7 Best Cardio Workouts You Can Do at Home
Winter weather and the pandemic have put a damper on cardio workouts outside the home, but that doesn't mean you should skip your daily sweat.
Get moving for heart health
Standard cardio workouts can be hard to get pumped up for, even in the best of times. When you’re stuck inside—and the couch is calling your name—lacing up your sneaks for an at-home sweat session can be particularly tough. And yet, making time for cardio is one of the absolute best things you can do for your long-term health. In addition to helping you burn calories (essential, if weight maintenance or loss is a goal), regular cardio is critical for heart health.
Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States with the country racking up more than 650,000 deaths each year—an appalling number that doesn’t begin to account for all the heart attacks or heart disease-related health issues that don’t result in death.
The good news: Lifestyle-related choices—like performing regular cardiovascular exercise—can help lower blood pressure, increase insulin sensitivity, reduce atherosclerosis and plaque formation, reduce aortic valve calcification, and increase organ perfusion of blood. These benefits, among others, were cited in a review of studies published in 2018 in Frontiers of Cardiovascular Medicine, highlighting how regular cardio can help reduce disease risk and burden.
Every bit counts
And the thing is, you don’t have to turn into a CrossFit athlete or marathon runner to reap the benefits. As little as 15 minutes a day of moderate-intensity cardio has been shown to reduce the risk for all-cause mortality, with benefits increasing up to roughly 50 to 60 minutes a day of more vigorous exercise.
That means that even on your darkest, coldest, least motivated days in a quarantine-requiring pandemic, it’s still possible to muster the energy to eke out 15 minutes of cardio to maintain or improve your health. And who knows, after that first 15 minutes, you might have the energy to keep on going.
How to begin
If you haven’t exercised in years, or you have health issues (particularly heart issues), it’s important to check with your doctor before starting a new routine. Chances are your doctor will jump up and down and say, “Yes, please start!” without a second thought. Generally speaking, simple cardio exercises like walking or swimming are safe for all. But it’s always important to make sure your doctor is on-board with changes to your routine.
And if you don’t know where to begin, it’s much easier than you may think. Here’s your crash course on the best ways to squeeze in cardio at home.
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Truly, walking is one of the absolute best cardiovascular exercises you can do. It’s low-impact, requires zero equipment, and unless you have a major injury that prevents it, walking is accessible for practically everyone at any age or health status. You may think, “Wait a minute! Walking—at home?” Believe it or not, steps work just as effectively inside as they do outside. The key, of course, is to keep up your pace and to avoid stopping at the fridge for a snack.
One of the best ways to establish your routine is to “reward” yourself as you walk by giving yourself the freedom to play your favorite podcast or playlist as you step. This is better than turning on the TV because, with a podcast, you can throw on your headphones and tune out other distractions as you pace around the house.
Simply lace up your shoes and get to stepping. Commit to walking for at least 15 minutes. But try to pick a podcast or playlist that’s at least 20 minutes long and continue walking for the duration.
If you find that simply walking isn’t challenging enough, mix things up by walking backward, marching in place, or side-stepping to keep things interesting. And, hey, don’t be afraid to multi-task as you go. Walking around your house is a great time to straighten up, wipe down counters, pick up socks off the floor, and put shoes back in the closet. Just remember not to dawdle—your walking should remain purposeful and should be the primary focus of your time.
Check out more of the benefits of walking for just 15 minutes.
If you have access to a set of stairs—even a short flight—don’t be shy about putting them to use. Stair climbing is a form of amped-up walking, forcing you to lift your body’s weight up. This effort not only burns additional calories and increases your heart rate, but it also helps strengthen the major muscle groups of your lower body, including your calves, glutes, hamstrings, and quads.
The thing about stair climbing, though, is that it’s tough. You may not be able to pace up and down a set of stairs for a full 15 to 30 minutes without mixing things up. If you find you get winded after a few trips up the steps, march in place at the top or bottom of the stairwell to catch your breath between sets.
You may also enjoy mixing up the method of climbing—for instance, climb the steps sideways, take two steps at a time, or take wider steps laterally, traversing the width of the steps while also climbing upward.
An example of a simple routine might be:
- March in place for five minutes to warm up.
- Climb up and down the stairs (adjusting your pace as needed) for five minutes, taking breaks to march in place at the top or bottom if you become winded.
- March in place for two minutes.
- Climb up the stairs sideways (walk down normally), alternating the leading leg each time you scale the steps for two minutes.
- March in place for two minutes.
- Climb up the stairs two at a time (adjusting your pace or marching in place as needed) for two minutes.
- March in place for two minutes.
- Climb the stairs taking wide, lateral steps (adjusting your pace or marching in place as needed) for two minutes.
- Add another set of each exercise, if desired.
Just remember that as you get tired, you’re more likely to misstep. Keep a hand on the railing for support to help prevent a fall if you happen to slip. And if you feel lightheaded or short of breath at any point, slow down and take a break until you feel better again.
You don’t have to be particularly coordinated to bust a move from the comfort of your own home. Dancing is a great way to incorporate cardio into your home routine because, like walking, all you need is a pair of shoes and your favorite tunes. This is also a great way to get physically active as a family. Kids of all ages love dancing, so hosting a 30-minute post-dinner dance party can help you bond as a family while breaking a sweat.
But if you don’t want even your kids judging your dance moves, simply lock yourself in your bedroom, turn up the tunes, and get jiggy with it to your heart’s content. There really are no rules. Wave your arms in the air, do the twist, add a dab, or take things back to the ’90s with the Macarena.
The more you incorporate your entire body, the more energy you’ll use and the more calories you’ll burn. Aim for at least 30 minutes of dancing. But try to alternate between more intense and less intense beats to give yourself slight breaks from song to song. Need inspiration? Check out these dance-inspired workouts that don’t feel like exercise.
And if you want to actually use this time to improve your dance skills, look for cardio dance routines on YouTube or other streaming fitness platforms, like ClassPass or Grokker, so you can follow along with an instructor.
Jumping rope is a high-intensity cardiovascular activity that can burn as many calories per minute as jogging. This makes it an excellent choice for regular exercisers who want to break a serious sweat, but who can’t hit the gym or the trails for their normal routine due to extenuating circumstances.
The catch, of course, is that without practice, jumping rope is hard to perform consistently for long periods of time. And it does require higher ceilings and some open space to make it happen. If you want to incorporate jumping rope into your home-based routine, your best bet is to start slow and to give yourself the freedom to mix it up. Do a little bit of rope jumping alternated with walking, marching, jogging in place, or other heart rate-boosting moves, like burpees or skaters as you develop your efficiency and stamina.
Also, keep in mind that jumping rope is considered a high-intensity exercise. So you can reap major benefits from a short 15- or 20-minute routine. As you get better, you can increase the time you spend jumping, reduce the time you perform other moves, and start trying your hand at jump variations, like backward jumping, skipping, or crossing your arms and legs back-and-forth between jumps.
Consider the following 20-minute routine:
- Jog in place for three minutes to get your heart rate up.
- Jump rope slowly and steadily for two minutes. Consider this your warm-up. Don’t worry about missed steps or if your rope gets tangled, just reset and keep going if you make a mistake.
- Jump rope as fast as you can for 30 seconds, followed by a 30-second break. Repeat four times for a total of five minutes.
- March or jog in place for three minutes. If you’re more conditioned, alternate between 30 seconds of burpees, skaters, and mountain climbers for three minutes.
- Jump rope slowly and steadily for two minutes. Consider this your time to work on pace, coordination, and consistency.
- Jump rope as fast as you can for 30 seconds, followed by a 30-second break. Repeat two times for a total of three minutes.
- March in place for two minutes as you bring your heart rate down.
If at any point you become frustrated or tired of using the jump rope itself (this is very common if you’re new to jumping rope!), you can “fake rope” by performing the action as though you have a jump rope in your hands, without actually using a rope.
Maybe you’ve heard of Tabata training. It’s a specific type of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) that was introduced by exercise scientist, Izumi Tabata in 1996. Tabata’s protocol, which included eight rounds of intervals alternating between 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest, was developed to be performed on stationary bicycles in a lab and was intended to completely exhaust participants by the end of the four-minute Tabata.
Scientifically speaking, outside of a monitored exercise laboratory, you’re unlikely to attain true Tabata-level intensity. Most people are simply unlikely to push themselves as hard as is required to perform a true Tabata unless they’re “forced” to do so under guided supervision. That said, Tabata-style workouts that incorporate high-intensity moves that use the Tabata format—eight rounds of 20 seconds of work/10 seconds of rest—are an excellent way to add a fast, intense cardio routine at home.
The difference is because you’re probably not actually doing a true Tabata, a single, four-minute Tabata-style interval isn’t going to cut it. Instead, aim to complete four rounds of Tabatas for a total workout of 16 minutes, allowing a couple of extra minutes of rest between each Tabata.
First, choose the exercises you want to perform during each Tabata. You can either perform the same exercise for all eight rounds of a single Tabata, or you can alternate between exercises in each Tabata. Either way, choose whole-body cardio moves like burpees, mountain climbers, skaters, jumping jacks, high-knee running in place, squat jumps, or jumping rope.
It’s a good idea to select four total exercises. That way, you can complete four Tabatas, each focusing on a separate exercise. Or you can perform two sets of each exercise during each Tabata to mix things up.
A single Tabata might look like this:
20 seconds burpees
10 seconds rest
20 seconds skaters
10 seconds rest
20 seconds jumping jacks
10 seconds rest
20 seconds mountain climbers
10 seconds rest
Repeat the series a second time.
After completing the eight total rounds, rest for a minute or two before proceeding with your next Tabata.
Circuit training is an excellent way to hit two birds with one stone, as it uses strength training exercises in a way that qualifies as cardio. The idea is simple—you alternate between exercises without allowing for rest between each move.
Each individual exercise may not be incredibly intense. But the continued switching between exercises without allowing for rest helps elevate your heart rate and keep it high, turning your strength workout into a cardio routine, too. In fact, according to research published in 2018 in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation, a 12-week circuit training routine may improve physical fitness and prevent metabolic diseases (like heart disease).
When choosing exercises for a circuit, pick eight to 10 moves that target all your major muscle groups. You can select bodyweight-only exercises, like lunges and pushups. Or you can choose to add dumbbells, kettlebells, or resistance bands to provide a wider range of options.
You may also want to include short bursts of cardio between strength moves to further increase your heart rate.
Consider this 30-minute circuit as a jumping-off point for your own routine:
45 seconds air squats, 15 seconds jumping jacks
45 seconds seated resistance band row, 15 seconds jumping jacks
45 seconds pushups, 15 seconds jumping jacks
45 seconds alternating lunges, 15 seconds jumping jacks
45 seconds single-leg deadlift (left side), 15 seconds jumping jacks
45 seconds single-leg deadlift (right side), 15 seconds high-knee march
45 seconds dumbbell shoulder press, 15 seconds high-knee march
45 seconds overhead triceps dumbbell extension, 15 seconds high-knee march
45 seconds biceps hammer curl, 15 seconds high-knee march
45 seconds Russian twists, 15 seconds high-knee march
Rest for two minutes following the full circuit, then repeat the circuit two more times.
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Cardio machine workout
If you happen to have access to a cardio machine at home, don’t let it become a clothes hanger! An exercise bike, a treadmill, a rowing machine—they all qualify. Even though machine workouts aren’t necessarily the most exciting, they’re certainly an effective way to stretch your legs when you can’t get outside for a run, bike ride, or row.
The principles of cardio machine workouts are basically the same, regardless of the machine you happen to own. Spend about five minutes warming up, gradually increase your intensity. Then choose either a steady-state routine—one in which you maintain your intensity for a predetermined amount of time—or incorporate intervals of speed or resistance as the meat of your workout before gradually reducing your intensity for a cool down.
Cardio machine workouts are also an excellent time to multitask: Tune into your favorite show, listen to an audiobook, or catch up on your most-loved podcast. Consider your time on the machine as your “me time,” and disconnect from the rest of the world as you take care of your health and let yourself indulge in a form of entertainment that you enjoy.
A good steady-state machine workout is appropriate for just about every fitness level. Gauge your intensity by using the Borg Perceived Exertion Scale, where 1 would be the equivalent of sleeping, and 20 would be an all-out sprint you couldn’t maintain for longer than a few seconds.
With this scale, a “moderate-intensity” rating falls between 12 to 14, with intensity increasing to “vigorous” between 15 and 19.
Consider the following 30-minute routine:
- Use the first five minutes to warm up, gradually increasing speed or resistance from roughly a 9 on the Borg scale to a 12.
- Spend the next five minutes maintaining a steady-state at 12.
- Increase intensity slightly to a 13 or 14, and maintain for five minutes.
- Spend the next 10 minutes alternating between 30 seconds at 15 and 30 seconds at 12.
- Spend your final five minutes reducing your intensity, gradually slowing from a rating of 12 to a rating of 9.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Perceived Exertion"
- Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation: "Effect of circuit training on body composition, physical fitness, and metabolic syndrome risk factors in obese female college students"
- Journal of Physiological Sciences: "Tabata training: one of the most energetically effective high-intensity intermittent training methods"
- Lancet: "Minimum amount of physical activity for reduced mortality and extended life expectancy: a prospective cohort study"
- Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine: "Cardiovascular Effects and Benefits of Exercise"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Heart Disease Facts"