Make Exercise a Life-Long Habit: Find a Base Cardio

woman drinking water post-workout

Every healthy woman needs to fit cardio into her life, and while it’s great to mix things up with several options, I find it’s best to figure out what your “go-to” or base cardio will be. Cardio (or aerobic exercise) is any exercise that makes your breathing rate increase to promote the circulation of oxygen through the blood. Think of exercises that make your breathing and heart rate increase such as walking, dancing and bicycling.

Mastering one type of cardio exercise will give you a sense of confidence, which in turn will make it a repeatable action that you want to take. You’ll form lasting habits, and that’s what we want!

What’s a Base Cardio?

Woman in spin class

I call my go-to aerobic exercise a base cardio. Your base cardio is the heart-healthy exercise that you love doing (at least on most days). It’s a cardio exercise that you can see yourself doing at least three times per week to get your heart pumping, burn calories and experience an endorphin boost. Government guidelines recommend 30 minutes of exercise at least three times per week. If you’ve found the right base cardio, this shouldn’t feel like too much work.

The list of possible cardio options is endless:

  • walking,
  • biking/spinning class,
  • jogging/ running,
  • swimming,
  • rowing,
  • group fitness classes,
  • cardio machines (elliptical, stair mill)

The question is: Which one feels good to you? Which one makes your body feel like it’s running the way it should, like it’s better off with that exercise that without it? After a workout, can you see yourself returning to it time and again? Asking yourself these questions is important, because the key to getting fit is doing exercise on repeat. You can’t store up fitness, you have to make it a part of most days (in some form or other)

woman running up stairs
Some days, getting your cardio in can feel like an uphill battle that you don’t want to tackle. Do it anyway!

Rowing: a Great Base Cardio

My base cardio is rowing. How did I pick it? I tried all the cardio machines in my gym (the local YMCA) and found that rowing didn’t suck. In fact, it felt good to row. I have large thigh muscles, and I found I could put them to good use by pushing off on the rowing stroke. I had the power to do 20 minutes of rowing on my first try. My shoulders, traps and biceps felt energized when I pulled the handle, and they developed muscles quickly as a result of rowing consistently. It was the only machine that felt like “home” to my body (and at my top weight of 240, that is saying something)! So, I continued with rowing, working my way up to 45-minute sessions.

black and white photo of 1950s woman on rowing machine
When I first started rowing, I was as slow as a bygone-era movie star in heels, but I kept going (you can too)!

Start Slow and Build Your Way Up

When I first started, I rowed like a turtle—slow and steady—but with excellent form. I watched YouTube videos until I got the form down. Good form/technique is essential in any exercise, and ensures that it feels good to your body, that it gives you the full benefits of the exercise and that it prevents injury.

Here’s a good beginner’s rowing video showing great form. When I started, I didn’t pay too much attention to the speed, the damper, the stats. I just wanted to row with good form and enjoy the sweat sessions. As I progressed, I learned more about all these features, which kept me motivated to work toward mastery.

Since it’s essential to have good form when using a rowing machine, I focused on that first. Once my form was good, I moved on to learn the technical aspects of how to interpret the monitor stats. If numbers motivate you, then learn all the monitor features. If you’re like me and aren’t particularly concerned about whether your stroke rate is improving each month, then the monitor stats are less important. You can just do the rowing and enjoy the strokes!

Commit to Your Base Cardio for Lasting Health

You can’t store up cardio. It has to become part of your lifestyle. Schedule it into your week, every week, and reap the rewards. Here are some action steps you can take to get your base cardio on repeat:

Commit to it: Commit to doing this exercise at least three times per week, work up to five times if you can. Three times will be for heart health, but doing it five times a week will help you achieve some mastery—and give you a near-daily endorphin rush that feels so good.

Form a habit: Do your base cardio so often that it becomes a habit, because there will be days when you don’t want to do it at all. It’s at this time that you will need it the most. The days when I look at the rower and say “hell no, I’m not getting on today,” are the days I need it most. I force myself to get on it those days, because I know that after my workout, I’ll feel better physically and emotionally. I use that old trick of telling myself that I only have to stay on for 10 minutes. If after 10 minutes, I’m still not feeling it, I can get off. I never do!

Master it: Give yourself at least six months to master a base cardio. Once you’ve tried lots of types of cardio and have picked a best fit, commit to that exercise for six months and let yourself achieve some mastery. Knowing that you really understand all the ins and outs of that exercise, and that your body does well with it, will help make it easier to do on a consistent basis.

No judgments: Don’t judge your efforts as you work on building mastery with your base cardio. The mere fact that you are getting on that machine, or doing that exercise, means you have achieved something monumental. Too many women downgrade their achievements. Don’t do it! You did cardio today, you’re a winner! That should be your mindset. Don’t play the game of comparing yourself to others, don’t worry about speed and breaking records. Just do it, and do it with good form. Focus on wiping the sweat off your face with a fluffy towel. Focus on how kick-ass good you feel. Focus on how you did what you said you would do today!

When you have your base cardio, it’s time to move on to adding some strength training and flexibility moves to your routine to round out your exercise plan. Strength training is even more vital for transforming your body’s shape, stamina and power. It’s also incredibly empowering. Read about strength training after 40.

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