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Get Your Heart Rate Up… Without Running

Now that British Columbia has opened its gyms again, people are flocking back to the workout rooms just in time for a one-month delay on their New Year’s resolutions of exercising more. Don’t get me wrong, I’m absolutely thrilled that this is the case. I got into working out at home during the first lockdown phase of this pandemic and I am overjoyed to see others training their beautiful bodies. However, I can say with certainty that I’ve been spending most of my time in the free-weight section (similar to everyone else) and have been ignoring all those fancy machines that make me sweat buckets! I am a victim of the post-Christmas cardio blues, just like the rest of you. It’s that feeling you get after the holidays where the thought of getting yourself up for a run seems torturous, espcially if you have not raised your heart rate for a few weeks. Lately, the treadmill has just seemed so unappealing, and with this brisk January weather, running outside feels like a death sentence. 

And here we have our problem, many people find aerobic exercise to be unenjoyable. I’ll admit it, I’ve definitely had second thoughts while lacing up my running shoes and getting ready  for a solid treadmill session. Luckily, aerobic exercise does not have to be running, and I think running is where a lot of folks hop off the cardio train. Running is one form of aerobic exercise–and indeed probably the most notorious–however, it is certainly not the only option. If you don’t enjoy running, you’re in luck! In the spirit of reinvigorating my own motivation to stimulate my circulatory system, I’ve compiled a list with some of my favourite non-running aerobic alternatives to hopefully help you find an exercise you enjoy just as much as your weight-lifting sessions.

“Wait, what exactly is the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise?” 

Well, the answer lies in the etymology of each word. Aerobic literally means ‘with oxygen” (Healthline, 2018), which means that your body is actively using the oxygen you inhale to produce energy through the process of cell respiration. As a result, aerobic exercise usually involves raising your heart rate to a moderate level and keeping it raised for a sustained amount of time. This type of exercise has awesome internal benefits – meaning you won’t necessarily see physical gains in muscle but your heart, lungs and blood vessels will benefit (Healthline, 2018). Aerobic exercise benefits your cardiovascular system, hence why it is generally referred to as (you guessed it) cardio!

In contrast, anaerobic exercise involves your body producing energy without actively processing any oxygen you intake. This means that anaerobic exercises are performed at a higher intensity for much shorter intervals–so you have breaks where your body can ‘catch up’. Forms of anaerobic exercise include strength training, pilates, and some forms of yoga. Anaerobic exercise is where a lot of muscle building and toning happens–sounds great right? This is one of the major reasons why there’s recently been a surge in the popularity of anaerobic exercise. Even though anaerobic exercise may be having a moment right now, you shouldn’t be too quick to forget about cardio. A balanced and healthy workout program should incorporate both styles of training in order to grow muscle and protect your cardiovascular system in the process.

“Alright I’m in…how can I do some cardio without running?”

First things first: this is not by any means an exhaustive list of aerobic fitness beyond running. There are so many types of aerobic fitness classes and at-home workout videos that incorporate various forms of aerobic exercise, it’s impossible to cover them all here. Below are a variety of activities and exercises that have helped me out of my past cardio slumps and  are totally worth your while.

  1. Swimming

If you have access to a pool, swimming laps is an amazing way to get your heart rate up. It’s perfect for people who are recovering from injuries or avoid typical forms of cardio (like running) due to health concerns including joint or mobility issues. As a low-impact form of cardio, swimming does not put pressure on the knees and ankles unlike the repetitive motions of running and walking. In addition to being joint friendly and increasing aerobic health, swimming is a full body exercise that works your muscles from head-to-toe due to the resistance of the water. UVic has a swimming pool on campus (in the McKinnon building) that you can reserve in advance and the Gordon Head Rec Centre pool is a short 10-15 minute walk from campus.

I love a good swim session because it doesn’t feel super taxing in the moment and you can’t feel yourself sweating, but after you still get that same rush of post-cardio endorphins that you would from a run. Swimming is also a great way to practice breath control which can be really helpful for your anaerobic lifting sessions down the line. Try swimming by focusing on one stroke at first and then experiment with other strokes to work different muscle groups. If you’re nervous, go with a friend or sign up for available swimming lessons (which is a great way to make social connections too!).

  1. The Rowing machine 

Similar to swimming, using the rowing machine is a form of cardio that engages the whole body! These long and lateral machines use the legs to drive your rowing motion, the core to stabilize and the arms to finish off the pull.  It’s awesome for helping me continually reap the benefits of my strength training since my whole body feels worked after a 30 minute session on one of these. 

 Your feet are solid on the machine so your ankles don’t have extraneous pressure and the impact on your joints is relatively low. While using the rowing machine is better for your joints than running or walking, it puts more pressure on your body than swimming. Rowing machines also have resistance settings which can be adjusted, so they are great for beginners who want to gradually increase the intensity of their aerobic exercise sessions. 

I enjoy being able to  really get into the repetitive rhythm of my actions while using the rowing machine and find it easier to become absorbed into my music or podcast–without worrying about whether I’m going to trip over my shoelaces!

  1. The Stationary bike

This cardio exercise definitely focuses on your legs, but since your feet are firmly planted on the bike pedals, the only joint that may experience stress is your knees. Using the stationary bike is a great way to get some cardio in if your arms or abs are sore from a previous workout . Similar to the rowing machine, stationary bikes have adjustable resistance settings so it’s perfect for both beginners and more advanced folks!

Using the stationary bike is also enjoyable because I can prop up my phone on the handlebars and catch up on my latest Netflix-obsession while working out. Watching something while doing cardio is a great distraction and is a great way to measure how much cardio you should be doing! One 30 or 45 minute episode of a television show is all you need to keep that heart rate at a reasonable level. The stationary bikes inside CARSA here at UVic even face the windows on the second floor, so if you go at the right time of day, it feels like you’re biking straight into the sunset. A bonus is that if you like working out with friends, there are loads of indoor spin cycle group classes that you can join in which an instructor will lead you through a workout with upbeat music.

  1. Dancing

This one may feel like a trick question–can dancing really be a form of aerobic exercise? Sure it can. This form of cardio is really open ended, you can do it solo, with friends, or in a class! All you really need is a solid pair of headphones and a little open floor space and you can get that heart pumping! This is a great form of cardio for stress release and a serotonin boost, especially when you may not have time to get to the gym. If you’re looking for something more structured than freely dancing, try finding a Zumba class! Zumba is essentially a cardio dance class where an instructor curates a playlist and a set of movements that correspond to each song. Zumba classes are great to do with friends or family and it’s one of the more accessible fitness classes out there! 

Dancing can range from being low impact to being super strenuous so you can tailor your dancing workout to whatever your comfort level is. More importantly, dancing is one of the more casual and fun forms of cardio with no equipment required, no experience needed and no set program needed to follow! I wholeheartedly recommend a dance workout during stressful midterm weeks as it is a serious mood booster. The Youtube channel MadFit has a whole playlist of dance workouts to different music genres and artists from Taylor Swift to Christmas Classics to viral TikTok hits. 

So there you have it! Four solid aerobic alternatives for those fitness enthusiasts or beginners who just can’t seem to find their groove with running. Hopefully this list inspires you to try something new, or to add cardio to your workout routine again. One of my favourite parts about aerobic exercise is how often you can switch up what you do. There’s so much variety whether I want to workout solo, with a partner, at home or at the gym. All that’s left is to get out there and sweat!

Saiyah is a second year student at UVic studying political science, philosophy and anything else she can fit into her schedule! She loves writing, reading and all things wordy. When she's not typing away, she loves hiking with her puppy, going to the gym, working as a lifeguard, and shopping!
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