emotions,” says Jennifer Heisz, Associate Professor in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. “What happens is that it impacts our ability to focus more clearly by stimulating the cortex (our “CEO” of the brain), which coordinates all of our higher-order thinking.”

It boosts our mental health

Beyond the fascinating inner workings of our brain, exercise also works in boosting our mental health as well. Research at Harvard Medical School has cited that exercise is an effective treatment for people who struggle with depression, anxiety, insomnia, and stress—and that it is almost as effective as an antidepressant medication.  

Heisz also acknowledges how much cardiovascular exercise works, thanks to the rush of those “feel good” endorphins after a good sweat sesh, providing we can actually get it done. “I hear people tell me that they hate cardio all the time,” she says. “And I chalk that up to the mental block associated with doing it. A treadmill, spin class, or bootcamp can feel uncomfortable, as well as time-consuming, if you’re not used to it.” Her best advice? Schedule exercise ahead of time, so you’re committed to doing it. “There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that booking exercise into your calendar, like you would do for a work meeting, increases commitment and consistency considerably.”

So how much cardio should we be doing? And what kind?

We tapped health coach Karina Vee, founding trainer of Barry’s Bootcamp Canada, and co-founder of wellness retreats, Fit Escapes, to find out. “The general guideline from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise a week, which amounts to roughly 30 minutes of activity five times a week,” she says. “But if you prefer higher-intensity work, like interval training, than that number can be lower, with shorter bursts of activity, like 15-25 minutes, per day. It really depends on your goals.”

Of course, there are benefits to both low- and high-intensity cardio, so you don’t have to choose one or the other. According to Vee, you can be a lover of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), those short bursts of very intense 20-90 seconds of work, just as much as you can enjoy going for a longer run or bike ride where you ration your energy in order to sustain the activity for longer.

Train smart, not (always) hard

Whatever you choose, Vee is adamant that you should always make the right decision for you. “It’s critical to understand that getting results and promoting change in the body is about finding balance,” she says. “I always believe people should find the intensity level that best works for them. One of the biggest mistakes in understanding why cardio is important is that it shouldn’t just be a vanity project: The benefits of cardio are far superior than any aesthetic goal.”

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