The Metabolic Advantages of Cardio

Newsflash! Exercise is good for you. Okay, maybe this isn't breaking news, but it's worth repeating. Exercise confers all sorts of benefits, especially for cardiometabolic health (a way to measure the risk of heart and vascular disease).

a couple jogging on a path through a wooded park

It's estimated that only seven percent of U.S. adults have optimal cardiometabolic health. When it comes to metabolic health, cardio has some significant advantages.

So what exactly is cardio? Cardio, short for cardiovascular exercise, is any type of endurance exercise that gets your heart pumping and raises your heart rate. This could include activities like running, biking, swimming, or walking. The point is, your heart rate is up and you're working up a sweat.

In this article, you'll learn:

Understanding why something is so good for you often increases motivation to make positive changes, so let's dive in.

How Cardio Affects Metabolic Health

Cardiovascular exercise has been shown to improve markers of metabolic health, including:

All of these markers can measure your cardiometabolic health. Cardiometabolic health is a term used to describe your risk of developing cardiovascular disease and other metabolic diseases, like diabetes.

Additionally, regular physical activity can help reduce inflammation, which is known to play a role in metabolic dysfunction.

So regular exercisers have the upper hand in maintaining healthy metabolic function. They are more likely to avoid developing cardiometabolic risk factors in the first place. If they do have risk factors, cardio can help improve them.

On the flip side, someone with a sedentary lifestyle is more likely to develop cardiometabolic risk factors, leading to cardiovascular disease.

The moral of the story? Incorporating cardio into your routine is smart if you want to keep your cardiometabolic health in check.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>New to cardio? Increase your daily activity starting with </strong> <a href="/blog/neat-weight-loss">non-exercise thermogenesis</a>.</p>

Cardio Temporarily Boosts Your Metabolism

Cardio can increase the body's resting metabolic rate (RMR) for up to 48 hours after exercise. Your RMR is the number of calories the body burns while at rest. This means that, by doing regular cardio, you constantly burn more calories, even when you are not working out, which can help you maintain a healthy weight over time.

Cardio Can Support a Healthy Gut

Ever been told to take a walk after a big meal? There's a reason why this is a common recommendation.

Walking (or any other cardio) can help speed up the digestive process, so you just feel better. Walking is also linked to weight loss. But cardiovascular exercise has also been shown to support gut health in several ways. 

five people walking on treadmills at the gym
Walking stimulates digestive organs and literally keeps things moving.

First, regular aerobic exercise can help increase the number of beneficial bacteria in the gut and reduce harmful bacteria populations. It may not seem like an obvious connection, but the type of bacteria in your GI tract can affect metabolic health.

Regular exercise may also help to reduce inflammation in the gut. Inflammation in the gut is a root cause of many chronic diseases, including metabolic disorders.

So, by keeping inflammation in check, cardio can help reduce your risk of developing cardiometabolic diseases.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/gut-health-and-weight-loss">gut health, blood sugar, and weight loss</a>.</p>

Cardio Can Help Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a type of fat transported in the blood, and it's a primary marker for metabolic health. 

There are two types of cholesterol: HDL and LDL. HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, is considered "good" cholesterol because it helps remove bad cholesterol (LDL) from the arteries and transport it to the liver, where it is broken down and eliminated from the body.

LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, is considered "bad" cholesterol because it can build up in the arteries and increase the risk of heart disease. 13

The link between physical activity and cholesterol is strong. Exercising five days a week for at least 30 minutes a day appears to be especially beneficial for increasing HDL and could decrease LDL and total cholesterol. 

So how much cardio do you need to do to see a significant reduction in cholesterol levels? The research is still inconclusive, but at least five days a week is ideal. Even 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio per week can make a significant impact. 14 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong> <a href="/blog/lower-blood-sugar-cholesterol">lowering cholesterol and blood sugar</a>.</p>

Cardio Can Lower Triglycerides

Triglycerides are a type of fat stored in the body for energy. High triglycerides are linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Diets high in refined carbohydrates and sugar can lead to high triglyceride levels. Alcohol intake is also a major contributing factor.

A low-glycemic diet is a primary recommendation for high triglycerides, but exercise can also help. Studies suggest aerobic exercise after meals can help reduce triglycerides in the blood. Both high fat or high carb meals can increase triglycerides, at least temporarily, but cardio may help bring them down.

Cardio May Reduce Waist Circumference

Each person has a different body, so it's impossible to say precisely how much your waist circumference will decrease with cardio. But research shows that regular aerobic exercise can reduce waist circumference, even if someone doesn't lose weight.

Why does waist circumference matter? Some research shows that it's a much better predictor of cardiometabolic risk than BMI, especially for women. 

BMI is a screening tool, but a higher BMI doesn’t always mean someone is unhealthy. Since it only examines weight compared to height, BMI doesn't look at things like muscle mass, diet, or metabolic markers that matter more for predicting health outcomes.

On the other hand, studies clearly point to waist circumference as a risk factor for poor health outcomes. A healthy waist circumference is anything less than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/bmi">the limitations of BMI</a>.</p>

middle aged couple hiking in the woods using walking poles for balance
Larger waistlines are associated with a greater risk of heart attack.

Cardio Can Help Reduce Blood Pressure

Regular cardio is one of the best things you can do for your blood pressure, and you don't have to run a marathon to see results. Even moderate-intensity exercise can have a significant impact. Moderate intensity exercise is like a brisk walk, where you can still talk but can't sing the words to a song. 

Blood pressure and metabolic health go hand-in-hand because high blood pressure is a major risk factor for cardiometabolic disorders. By reducing your blood pressure with cardio, you're also reducing your risk of developing metabolic disease.

Cardio Helps Regulate Blood Sugar Levels

Exercise makes your cells more sensitive to insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. This means that your cells can more effectively remove sugar from your bloodstream and use it for energy. When cells don't respond to insulin the way they should, called insulin resistance, it's a significant risk factor for poor cardiometabolic health. Regular aerobic exercise can help prevent insulin resistance and keep blood sugar stable. 

On the other hand, a sedentary lifestyle can lead to insulin resistance, where your cells become less sensitive to insulin, and your blood sugar levels start to rise. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong> <a href="/blog/blood-sugar-high-blood-pressure">how blood sugar and blood pressure are related</a>.</p>

Cardio Helps Manage Uric Acid Levels

Uric acid is a waste product produced when your body breaks down purines. Purines are made by the body but are also found in foods like red meat, seafood, and organ meats.

High uric acid levels are linked to blood sugar dysregulation, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome (and a painful condition called gout). So keeping uric acid levels in check is crucial for metabolic health.

Aerobic exercise can help manage uric acid levels by supporting weight loss (there's a link between increased body weight and high uric acid levels).

Cardio Supports a Healthy Stress Response

Physical activity could help your body better deal with stress. When you're stressed, your body releases the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is the "stress hormone" released in response to physical or psychological stress.

Cortisol is an essential hormone, but chronically high cortisol can adversely affect health. Chronic stress is linked to an increased risk of metabolic syndrome.

Fortunately, aerobic exercise can help improve the body's response to stress. One study found that exercise helps dampen the response to psychosocial stressors.

a woman and a man kayaking on a river
Exercise helps regulate levels of stress hormones while boosting endorphin levels.

How to Reap the Metabolic Health Benefits of Cardiovascular Exercise

Whether you're just getting started or are an avid exerciser, there are plenty of ways to get the cardiovascular exercise you need to improve your metabolic health.

If You Already Have an Exercise Plan

Consider having a heart rate monitor to ensure you reach the right intensity level for your goals. Heart rate training zones are a great way to measure intensity.

It also may be worth hiring a certified personal trainer to help design a program tailored to your specific needs and goals to accelerate your progress.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn how to </strong> <a href="/blog/fat-burning-heart-rate-zone">calculate your target heart rate</a>.</p>

If You Exercise Every Once in a While

Maybe you already exercise a few times a month but want to increase the frequency or intensity of your workouts. Start by adding one or two cardio sessions to your routine each week.

Once that's a habit, you can gradually increase your frequency, duration, or intensity. And if you're feeling ambitious, you could even try adding some weight training to your routine to boost your metabolic health.

If You're New to Exercise 

If you're starting from scratch, it's helpful to ease into things gradually. Try starting with just 10 minutes of cardio three times per week. It's also helpful to try different types of cardio to find what works for you. Maybe it's swimming or walking. Or perhaps you prefer running or biking.

The important thing is to find an activity that you enjoy and can stick with in the long term.

Sometimes people already have an active lifestyle or job and aren't sure if they need to add more cardio. If this sounds like you, try tracking your steps and heart rate. Aerobic exercise means working at an intensity where your heart rate is raised and breathing harder to make your body more efficient at using oxygen.

No matter where you are in your fitness journey, it's clear that regular exercise is an essential part of a plan for optimal cardiometabolic health.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Keep reading about </strong> <a href="/blog/metabolic-workouts">metabolic workouts to boost metabolism</a>.</p>

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About the Author

Caitlin Beale Headshot
Caitlin Beale is a registered dietitian and nutrition writer with a master’s degree in nutrition. She has a background in acute care, integrative wellness, and clinical nutrition.
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