How to Get the Best Cardiovascular Workout on a Treadmill

Tips to help you improve your cardiovascular fitness
A person working out on a treadmill in their home

Finally getting back to the gym and ready to hit that treadmill? Or maybe you just bought a home treadmill and are looking for a workout you can do indoors that’s really good for your heart.

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A treadmill can be especially good if you live in a cold climate and want to walk or run year-round. Treadmills are easy to operate, their settings can be changed to add variety to your walks or runs, and they are safer than navigating snowy streets and dodging cars and potholes.

The good news is that research shows running on a treadmill can give you the same intensity workout as a run on the road. This means that you can exert the same amount of effort whether they run on a treadmill or run on a track.

Cardiac Rehabilitation Director Erik Van Iterson, PhD, MS​, shares some key pointers to help you out, whether you’re starting a new exercise routine or just want to improve your overall cardiovascular fitness.

Start with your heart

Rather than striving for speed or distance, focus on reaching your target heart rate training zone, Dr. Van Iterson recommends. “Make it a long-term goal to work towards sustaining this intensity for periods of at least 20 minutes,” he says.

“At first, it is OK if you’re only able to exercise in your heart rate zone for five to 10 minutes before needing a brief break since it takes your body time to adapt to your new routine.” He says you’ll still be able to gradually build your endurance level to the point where you can achieve the national physical activity recommendation of at least 150 minutes of exercise per week in your heart range.

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Tracking your pulse (heart rate) is a simple and accurate way to know how hard your ticker is working. For most healthy individuals not taking any heart medications, the following steps can help determine your personal target heart rate range:

How to calculate your target heart rate zone

  • Start by subtracting your age from the number 220. For example, if your age is 40, your maximum heart rate is 180 bpm (beats per minute).
  • Set your target heart rate (60% to 80% of your maximum heart rate is an effective and low risk range). If you’re 40, that would be 108 to 153 bpm.

Start slowly and build up towards your target heart rate

Once you know your target heart rate, you’re almost ready to exercise. 

  • Warm up by walking slowly for at least the first five minutes.  
  • Increase the settings to a speed and that feels comfortable to you. 
  • Hold off on increasing the grade of the treadmill until you’ve given your body time to adjust to the treadmill speed. It is not unusual for this adaptive process to take several sessions.
  • Your heart rate should level out after about three to five minutes of continuous activity. 
  • If you’re below your target heart rate range after that time, increase the treadmill’s speed and/or incline until you reach and maintain your target heart rate range.

“As you learn the settings that allow you to reach your heart rate range, you can vary the speed and incline to change up the activity during the session,” Dr. Van Iterson says.

He adds that steeper grades increase the overall amount of muscle activated and use in your legs. Although this can typically mean more calories burned during incline walking or running, you can also expect a heightened sensation of exertion and earlier fatigue as compared to flat-level exercise.

Add variety to your treadmill sessions

For variety and additional long-term benefit, mix it up. 

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“As your conditioning and fitness level gradually begin to improve and you haven’t experienced any chest pain and/or exaggerated shortness of breath while exercising, instead of trudging along at a steady pace for the entire session, think about planning a couple of sessions each week that mix alternating bursts of high and low intensity,” Dr. Van Iterson says.

Follow these patterns:

  • Exercise at the pace that gets you into your 60% to 65% heart rate range for two minutes. 
  • Then increase the settings to raise your heart rate up to 80% to 85% of your peak heart rate for 60 seconds. 
  • Alternate between slower and faster paces for 20 to 30 minutes.

Check in. How’s everything going?

Your long-term goal is to gradually progress your conditioning level so that you can reach and sustain your target heart rate for at least 20 minutes. So, during your treadmill session periodically stop and take your pulse. You may prefer to use your fitness tracker’s heart rate monitor or an​ independent heart rate monitor to avoid interrupting the exercise.

To manually find your pulse

  • Lightly press your index, second and third fingertips on the palm side of the opposite wrist below the base of the thumb. 
  • Count the beats for 10 seconds, then multiply by six to get your heart rate in beats per minute.
  • Maintain your target heart rate for as long as you’re comfortable — even if it’s only a few minutes. 
  • Gradually work up to 20-30 minutes if you can.

Run your routine by your doctor

  • If you have a heart condition, check with your cardiologist prior to starting any exercise program in order to review the best approach for your personal health needs and goals.
  • Try to work out on your treadmill at least three days each week and gradually increase the duration and frequency of exercise until reaching a target of at least 150 minutes per week. 
  • Make sure you have a hydration and energy plan to fuel your body during your workouts. 
  • You may also wish to make sure your gait and form is okay for your treadmill workouts.
  • gait test assesses your body mechanics and solves any biomechanical problems so that you can move better and avoid injury.

“And remember, before you start or change any exercise program, check with your doctor to review the best approach for your personal health needs and goals,” Dr. Van Iterson advises.

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