When people set out on a weight loss program, one of the first things that come to mind is doing “cardio.” The second thing is usually eating lettuce – looooooooots of lettuce – but that’s beside the point.

Cardiovascular activity is great! Not only can it help you lose those few stubborn pounds that you’ve set your sights on, but it can help get your blood pressure in check, too. You’ve just got to know how to use it.

In the beginning, cardio is daunting work. There’s sweat, lots of heavy breathing, sooooo much heat, and sometimes a bit of fear: fear that your heart is beating so fast, that it might eventually stop beating because oh my god, holy moly, what in the world is going on here! Not to worry, though – for most of us, this feeling is a good sign.

When you’re working hard, moving your limbs and executing rapid movements at a fast pace, your heart now feels compelled to because it becomes more necessary to pump oxygen and vital nutrients through your body. In order to do this and keep up with the pace of the activity, your heart beats faster, which eventually helps it get stronger.

A stronger heart can do more to push blood through the body while beating less, which results in being able to bring your blood pressure down. There’s also theories that frequent cardio can actually aid the body in natural removal of arterial plaque, the gunk that causes blood pressure to creep up in the first place.

Since the entire oxygen-pumping cycle requires more energy, working out harder actually burns more calories. However, when you have a specific weight loss plan, there is such a thing as burning too many calories, oftentimes serving as one of the most obvious reasons behind weight loss plateaus. Burning too many calories at once can result in your body reacting poorly, causing your body to burn muscle instead of fat. This does more than just causing you to look less “toned” as you arrive at your goal weight; this actually lowers your metabolism exponentially. In other words, in order to continue losing weight at that fast pace, you’d have to cut even more calories from your daily diet, and burn more calories during your exercise as well.

This is also why we trainers are constantly telling people to shoot for a two-pound-per-week weight loss. This allows for people to gradually change the way they eat, one small step at a time, while also allowing for beginners to carefully set realistic goals for calorie burn during their budgeted exercise time, and still experience success.

So, how can you use cardio to achieve your goals? Simple. Here are three quick tips to make it happen for you:

1) Be consistent. Five solid days of cardio each week is enough to get you the results you want, while also allowing yourself time to rest. Your rest days can be adjacent to one another or not – what matters most is that you give yourself time to cool down and recalibrate.

2) Keep it short. Unless you’re training for endurance competitions, keep it under 45 minutes. 45 minutes seems to be the point where, without proper fueling and hydration, your cardio can have degenerative effects on your muscle and your cognitive function outside of exercise. (Have you ever completely bonked out the next day after an extended cardio session? Yep – you’re not fueling your activity properly!)

3) Vary your workout. High intensity interval training is always the way to go, the only way to go, as far as I’m concerned. HIIT is activity that gets your heart rate zooming high one minute, and then gives you the opportunity to wind down the next, like alternating sprinting and jogging. HIIT gives you the opportunity to benefit from your hardest work, while also acknowledging that you might feel like you’re going to die if you worked that hard for the entire 45 minutes. Not only that, but it gives you the opportunity to build that hard-sought-after muscle that’ll leave you looking toned and feeling stronger.

In the end, cardio can be a fantastic addition to your fitness plan. And, now that you know how to use it, go check out some fantastic HIIT routines or running intervals to keep the good vibes going! As I always say, your body will thank you for it!