Easy cardio
May 31, 2020 6:59 AM   Subscribe

For me, getting strong by lifting heavy weights has been easy. Just 30 minutes of moderate work three times per week and I can deadlift 355 #. It's easy and I can easily see the results. On the other hand, to me cardio suuuucks, and it's really hard to measure any meaningful progress. So is there an equivalent for cardio where you can do easy or moderate work for a moderate amount of time and still see improvement?

What I'm really looking for is some kind of exercise that I can do on the dates when I'm not lifting, but a type of exercise that is easy and impactful so I'll stick with it. It can't be more lifting because I'm resting my muscles on those days. And I prefer if there's some kind of goal or progress I can see.

Part of the problem is I don't even know what cardio improvement looks like. I guess it would be nice if I could get my 5K time below 30 minutes but I don't really care that much so it's not very motivating to me. So part of this question is "what can I measure to help me care about the kind of cardio that you're recommending?"

It can't be something that requires driving somewhere because that adds too much time — a 20 minute sprinting workout would actually take me an hour because I have to drive somewhere with enough space where I'm not trespassing. It can't require a going to a gym because coronavirus. I don't enjoy yoga so I don't stick with it. Something like punching bag routines sounds interesting because I can do it at home, but I don't know how to measure progress so it's not very motivating.
posted by Tehhund to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe give zumba a try. There are a million videos on youtube of varying degrees of difficulty. They have a bunch of different musical styles to fit your taste. They don't require a whole lot of space so you can likely do them at home.

I never knew how to dance so I feel like I'm learning something in addition to getting some exercise, and it's a fun thing to do.

It's not perfectly measurable, but for me at the start I'd get tired half way through the beginner workouts at first. Each week I'd push myself to make it through another ten minutes until I was doing a full hour. Then I moved up to more advanced/energetic videos.

It's totally free, requires nothing more than a TV and an internet connection.

Otherwise, a lot of people are into peleton cycling but it's really expensive and I haven't tried it.
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 7:29 AM on May 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

Skipping rope? You don't have to go anywhere to do it and measuring progress is easy (heartrate, length of time, etc. Get a skipping rope that counts jumps maybe). I get the sense from others who do it that, like heavy weights, you can do short intense intervals with rests in between and make very noticeable progress after only a few sessions.
posted by lollusc at 7:40 AM on May 31, 2020 [14 favorites]

One quick/easy measure of improving cardiovascular fitness is how quickly your heart rate returns to "resting" after spending time in your target zone. Quicker return = more fit.

You can do any cardio exercise that you enjoy and that keeps you in your target zone for a while, and then check your heart rate at one minute after, then at two minutes after. Keep track of the numbers to chart your progress.

There are tons of aerobic workouts you can follow on YouTube, that can be done safely in your home without weights. I find these more interesting than something like walking or rowing because the movements change frequently; my ADHD doesn't love doing the exact same thing for half an hour. You can also do intervals to keep things interesting. I bought a simple aerobic step to ramp up difficulty and switched to some step videos when the basic workouts got too easy, but there are definitely harder non-step workouts online, too - they just often involve jumping, which I can't do for joint reasons.
posted by invincible summer at 7:53 AM on May 31, 2020 [3 favorites]

I don't think you're going to find an easy workout that does what you want. Also, there's no single metric that people use for measuring cardiovascular fitness. The two big ones are your aerobic threshold and anaerobic threshold. The first is the point where your body starts being unable to process the lactate accumulating in your muscles, and the latter is the point where the lactate reaches a certain level (various definitions, most common is 4 mmol/liter). Both of these have to do with your body's ability to move oxygen around. These are also sometimes called LT1 and LT2 (for lactate threshold). There's also VO2max, which is how much oxygen you can inspire per minute (either as an absolute amount or relative to your weight), and mitochondrial density (which is how much energy your cells can store). All of these require lab tests to know definitively.

But you can still train to improve these without measuring them, and you can quantify improvement by measuring improvements in performance at LT1 and LT2. There are numerous training regimens (search on these terms and you'll get an eyeful). Any endurance exercise you like will work—running, riding, rowing, whatever. From what I've been reading, workouts of less than an hour are not considered effective. And to train up your anaerobic threshold means training near or above it, which is just unavoidably hard. And to be clear, when you train up your aerobic threshold or anaerobic threshold, you're not raising the threshold itself, you're increasing the work you can do at threshold.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) will probably give you the most bang for your buck. Also look up polarized training.
posted by adamrice at 8:27 AM on May 31, 2020

First, benching 355 is pretty impressive to me! Second, the best (and for me only) metric I could find that measured cardio improvement is on the standardized treadmill Stress Test my cardiologist gives me once a year. If I could take one every 3 months, I would. My guess is that if you could find a treadmill to run that program everyday, that would be a granular and accurate measure. I think doing the same treadmill program every day (that are weights resting days) would be a way to measure improvement.
posted by AugustWest at 9:24 AM on May 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've taken up jogging during the pandemic. I use Strava to record my runs. It gamifies the hell out of everything, giving you achievement awards when you beat your personal records for fastest or longest runs of various lengths. At first, I rolled my eyes at this, but now I'm hooked.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 9:38 AM on May 31, 2020

Buy an agility ladder and do drills in your yard. If you have a big enough yard, you can get some cones, too. It’s high-impact like sprinting, but easier since you don’t need a long straightaway, and more functional since you’re not just running in a straight line. I find it quite enjoyable.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:24 AM on May 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

So is there an equivalent for cardio where you can do easy or moderate work for a moderate amount of time and still see improvement?

Yes. Walking. It's low effort, low impact, high reward. Get an activity tracker (I wear an Apple Watch, but you do you) and watch your data. I started going for a daily walk when I lost my job a couple years ago, to keep myself from just losing every day to endless web browsing while I was supposedly job searching. The more I walked, the more the reminders from my watch started to make a difference, so I would push a little harder or go for a little longer, or both, just to keep closing my rings. About four months in my fitness had improved to the point that just by sticking with what I was doing I started to lose weight, about five pounds a month. I lost forty pounds total. Seriously. Just go for a walk.
posted by fedward at 10:30 AM on May 31, 2020 [12 favorites]

I’m wondering if you can walk or run outside from your house. Or are you near any outdoor stairs? Hills?
posted by bluedaisy at 10:32 AM on May 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

Do you like video games? Do you have a Nintendo Switch? Ring Fit Adventure is designed to make cardio as engaging as possible for people who wouldn't usually enjoy it, and it tracks your progress in various ways, including testing your heart rate at the end of each session.
posted by waffleriot at 11:02 AM on May 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

Cardio is honestly IME the easiest gain there is. Couch to 5K is perfect for feedback. It's crazy how fast you get better and it is 30 minutes, 3 times a week. You might start at a higher level than me but basically this is how it works for me (I've done it twice though didn't make it to the end either time because of other issues):

First Week:

First run of the week: OMG this is brutal, I'm never going to make it to 5K. I feel like I'm dying.

Second run of the week: OMG I'm dying but it'll take a bit longer.

Third run of the week: OK. This is doable. I don't feel like immediately colapsing when I get home.

Second Week:

First run of the week: OMG this is brutal, I'm never going to make it to 5K. I feel like I'm dying.


At the beginning of every week you feel like the regimen is impossible; by the end it seems possible. And by the time you are on week 3 or 4 even whil you are dying in the back of your mind you know you felt exactly the same way 7/14/21 days ago but here you are running for a solid 3-4 minutes and when you started it was all you could do to run for 30 seconds.

You leave your home but the exercise starts immediately. Or you can use a treadmill. Normally home treadmills are 100-200 used but Covid.
posted by Mitheral at 12:45 PM on May 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've been doing HIIT videos on youtube and various fitness apps. There are lots of varieties (no impact specifically for apartment dwellers, for example). You can easily adjust the effort, because you get out of it what you put in.

Also sometimes I just do my own HIIT-thing: 40 seconds on (high knees running, jumping jacks, burpees, whatever you feel like) 20 seconds off. It's actually fun!
posted by OhFFS at 1:21 PM on May 31, 2020

Are you meant to progress at cardio in an easily measurable and progressive way?

For example, you could get really skillful at skipping rope and be able to do 100 with tiny hops that barely lift you off the ground. This is probably more of a workout than when you could barely do 2 in a row and had to stop all the time, but it's probably less of a workout when you were in some intermediate stage when you could do 20, with big galumphing inefficient hops.

How do you compare these situations -- by logging (max in a row, average in a row, average heart rate) and....then what?

Kettlebell swings are another guess. If you go light enough, your glutes will probably still recover, you'll be a machine at them because the technique is not so different from deadlifting, and you can just do a lot in a row. However, I am told that the better your technique, the harder it feels, as you're exploding more per swing.

Anyway: kettlebell movements are still hard to rank, but maybe you'll like it? I'm kind of in the same boat, where weights are easy and cardio sucks, and I've just concluded that traditional cardio is going to be effort with little reward (if you are already baseline fit).
posted by batter_my_heart at 2:26 PM on May 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

Measuring cardio for me is assessing if I can do it easier the next time. The activity where you plank while listening to "Roxanne" by the Police, doing a burpee each time they sing Roxanne was one where I could track how fit I was getting. Short, tough enough and easy to assess.
posted by freethefeet at 4:00 PM on May 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

For example, you could get really skillful at skipping rope and be able to do 100 with tiny hops that barely lift you off the ground. This is probably more of a workout than when you could barely do 2 in a row and had to stop all the time, but it's probably less of a workout when you were in some intermediate stage when you could do 20, with big galumphing inefficient hops.

I've read that with all cardio you get a lot of your gains by getting more efficient with your movements, so you can't help that. It's the same with weights, anyway, when you first start out, so the OP is no doubt familiar with this issue. I wouldn't choose the exercise based on this.
posted by lollusc at 5:57 PM on May 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you buy a concept2 rower and work on your sprints/endurance there are all sorts of plans where you can increase fitness with relation to stroke rate, 500m or 2k completion etc. e.g.pete plan
. Concept2 ergs interface with heart rate monitors and there are 3rd party apps that you can join leagues to get involved with etc. I recommend getting a refurbished one....(of course the concept2 website is out of stock because of covid, but craigslist/fb marketplace is your friend)

Bonus: if you're powerlifting, rowing is the ideal warmup for powerlifting - all crossfit gyms (often share space w/powerlifting) and many powerlifting gyms have an erg or 2 for this very reason; getting your rowing chops up means you can really push at the beginning of your powerlifting session and get nice and warm safely and quickly.

Read what greg nuckols says about cardio and powerlifting for more info...tl;dr get your cardio good and don't overtrain and your powerlifting will get better too....
posted by lalochezia at 7:29 PM on May 31, 2020 [2 favorites]

Have you been trying cardio at all since you started lifting? If you haven’t been — that is, if you dismissed cardio as boring and frustrating first, and then got into lifting — you may be really surprised by how good shape you’re in, cardio wise.

I am a puny version of you: I don’t like cardio much, it’s mostly frustrating and I don’t improve. So my regular workout is three days a week, squats, bench, chin-ups, overhead presses, and deadlifts. (Although much lower weights than you mentioned.) It takes under an hour, of which a lot of time is dinking around on my phone during the timed rest between sets, and I’m largely not gasping for breath. And that’s all I do other than an ordinary city-dweller amount of walking.

Obviously, though, the gym is closed for the global pandemic, so I’ve been running. And after literally just a week or two figuring out which way my feet are attached and so on, I realized I could basically run forever — 5-7 mile runs aren’t particularly hard so long as I’m not going fast. I miss lifting, but apparently it did wonders for my cardio fitness.

Your mileage may vary, but your weight workouts may have been enough to make you a pretty strong runner starting out, without all the frustrating ramping up.
posted by LizardBreath at 3:13 AM on June 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Get a kettlebell and do kettlebell swings at home. Over the past couple of months working from home I set an initial goal of 100 x 24kg consecutive swings, which I got within two weeks, and now I am at 60 x 40kg consecutive swings working towards 100. Dunno what I will do after that as I'm all out of kettlebells and they can't be had for love or money. Point is, it's a helluva cardio workout.

A session takes maybe 15 minutes when you're building towards the 100 (like, a set of 40, two of 30, whatever) but once you get there it's only a couple of minutes of work, and then 10 of fighting to not die.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:14 PM on June 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for weighing in. I appreciate the answers even if this thread mostly confirmed my suspicion: there is no easy-and-brief cardio in the sense I was looking for. That probably has more to do with my idiosyncratic desires and situation than it actually being an impossible thing. I probably should have been clearer about my situation, with a job and two young kids I can't really bring myself to set aside more than 30 minutes a day on top of all the walking and playing outside we already do. So I was looking for "not intense" and "less than 30 minutes per day" and "not as dull as running" (I've been doing that three times a week for over a month and frankly I'm bored) and "can see some kind of outcome" (I'm barely any faster at running than when I started so I need to pick a new outcome). I can find strength exercises that fit that description but it's a lot harder for cardio.

Thanks for the idea of checking how quickly my heart rate returns to resting as that seems like a good objective measure. Whatever cardio I choose, I will try using that as measure.

I like the jumping rope idea, I used to do that and just dug up my old rope. This whole thread also reminded me that I used to really like punching bag workouts so I think I'm going to do a mix of running, jumping rope, and punching bag once I can find a used one on Craigslist.

I don't think you're going to find an easy workout that does what you want. Pretty much. Your suggestion of HIIT might be good for other readers, but I'm not doing HIIT again — I find it boring and uncomfortable so I won't stick with it.

Have you been trying cardio at all since you started lifting?... you may be really surprised by how good shape you’re in, cardio wise. You're very right, back when I was 40 lbs lighter all I did was lift but I could still go run a 5K in a reasonable time with no problems. That isn't true these days.

Just go for a walk. I love the idea of walking and just going further or harder if I want to train harder, but since I only have 30 minutes a day I would rather run than walk. But this is a good idea for later when I have more free time.
posted by Tehhund at 12:47 PM on June 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

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