Running is one of the most efficient forms of cardio or aerobic exercise because it’s a total-body, high-impact activity. Within just a few minutes of running or jogging, your heart rate will be significantly elevated in an effort to deliver oxygen to your muscles.
Running is the go-to form of cardio for many of us, but there are plenty of other alternatives to running to give the heart and lungs a great cardio workout.
Incorporating different types of cardio into your fitness routine can add the variety your mind needs to prevent boredom and keep workouts feeling motivating and engaging, and the variety your body needs to prevent overuse injuries, muscle imbalances, and fitness plateaus.
In this guide, we’ve compiled a list of cardio alternatives to running for injured runners or to supplement your training if you want to keep things feeling fresh and fun.
So, if you’re tired of defaulting to the treadmill for your cardio exercise, keep reading for novel running alternatives for aerobic exercises that will get your heart pumping.
In this guide, we will cover:
- What Is Cardio?
- Benefits of Cardio
- 16 Cardio Alternatives to Running
- The Best Cardio Exercise
Let’s get started!
What Is Cardio?
In the context of exercise, cardio, which is also called aerobic exercise, is physical activity that conditions the cardiovascular system and increases your heart rate while still being performed “with oxygen.”
In other words, during cardio, your heart rate and breathing rate increase, but you’re not totally breathless while you work out.
Generally speaking, the aerobic exercise zone is 70-80% of your maximum heart rate. For example, if your maximum heart rate is 180 bpm, a cardio workout would ideally put your heart rate in the range of 126-144 bpm.
Benefits of Cardio
Whether running or doing cardio alternatives to running, aerobic exercise has many health benefits, such as the following:
- Strengthening the heart and lungs
- Improving lung function and tidal volume and reducing symptoms of asthma
- Reducing blood pressure
- Reducing the risk of lifestyle diseases like obesity, diabetes, and atherosclerosis
- Improving the elasticity and capacity of blood vessels
- Increasing capillary density in muscle tissue
- Reducing blood glucose levels and improving insulin sensitivity
- Reducing LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels
- Increasing HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels
- Strengthening the immune system
- Improving sleep
- Improving mood
- Reducing anxiety
In addition to these aforementioned benefits of aerobic exercises in general, low-impact cardio alternatives to running have the added benefit of minimizing stresses on joints.
16 Cardio Alternatives To Running
When you want to bust out of your usual running routine and try cross-training, here are some alternatives to running for your cardio exercise:
Walking is certainly one of the simplest forms of aerobic exercise, but depending on your level of fitness, it can be difficult to get a vigorous cardio workout through walking, and even the most intense walking workouts rarely match the cardio intensity of running.
Wearing a weighted vest, carrying hand weights, and walking backward are also effective means of boosting the metabolic and cardiovascular demands of walking.
If you’re not walking on a treadmill where you can check your heart rate on the handrails, consider wearing a fitness watch or heart rate monitor for your walks to ensure you’re pushing yourself hard enough to get a decent cardio workout.
Cycling can take on many forms, from mountain biking and outdoor cycling to spinning and stationary bike workouts indoors. No matter how you pedal, cycling is a fantastic low-impact cardio exercise to add to your list of alternatives to running.
It strengthens your heart, lungs, and entire lower body, and you can easily vary your routine, resistance, and cadence to keep your fitness progressing.
Swimming can be as difficult as it is restorative. For the best cardio workout, be sure to push the pace with your laps while maintaining good form. Try intervals if your endurance in the water isn’t what it is on land.
#4: Aqua Jogging
Deepwater running or aqua jogging is one of the top go-to non-impact cross-training activities for injured runners. You can replicate the running motion more closely than most other forms of cardio without the pounding and impact stress of real running.
You can wear a flotation belt or go without—just be sure to keep your torso upright, core engaged, and keep those legs moving. The resistance of the water adds an extra level of difficulty.
#5: Elliptical Machine
Elliptical machines are among the most popular pieces of cardio exercise equipment because they offer many of the fitness benefits of running while minimizing the impact on your joints.
You can adjust the resistance and incline to vary your workouts and challenge your body as your fitness improves. Be sure to use the elliptical machines with movable arms to ensure you’re getting your heart rate up into the aerobic zone and getting a total-body workout.
#6: Stair Climbing
You can hop on a stair climber exercise machine at your gym or head to a local stadium or skyscraper to hoof it up real stairs. Either way, stair climbing is a challenging form of cardio.
Though most of us don’t have easy access to a boathouse on a lake or river, you can get an excellent cardio workout on a rowing machine or erg. Rowing is said to use 86% of the muscles in your body, so it’s as good of a total-body strengthening workout as it is an aerobic or cardio one.
#8: Boxing and Kickboxing
Shadowboxing or punching and kicking a heavy bag is a fantastic cardio workout. You can also add in push-ups, jumping rope, squats, and lunges in between rounds.
Hiking is essentially just walking in a wilderness setting, yet it is often even more conducive to cardio workouts because of the inherent challenges of the terrain. Wearing a pack can increase the intensity along with the number of calories you’ll burn on your hike.
#10: Cross-Country Skiing
Also referred to as Nordic skiing, cross-country skiing is a low-impact, total-body workout since you also rely heavily on your upper body to propel you forward with your ski poles.
Another great cardio idea to replace running when your usual roads or running trails have been transformed into a white wonderland of snow is snowshoeing.
Trudging through the snow on snowshoes is a fun way to quickly elevate your heart rate and have you wondering why you ever thought it was too cold to exercise outside.
Using poles will help with your balance and walking pace while simultaneously increasing the intensity of the workout by recruiting upper body muscles.
#12: Circuit Training and Calisthenics
Exercises like jumping jacks, burpees, mountain climbers, high knees, bodyweight squats, and push-ups are excellent ways to increase your heart rate and get your blood pumping for a solid cardio workout.
Completing calisthenics in a circuit fashion—one to the next with minimal rest—is the best way to keep your heart rate elevated throughout the duration of the workout.
Just remember that form should take precedence over speed.
#13: Jumping Rope
Jumping rope is a fantastic cardio workout. It can be extremely vigorous, so you’ll reap the bone-building and strengthening benefits of jumping rope along with the cardiovascular benefits of aerobic exercise.
Zumba and other forms of dance can provide a fun cardio workout. You can usually find free videos online or simply turn on your favorite upbeat music and choreograph your own routine.
Rollerblading is a fun way to get outside and get a good cardio workout. It’s also a good adjunct to running and other more typical forms of cardio because it engages your hips, glutes, and thighs in more of a lateral movement pattern, helping build stability and joint strength in areas that are typically weak.
It might look a little child-like, but you can harness your inner kid and enjoy the feeling of “playing” by rebounding, which is basically just a cardio workout version of jumping on a trampoline.
Rebounding is low-impact on your joints and muscles yet will elevate your heart rate and still strengthen your entire body. There are also workout videos for rebounding, and it can be a great tool for runners to work on form, cadence, and knee drive.
The Best Cardio Exercise
There is no single “best” form of cardio exercise; rather, any form of sustainable physical activity that increases your heart rate to an appropriate zone that you enjoy doing will serve you well.
You can use any of these running alternatives to vary the type of aerobic exercise you do. Try to pick options that use different muscle groups as it will help prevent overuse injuries and fitness plateaus.
Keep things fresh and fun, and don’t be afraid to try something totally out of your comfort zone! You might love it.