What’s the Deal with Cardio?

While not a favourite pastime for many, cardiovascular exercise should be a central part of everyone’s fitness regime

Credited as being a natural mood booster, calorie burner and promoter of brain health, cardio has recently been hailed as a panacea. With levels of inactivity dramatically rising in our society, it has never been more important to get our hearts pumping faster—how exactly does cardio affect our body…for the better?

Depression & the brain

In addition to releasing mood-boosting endorphins, cardiovascular exercise can also combat depression and improve self-esteem. In a pilot study led by a German university, people with severe depression spent 30 minutes walking on a treadmill for 10 consecutive days. The research concluded there was ‘substantial improvement’ in mood in patients with major depressive disorders in a short time. In addition to this, cardio has been shown to protect against memory difficulty and age-related decline in brain connectivity.

The 3-pronged approach

Every cardio workout should include the following three elements:

Warm-up—it’s essential to warm up for five to 10 minutes before each workout to prepare your cardiovascular system for physical activity and increase blood flow to your muscles.

Conditioning—complete at least 30 minutes of cardio per session to develop your aerobic capacity and increase your heart rate, muscle endurance and depth of breathing.

Cool-down—cool down for 10 minutes after every workout by stretching your muscles. This will allow your heart rate to return to normal.

What is Cardio’s effect on the body?


  • Increases blood flow to the brain, decreasing the chances of stroke.
  • Improves memory and thinking ability.
  • Combats decline in brain functioning with age.
  • Protects against developing Alzheimer’s disease.


  • Increases circulation, leading to clearer and healthier-looking skin.


  • Helps control blood sugar.
  • Improves the ‘good’ cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein) and lowers blood fats.


  • Increases oxygen supply, allowing muscles to work harder.
  • Helps muscles adapt to an increased workload, making regular activities seem easier.


  • Improves blood sugar control, decreasing stress on the pancreas.
  • Reduces risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.


  • Helps decrease demands on the lungs as exercise ability improves.
  • Helps reduce fatigue and shortness of breath in those with chronic  lung problems.


  • Helps individuals maintain a healthy weight by burning more calories throughout the day.
  • Sexual function
  • Decreases the chances of erectile dysfunction in men.
  • Leads to enhanced arousal in women.

Bones & joints

  • Fights osteoporosis and reduces chances of a hip fracture.
  • Helps manage arthritis discomfort and maintain joint range of motion.


It’s important to start slow and check with your doctor before commencing any type of physical activity. If you’re just getting started, focus on simply finding an activity that gets you moving and your heart rate up. Any form of exercise will do—whether that is a bike ride, brisk walk, treadmill session or organised sport. Moderate activity should cause you to breathe faster and work up a sweat. Stop immediately if you experience unusual pain or alarming symptoms.


Guidelines state individuals require this much moderate-intensity cardio exercise 5 days a week or 20-minute vigorous cardio sessions three days a week

Source: American College of Sports Medicine


Men who did this amount of moderate to intense cardio 4 days a week saw an average increase of 5-6% in leg muscle size

Source: Exercise and Sport Science Reviews

This article was originally published in Live to 100 with Dr Hilary Jones. Read the digital edition, here. 

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