Man wearing red shirt running down street

Martí Sans/Stocksy

How to Fit Beginner-Friendly Cardio Workouts Into Your Fitness Routine

Experience the benefits of cardio on your schedule.

By Amy Marturana WinderlMarch 26, 2024


Cardio, cardio, cardio—Whether you love it or avoid it, it's an essential component of any well-rounded fitness routine. So take it from us, beginners: You shouldn’t shy away from quick cardio workouts.

Below, experts including Peloton instructor Susie Chan share their beginner-friendly advice on all things cardio, such as guidance on how much you really need, the potential benefits, and tips on how to incorporate more efficient, heart-pumping workouts into your routine.

What Are Cardio Workouts?

Simply put, cardio (short for cardiovascular training or conditioning) is any activity that elevates your heart rate, Susie explains. It’s a form of aerobic exercise, which the American College of Sports Medicine defines as “any activity that uses large muscle groups, can be maintained continuously, and is rhythmic in nature.” 

When people think of cardio, their minds typically go straight to running, rowing, or cycling—all activities you do for longer than a couple of minutes to keep your heart rate up, Susie says. Although those are all great options, they aren’t the only ones.

“Any time you go from being sedentary to up and moving your body, you’re using your cardiovascular system,” Adam Bennett, MD, a sports medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine Medical Group in Evanston, Illinois, says. And your workout doesn’t have to be a specific duration to qualify as cardio. “It can be anything from five minutes to five hours.”

Some of the most effective cardio activities, such as walking, don’t get nearly enough credit. In fact, walking is one of the most accessible cardio workouts you can do, and researchers have found that it can provide both short- and long-term benefits, including a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease.

"Cardio should really be a part of a well-rounded fitness program,” Susie says. “It doesn't have to be running very fast or lifting very heavy. It’s all about keeping a little bit of variety.”

Two women walking side by side by track

Brat Co/Stocksy

The Benefits of Cardio

Contrary to popular belief, cardio doesn’t have to be grueling to be beneficial, Susie says. “Your heart rate just has to come up, and you have to be a little out of breath. It just needs to be more than your body is used to,” she explains.

Plus, there are a lot of upsides to incorporating cardio into your routine, according to Dr. Bennett, who views this type of movement as preventive medicine. “Cardio helps you avoid bad health outcomes,” he says. “If you’re not moving, your health declines and your risk for heart attack, stroke, hypertension, and more increases.”

Other benefits that can result from doing cardio include:

  • A stronger heart. According to the American Heart Association, aerobic exercise conditions your heart to pump blood more effectively throughout your body, sending oxygen and nutrients to your muscles. After all, your heart is a muscle, so the stronger it is, the better it's able to do its job. 

  • Improved cholesterol and lipid levels. A review published in Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine in 2018 suggests that endurance training is associated with increased levels of high-density lipoprotein, the “good” type of cholesterol, and a reduction in triglyceride levels, a type of fat in your blood. Together, these changes can reduce the risk of heart disease. (Of course, it's important to note that the relationship between exercise and lipid levels is dependent on a variety of factors including workout intensity, duration, and diet.)

  • Bolstered immunity. Looking to strengthen your immune system? Research published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science found moderate or vigorous aerobic activity can stimulate cells in your immune system that improve defense activity and metabolic health, reducing your risk for illness.

  • Enhanced mood and reduced stress. Cardio is known as an all-around mood booster, and for good reason. Research published in Brain Plasticity suggests that a single session of aerobic exercise can improve your mood and decrease your stress levels.

  • Improved cognition. Although further research is needed on exercise’s effect on the human brain, a review published in AIMS Neuroscience cites findings that even just one bout of aerobic exercise can have cognitive benefits including improved executive functions (like learning, paying attention, and forming memories).

How Much Cardio Do You Need?

When it comes to the amount of cardio you need, there’s no magic number (although some is better than none). However, for adults to receive “substantial health benefits” from cardio workouts, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends the following:

  • Option 1: A minimum of 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, like brisk walking or active types of yoga.

  • Option 2: A minimum of 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, such as running or cycling, or higher intensity exercise classes, such as shadowboxing or bootcamps

  • Option 3: An equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. For example, you might do three 15- or 20-minute high-intensity workouts and two longer walks.

Regardless of which guideline you aim to hit, try to evenly distribute your cardio bursts throughout the week. For example, you can do 30 minutes over the span of five days instead of cramming in 150 minutes in a day or two. It’s also smart to add variety to your workouts to avoid overuse injuries.

“Doing the same repetitive movement, like running, five or more days without resting will put a lot of stress on the same joints and tendons,” Dr. Bennett says. “If you can vary it up just a little, you’ll get the benefits of cardio and avoid any aches and pains that prevent you from staying healthy.” For example, runners can mix in cycling, rowing, or HIIT workouts as cardio alternatives.

HIIT or LISS: The Often Misunderstood Types of Cardio

As you delve deeper into cardio, you’re likely to come across the acronyms “LISS” and “HIIT.” Here’s what you need to know about each training style:

  • Low-intensity steady state (LISS). When you're doing LISS cardio, also known as zone 2 cardio, you’re continuously moving at an intensity that allows you to converse but maybe not to sing, Dr. Bennett says. LISS cardio raises your heart rate and breathing rate, but not to an uncomfortable point. It shouldn’t feel like you’re struggling to keep up. “If you’re new to exercise, LISS is a great place to start,” Dr. Bennett says. Your rate of perceived exertion (RPE), or how hard you feel you’re working on a scale from one to 10, should be around a four or five, he says. That might be a brisk walk or a steady stationary bike ride without any major hills or sprints.

  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT cardio involves alternating bouts of high-intensity pushes and low-intensity recovery periods. These workouts are usually quick but effective because you can do a lot of work in those short, intense intervals. On a scale of 10, your RPE during the work intervals should be between a seven and a nine, whereas your rest intervals should be between a one and a three.

Beginner-Friendly Cardio Equipment

One great thing about cardio workouts is that they typically aren't equipment-dependent. That said, having access to cardio machines can be really helpful, especially when the weather ruins your outdoor fitness plans. Here’s a quick rundown of cardio machines you’re likely to encounter at a gym or consider purchasing for your home:

  • Treadmill. The treadmill isn’t just for running; You can also use it for a steady-state walk, hike, or jog-walk combination. Worried you’ll get bored? You can do expert-led runs, themed walking classes, bootcamp classes, and more on the Peloton Tread and Peloton Tread+

  • Recumbent bike. This type of exercise bike, which has a backrest and puts you in a slightly reclined position, is one of Dr. Bennett’s favorite pieces of equipment for beginners. “Your posture is a little more comfortable sitting back and relaxing, you’re using one of the biggest muscle groups (legs and glutes), and you can watch TV,” he explains.

  • Stationary bike. Another great low-impact cardio option, the stationary bike (think: a Peloton Bike or Peloton Bike+) makes it easy to increase intensity and add variety to your workouts. For example, you can ride standing up, alternate between being in and out of the saddle, and quickly adjust the resistance level with the turn of a dial. Stationary bikes offer a quick but effective workout that you can do on your own or in a beginner-friendly class

  • Rowing machine. So much cardio focuses on the lower body, but rowing machines, including the Peloton Row, engage your whole body. The only caveat: Proper form is crucial for a safe and effective workout. So if you’ve never used a rowing machine before, ask a trainer for a quick tutorial, use the Row's Form Assist feature, or check out Peloton's Form & Drills Row classes.

Cardio Workouts You Can Do Anywhere (No Equipment Needed)

Bodyweight workouts can double as strength training and cardio—no equipment needed. If you take minimal rest between moves (or even repeat a single exercise like mountain climbers or high knees), you can raise your heart rate and challenge your cardiovascular system. In order to ensure you have an effective equipment-free cardio session, consider the following:

Exercise selection. A lot of bodyweight strength moves also count as cardio exercises, but you need to make sure you choose the right ones. In general, compound exercises, which engage multiple muscle groups at once, also challenge your cardiovascular system, especially if you move through them quickly. Here are some of our favorite beginner-friendly bodyweight exercises that can also give you a cardio workout. (Tip: The faster you do them, the harder the aerobic challenge becomes.)

Intensity. You can string some of these moves—or any other beginner-friendly bodyweight exercises—together to create a quick strength and cardio workout. But the best way to do it depends on whether you prefer LISS or HIIT. Keep reading for guidance on how to approach each type of workout.

LISS Cardio Workouts for Beginners

To put together your own LISS workout:

  • Pick between two and four simple bodyweight exercises.

  • Do each exercise for 60-90 seconds, moving from one to the next without taking a break.

  • After completing the last move, repeat the full series as many times as you want, depending on how you’re feeling and how much time you have. 

“The level of effort should be comfortable, and you should move continuously,” Dr. Bennett says. Once you warm up, you should sustain an RPE of a four or five out of 10 the entire time. If you prefer more guidance during your workout, you can access a variety of LISS cardio options on the Peloton App

HIIT Workouts for Beginners

You can do the same exercises during a HIIT workout—just with a few tweaks. Instead of doing each exercise at a medium effort back-to-back, you’ll do the following:

  • Do one exercise at a hard effort (RPE at a seven to nine out of 10) for 60 seconds.

  • Rest for 60 seconds to let your heart rate come down.

  • Do the next exercise at a high intensity for 60 seconds.

  • Continue this pattern for a total of 10-15 minutes.

Or, you can let an expert tell you exactly what to do in one of the many beginner HIIT workouts on the Peloton App. Either way, pay close attention to your form. Because HIIT intervals are intense, beginners can injure themselves by pushing themselves too hard out of the gate. “Like with any type of training, you're going to want to gradually build up the intensity of the actual exercise and the length,” Susie says. “Don’t go too hard too quickly.”

Give yourself at least one day to recover in between HIIT workouts. And no, you don’t always have to take a passive recovery day. Some light LISS cardio, such as a walk or easy bike ride, can increase blood flow to your muscles and help them recover, Dr. Bennett says. The bottom line: Listen to your body. “If you go really hard and are sore the next day, that means you need a little recovery,” Dr. Bennett says.


Level up your cardio workouts

Enter your email to get articles, instructor tips, and updates from Peloton sent to your inbox.

By providing your email address, you agree to receive marketing communications from Peloton.

For more about how we use your information, see our Privacy Policy.