Cardiovascular exercise is one of the best ways to stay fit. Beyond losing or maintaining weight, cardio workouts strengthen your heart, lungs, muscles, and even bones. There are many exercises available, but which are the best cardio workouts for women? From walking to kickboxing, we’ll show you the best options.

A woman’s body is a powerful and complex thing, capable of athletic marvels, day-to-day hustle and bustle and feats of strength and endurance that men can’t possibly imagine. If you’re looking to take your physical fitness or personal appearance to the next level or just want to be healthier, a cardiovascular exercise routine is essential.

Cardio workouts are great for the whole body and provide nearly countless benefits to women, from heart health to flexibility, to increased bone density to help fight off osteoporosis. Whether you’ve decided to embark on an exercise adventure for the first time, are looking to drop your typical routine for something new or want to challenge yourself like never before, this list will point you in the right direction to discover great cardio workouts for women.

How we compiled our list

You have a seemingly endless choice of cardio activities to choose from, and they all have their benefits. To try to distill the scope of cardio and make your choices easier, we chose six exercises that are very different, from across the spectrum of cardio, rather than highlight slight variations. Since the success of a new workout routine is often determined by how much it interests you, (and consequently, how much you’re willing to keep doing it) our goal was to present a wide array of extremely effective cardio workout options, from walking to kickboxing. This list isn’t ranked based on quality; the best exercise on this list is the one that looks best to you!

1. Swimming

woman swimming

There are three keys to effective cardiovascular exercise:

  1. Increase your heart rate
  2. Give your lungs a workout
  3. Challenge your muscles

Swimming does all three at once very effectively. It’s truly a full-body workout. Your upper body is propelled by your arm, back, and shoulder muscles, while your lower body is pushed by your kicking legs, thigh muscles, glutes, and hips. All the while, your all-important cores muscles in your stomach and back are engaged and tight, giving you a solid muscular foundation.

As all these muscles work together, your heart gets a workout pumping oxygen-rich blood to them. Your lungs are put to the test as you hold your breath for intervals while your head or face are underwater. Plus, the long, stretching motions required to achieve good form strengthen your bones while limbering your muscles. For many women, swimming is the perfect exercise.

2. Running

woman running

For many people, running is what comes to mind when they think of cardio exercise. There’s a reason for that; it’s straightforward and can be done a multitude of different ways in all sorts of environments. However, while most people certainly know how to run, they may not necessarily know what the most effective way to go about it will be for them. This often leads to people trying to run too far or too fast too soon and getting discouraged and giving up.

Here’s what women who are considering starting a running regimen need to consider. First, your fitness level: If you aren’t an active person, don’t start by trying to run a mile. Start with short intervals, take frequent breaks, and be sure to properly stretch your hips, hamstrings, and thighs.

You should also consider where you’re going to run. A treadmill on a gym can be a great choice because it’s a consistent and controlled environment. However, if you have weak or damaged knees, the bouncing motion on the belt can aggravate them. You could ease up pressure on the knees by using an elliptical machine or tying a run outside with some variations of incline.

Speaking of outdoor inclines, while cross-country running is a great way to vary your intensity and heart rate, you need to be careful not to bite off more than you can chew. If your planned route includes steep hills, use them as break periods to breathe and walk.

3. Circuit Training

You might think that circuit training is a weightlifting exercise rather than a cardiovascular one. While weights are used for some of the exercises, circuit training is at its heart a cardio obstacle course. The basic idea is simple: an instructor moves you from station to station at the gym, spending a short time at each (usually one to two minutes), and then rotating after a brief break. Circuit training employs the principles of varying intensity and muscle confusion to force your heart, lungs and muscles to work hard, creating an exercise routine that truly strengthens the whole body.

Since circuit training can be intense, it may not be ideal for ladies who are just beginning their fitness journey. Talk to an instructor beforehand about how advanced it will be, and ask if you can be allowed to sit out or do simpler variations on more challenging exercises.

4. Bicycling

woman riding a bike

Bicycling incorporates all the previously mentioned components of cardio exercise, in a lower-impact setting. For many people, bicycling is an easy and fun way to get back into a cardiovascular routine because it can be softer on the muscles. An outside bicycle ride can also be very relaxing, as you will deeply breathe in fresh air while enjoying the scenery. Many communities have incredible bike trails that provide a unique look at your town that few people get to see.

The social aspect of bicycling is appealing as well. You can gather a group of friends or family members and enjoy a bike ride together, possibly carrying on conversations as you go.

That’s not to say biking has to be low speed and low intensity. You can build up speed and endurance on a challenging cross-country route or really get going on a stationary bike. Many women love taking more intense “spin” classes. By setting the stationary bike seats higher, they target and tone lower body muscles and sweat away extra weight at the same time.

The key to an effective and safe bicycle workout is making sure your bike is adjusted to have the seat and handlebars at the right height and angle for your body. If you’re riding cross-country, it’s a good idea to have a professional adjust your bike each spring, making sure your tires and tubes are in good working order, and the bike is set up properly for your needs.

5. Kickboxing

If you’re looking for a high-intensity workout that focuses on building long, lean muscle tone while challenging your heart, you might be up for a kickboxing routine. Kickboxing is the most challenging exercise on this list in many ways, but it can be modified to most fitness levels. There are several approaches to kickboxing, from true martial arts disciplines like Muay Thai, Taekwondo, or Karate, to modified practices like Tae-Bo or CrossFit. In some cases, like Zumba, dance is even incorporated into the training.

Like circuit training, most kickboxing programs have a large number of exercises (or sets) that focus on certain muscle groups. As the name would suggest, you’ll be punching and kicking with a high number of repetitions with your muscles firmly flexed and engaged. What this can do for the body is build strong, lean muscle from the resistance of your own flexed muscles. In other words, whereas in circuit training, dumbbells and hand weights provide the resistance, in kickboxing, your own body builds the heat and force. This causes a higher heart rate and burns more calories when done over longer periods of time (usually 30-60 minutes).

Some women enjoy using kickboxing videos at home to train. While that can work well, it’s important to remember that proper form and technique is critical to kickboxing. Since muscles can be pulled or hyper-extended or injuries can be sustained by losing balance, it’s best to train with a licensed instructor who can give you specific direction. This is particularly important when you’re getting started.

6. Walking

woman cardio walking

Finally, don’t let anyone tell you that walking isn’t a cardio exercise. It works out your heart, lungs, and muscles, doesn’t it? While it’s not as high-impact as the other routines on its list, it has several universal advantages when done properly. Firstly, it can be done at nearly any fitness level or age. If you’re not in the best of shape or recovering from an injury or illness, chances are you can still manage to walk. Even if you have to begin with just five minutes a day, this gets you off to a great start towards longer, more intense walks, or other, more heavy-duty exercises.

Secondly, walking can be done practically anywhere! You don’t need equipment or a gym membership. As long as you have a pair of shoes and some pavement, you have a state-of-the-art walking facility at your disposal. As an added bonus, if you can’t find time to dedicate to exercise before or after work, you may well be able to squeeze in a walk or two over a break or lunch hour and have your daily exercise off your plate before you clock out.

The key to an effective walking workout is changing your speed at intervals to vary your heart rate. Going from a leisurely pace for two minutes followed by a brisk pace for one minute accomplishes the same goal as circuit training on a less drastic scale.

A good cardio exercise should be something you look forward to. If you choose the one that best fits your fitness level, lifestyle, and goals, you’ll become a healthier you almost as soon as you begin. So go ahead and start moving!


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