Are you seeking a new cardio routine? Guidelines from various leading health and fitness organization tell us we need to participate in cardio activities five times a week for a total of 150 minutes if we plan to exercise at moderate intensities; or three times a week for a total of 75 minutes if we plan to exercise at vigorous intensities; or some combination of both (1). But how do we define and distinguish moderate from vigorous intensity?
Unfortunately, this is where these same guidelines become murky as they provide a variety of complicated and inconsistent methods to distinguish the two.
Common Errors in Prescribing Cardio Programs
Many of us are familiar with the guideline that recommends an intensity that reflects a percentage of your maximal heart rate (HRmax) – calculated mathematically by subtracting your age from 220 (i.e., 220-Age). For example a 35-year old person would have an estimated HRmax of 185 beats per minute (220-35 = 185). If this person wants to train at 70% intensity she should keep her heart rate at 130 beats per minute (185 × 70% = 130).
However, this formula was never intended to be used as an instrument for designing cardiorespiratory fitness programs because maximal heart rate varies significantly among individuals of the same age. Estimating maximal heart rate from mathematical formulas can produce results that are ±10 to 12 beats per minute off the actual maximal heart rate (2). Ironically, although this guideline still exists on most pieces of cardio equipment, and is still referenced in many publications, the latest exercise guidelines now tell us to no longer use this formula given its inaccuracies as an intensity guide (1).
We are also told that the duration of each cardio bout should be at least 10-minutes in length to be beneficial. Does that mean that a 5-minute bout of exercise is essentially worthless? The answer is absolutely no as new research now demonstrates that even as little as four minutes of exercise may offer some positive benefits, especially for those individuals just beginning an activity program (3).
Furthermore, we are also told that our aerobic program should follow the FITT-VP principle that represents frequency, intensity, type, time, volume, pattern and progression; with each principle involving various and sometimes complicated scientific guidelines (1). Confused? Understandably so, but what if we simplified the entire process so that you could develop your own personalized cardio program that is based on science, but easy to use and follow?
- Start by first identifying cardio activities you currently participate in that you find enjoyable and feel confident in accomplishing. These are the activities you should participate in to get started.
- Next, following a simplified version of FITT-VP mentioned previously (what we will call VIP), let’s develop your program:
- Determine your realistic availability and commitment to your cardio program – identify the frequency and duration (i.e., volume) you are willing to commit to for exercise for the next four weeks. This should be based upon your current volume, but also consider your availability and confidence in completing this selected volume.
- Use the scale presented below to select an intensity you feel confident you can sustain for the duration of your cardio sessions (4). Keep in mind you will be able to choose between exercising at a steady-state intensity (fixed pace), performing intervals (e.g., a few minutes pushing a little harder followed by a lighter recovery, repeated several times), or following a combination of both.
- V: Volume or the amount of cardio you desire to complete on a weekly basis. For example, if you decide to participate in three cardio sessions this week, with each being 20 minutes long, then your weekly volume equals 60 minutes (3 x 20 minutes).
- I: Intensity or how hard you plan to push yourself. We will use the exertion scale provided below, basing your breathing and ability to talk to score as your intensity. This marker of intensity is preferred over a percentage of some mathematical calculation as breathing reflects your own unique metabolism and fuel utilization.
- P: Progression or how you plan to advance your program over time so that you continue to make improvements to your overall fitness and health. This generally ranges between 5% and 20% per week. See this blog for tips on progressions and regressions.
- Week 1: Calculate your initial volume (e.g., 3 sessions with each lasting 15 minutes equals 45 total minutes for the week).
- If you opt to follow an interval format, use an average intensity (e.g., a 3-minute work interval at “6” coupled with a 3-minute recovery interval at “4” averages to a score of “5”; a 5-minute work interval at “6” coupled with a 2-minute recovery interval at “3” averages/round to a score of “5”) (1).
- Develop your VIP program as follows: Volume x Intensity = Weekly Goal Challenge.
- Plan your progressions: Weekly progression must be earned, not just awarded. In other words, by achieving your weekly goal challenge, you grant yourself permission to progress your VIP program. As an example, a 10% weekly progression will increase your weekly goal challenge as follows:
- Your goal is to achieve your weekly challenge, which is recognized by permission to progress forward. Although your objective is to attain your weekly VIP challenge points as planned, it is important understand that points can be achieved through various modifications that allow flexibility to accommodate any unexpected or necessary changes to your schedule. Using week one as an example:
- For example, 3 sessions a week, each for 15-minutes at an average intensity of “5” equals 3 x 15 x 5 = 225 total weekly points.
- Week 1: 225 points.
- Week 2: 247.5 points (round to 250 points for simplicity).
- Week 3: 275 points.
- Week 4: 302.5 points (round to 305 points for simplicity).
- If you do not attain your weekly goal challenge, repeat the same weekly goal challenge the following week.
- Modifying Duration: 2 sessions x 20-minutes at a “5” + 1 session x 5-minutes at a “5” equals 225 points.
- Modifying Frequency: 2 sessions x 22½-minutes at a “5” equals 225 points.
- Modifying Intensity: 3 sessions x 12½ -minutes at a “6” equals 225 points.
The advantages of the VIP program lie in its simplicity, flexibility, ownership or accountability assumed with developing your program and controlling your progression, and its personalization – in that it is built around what you can do or desire to do rather than what you feel you need to do. Now that you are armed with this new tool, NASM challenges you to build your own program, and kick start your plan for a healthier new you.
- American College of Sports Medicine (2014). ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription (9th Edition). Baltimore, MD: Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins.
- Visich PS. Graded Exercise Testing. In: Ehrman JK, Gordon PM, Visich PS, Keteyan SJ, eds. Clinical Exercise Physiology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2003:79–101.
- Tabata, I., Nishimura, K., Kouzaki, M., Hirai, Y., Ogita, F., Miyachi, M., & Yamamoto, K. (1996). Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 28(10): 1327–1330.
- Kenney, LW, Wilmore, JH and Costill, DL. (2012). Physiology of Sport and Exercise (5th Edition). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.