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Does ‘Cozy Cardio’ Really Work for Older Exercisers?

Lower-intensity workout routines have taken off on social media


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Anybody who’s stepped foot on a treadmill, power-walked their way around the neighborhood or suited up for an aqua aerobics class knows, cardio — short for cardiovascular exercise — is many things. Sweaty. Challenging. Invigorating. Intense. But cozy? Hardly ever.

And yet a type of exercise dubbed “cozy cardio” is looking to redefine what it means to get your cardio.

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Instead of exercise that feels punishing, cozy cardio is a kinder, gentler means to the end, putting as much emphasis on self-care and enjoyment as on getting your heart rate up. The trend was started by Hope Zuckerbrow, a Texas-based social media influencer, in search of a form of exercise that isn’t just about losing weight but a type that could actually “spark joy when it came to movement,” she told CNN in 2023.

Her favorite way to do that? Stroll on her at-home walking pad while watching television and sipping iced coffee, sometimes still in her bathrobe and fuzzy socks.

In the year or so since the phrase was coined, cozy cardio has become shorthand for any lower-impact, lower-intensity at-home exercise that involves getting your heart rate up in a way that feels good. All of which sounds great in theory (and on TikTok), but is it challenging enough to satisfy the goal of cardio?

Cardio — a.k.a. aerobic exercise — is meant to be at least moderate-intensity exercise involving larger muscle groups that’s done over extended periods to improve your overall cardiovascular system. 

“With eating and activity, it’s always important to consider new behaviors relative to previous behaviors,” says William Yancy, M.D., a professor of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine and medical director of Duke’s Lifestyle and Weight Management Center. If instead of eating junk food and sitting down while you are watching a movie, you ate healthier foods and started a cozy cardio routine,“then the new behaviors are a definite move in a healthy direction,” Yancy says. “If you’re able to maintain the new behaviors because you enjoy them and are satisfied with your progress, then I see all pros and no cons to this strategy.”

But it comes with a caveat: “If you are trying to lose weight or increase your fitness and not making progress, then additional changes may be necessary at some point,” he adds.

Does cozy cardio count?

Of the four types of exercise recommended by the National Institute on Aging — strength training, balance, flexibility and cardio — the latter is specifically intended to improve the health of your heart, lungs and circulatory system.

To make that happen, virtually every public health authority, from the American Heart Association to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recommends logging 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity.

Question is: What qualifies as moderate?

“Moderate-intensity exercises may be different depending on a person’s fitness level,” says Yancy. In other words, walking at a modest pace may be moderate intensity for some, but not for others, he explains.

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“The best ways to determine if the intensity is moderate, regardless of age or fitness level, is whether the activity increases the heart rate, leads to sweating, or makes it difficult to carry on an active conversation or sing,” Yancy says.

Cardio’s standard bearers may be running, swimming and cycling, but there are a number of everyday activities — like gardening, walking the dog, mowing the lawn, cleaning the house — that can get your heart rate up.

According to the CDC, to qualify as moderate-intensity physical activity, your target heart rate should be between 64 and 76 percent of your maximum heart rate, something you can estimate by subtracting your age from 220. If you’re 50 years old, for example, your estimated maximum age-related heart rate would be 170 beats per minute (bpm). The 64- to 76-percent levels would be:

  • 64 percent level: 170 x 0.64 = 109 bpm
  • 76 percent level: 170 x 0.76 = 129 bpm

If you’re that 50-year-old, moderate-intensity exercise will require the heart rate to remain between 109 and 129 bpm during physical activity. How do you know if you’re hitting your numbers?

“A heart rate monitor can help you track your heart rate and make sure you’re in the right zone for moderate-intensity exercise,” says Jeff Young, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and president of the American College of Sports Medicine’s greater New York regional chapter.

Why is cardio so important?

The name itself is a giveaway. “Cardio is named ‘cardio’ because it increases cardiovascular and cardiorespiratory fitness,” says Yancy. “Cardio activity can strengthen the heart, so it works more efficiently when at rest, lowering blood pressure. Cardio activity also helps the blood vessels to be more elastic, which also lowers blood pressure.”

That’s important at any age, of course, but it’s especially so for people over 50. For one thing, regular physical activity helps protect against cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer. It also helps improve mental health and can lower your risk of developing dementia. A study published in 2022 in the journal Circulation found that adults who exercised at least 150 minutes per week had a substantially lower risk of death from all causes than those who didn’t. Another study suggests the same is true for participants who replaced 30 minutes of daily sedentary time with even light-intensity physical activity.

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That’s not all. “Regular cardio activity — especially when it includes walking and jogging, and even more so if on different terrains — helps maintain joint health and may help maintain or improve balance, reducing the risk of falls and improving overall mobility,” Young says. “After 50, the risk of osteoporosis rises, particularly in women. Weight-bearing cardio exercises, like walking or jogging, can help maintain bone density.”

Yet despite the across-the-board health benefits, physical activity levels among older adults remain below the recommended 150 minutes per week according to research published in BioMed Research International

Here are three ways to increase your odds of hitting the 150-minute mark.

1. Pick an activity you enjoy.

Research shows that engaging in exercise you enjoy is key to sticking with it. But how do you go about finding the sweet spot between cardio that you enjoy and cardio that counts?

“The great thing about performing healthy activities is that the more you do them, the more appealing they become,” says Yancy. He suggests adding something you enjoy, “or at least can tolerate” into your exercise routine— it could be nature, a friend, music, even your favorite TV show. “Over time, it will become easier and more appealing to make more advanced changes,” Yancy says.

2. Split up cardio sessions throughout the day.

Log multiple daily sessions — say, 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening, Young suggests. To make sure your sessions aren’t too “cozy,” he suggests using a fitness tracker or app to monitor your heart rate, distance, and calories burned during workouts.

3. Avoid monotony.

Try different cardio activities such as swimming, cycling, dancing or rowing. “Variety will help keep workouts fresh,” Young says. “Varying intensity (easier, harder) and duration (shorter, longer) is another way to add variety and avoid the staleness that often leads to boredom and burnout.”

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