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Cardiovascular Exercise and the FITT Principle

By Mike Butler, CSCS

Examples of cardiovascular exercise are running, swimming, bicycling, elliptical workouts, rowing, and any other exercise that gets your heart rate up. Cardiovascular exercise is a great workout for your heart and lungs. It’s also a great fat burning exercise. In order to understand the best way to do cardio, as it is often termed, you need to understand what is called the “FITT” principle.

The FITT Principle Stands for (F)requency, (I)ntensity, (T)ime, and (T)ype


Frequency is how many times per week you perform the exercise. An example would be to do the desired exercise “4 times” a week. If your goal is fat loss, the frequency of cardio is usually anywhere from 3-6 times a week. This will change for sport-specific cardio such as training for a marathon, etc.


Intensity generally refers to how “hard” you perform the workout. This can be measured by what your heart rate is, or by the more common Talk Test. For the Talk Test, if you want to perform a low-intensity workout, you should be able to carry on a conversation while you exercise and not be winded at all. If you want to perform a moderate-intensity workout, you will be able to talk, but will feel slightly winded. If you want to perform a high-intensity workout, you will be working out so hard and be so winded that you can’t carry on any type of conversation.

Another way to measure intensity is through heart rate. While some cardio machines have heart rate monitors built in, often times they are either inaccurate or broken. Wearing your own heart rate monitor is the best way to keep track. If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, you can find your own heart rate by counting the number of times your heart beats (your pulse) for 6 seconds and adding a zero to it. For example, if you count 8 beats in 6 seconds you would have a heart rate of 80.


Time is how long you perform the exercise. Time is usually what is changed the most when someone is just starting out. A good amount of time to start out with is 15-20 minutes. This can gradually be increased each week until the amount of time becomes too much for you. At that point you would want to change up the “Type” of exercise you are performing and drop the time back down.


Type refers to what you are doing for your cardio. The type you choose could be running, swimming, bicycling, Zumba, rowing, etc. It’s important that you do the type of cardio that interests you most, because you’ll be more likely to stick to your fitness program if you’re doing something you enjoy.


Putting It All Together

Cardiovascular exercise places a form of stress on your body, and your body will try to adapt to that stress. Once your body adapts it’s called a plateau, and you will stop seeing results. Plateaus are unavoidable. Everyone will plateau. What you don’t want is to be “stuck” at a plateau. In order to break plateaus we need to follow the FITT principle. We need to change one of the principles each week, whether it’s the frequency of the exercise, the intensity, the time, or the type. Changing one of the principles per week will make it more likely that you’ll succeed with your fat-loss goals.


It’s also very important to understand that something is better than nothing. Don’t let yourself get caught up so much in the “principles” that you get overwhelmed and stop everything. Simple things like taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking far away from the entrance of a store all add up for your fat-loss benefit.

Author: Mike Butler, Certified Personal Trainer

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