Cardio for Weight Loss

The Facts about Weight Loss and Cardio

Women in a fitness class
Women in a fitness class. FatCamera/Getty Images

If you're trying to lose weight, you know the deal. You have to exercise and watch your diet. Specifically, you have to do both cardio and strength training to get the most out of your workout time.

In fact, cardio is one of the most important you need in your weight loss toolbox.

What can be confusing is figuring out how much cardio you need, how hard you should work, and the best cardio exercises for your goals and fitness level.

That may be confusing but the upshot to that is that you have a variety of choices and you don't have to do the same workouts at the same intensity day after day.

In fact, you get better results when you mix up your workouts - Working at different intensities and doing different activities to keep both your mind and body from getting bored.

And, if you're a beginner, you don't have to work so hard at your workouts at first. You can take your time, find activities you enjoy and slowly build endurance with slow, easy workouts. The trick is to know your options.

How Cardio Helps You Lose Weight

It's common knowledge that weight loss happens when you create a calorie deficit, burning more calories than you eat. While some people prefer to cut calories through their diets, it helps to have a combination of things - Cardio, strength training, and a healthy low-calorie diet.

All of those are important, but cardio is a key component because:

  • You burn more calories at one time - Getting your heart rate into your target heart rate zone means your blood is pumping, you're breathing hard and you're sweating. As soon as you get into that efficient calorie-burning zone, your body burns calories. The harder and longer you work, the more calories you burn. For example, a 150-lb person can burn up to or more than 200 calories during a brisk 30-minute walk.
  • You can easily add intensity to increase your calorie burn - With cardio exercise it's easy to increase your calorie burn with small changes in intensity: Going faster, jumping higher, climbing hills or trying new activities that your body isn't used to.
  • It adds to your overall calorie deficit - Burning calories with exercise means you don't have to cut as many calories from your diet. That is as long as you don't compensate for the workouts by eating more later in the day, which can happen to some people.
  • You can do cardio most days of the week -When you lift weights, your muscles require rest to recover and grow stronger. Cardio can be done most days of the week without worrying about injury or overtraining, depending on how you set up your program.

The Best Cardio Exercises

You know cardio is important for weight loss, but which exercises are best and how much do you really need for weight loss?

The truth is, there really is no best cardio exercise. The best activity is the one you'll do on a regular basis. Finding something you like is critical to reaching your weight loss goals. You shouldn't do anything that makes you feel miserable.

With that said, some exercises offer more intensity than others.

  • Impact activities: Exercises that involve some impact, like walking, will usually boost your heart rate faster than no-impact activities like swimming or cycling.
  • High impact activities: High impact, or exercises that involve running or jumping, will often burn more calories than lower impact things like walking. You don't even have to do an entire workout with high impact moves. You can simply choose a few and add them to your current workout and you'll burn more calories.
  • Whole body activities: When you involve both the upper and lower body, as in cross-country skiing, it's often easier to get the heart rate up and burn more calories. You can also do this by doing compound strength exercises. When done right, you get a great cardio benefit even as you build strength and endurance.

    That doesn't mean you shouldn't bother with low impact exercise. Both types of activities offer opportunities to burn calories and doing both gives you a well-rounded program.

    In fact, it's better for your mind and body to have some variety, some workouts that are challenging and others that allow you to recover while still exercising. You want to spend most of your time just outside your comfort zone, with the remainder at a higher intensity.

    You can accomplish that by trying interval training, or working hard for a short period of time followed by a recovery period. That's a great way to burn more calories while building your endurance.

    To get an idea of just how much cardio can do for you, check out the following list of common exercises. Below is the number of calories burned for a 150-pound person in 30 minutes:

    • Step aerobics: 340 calories
    • Stationary bike: 238 calories
    • Swimming: 270 calories
    • Walking 4 mph: 170 calories
    • Running 5 mph: 270 calories
    • Mowing the lawn with a push mower: 200 calories

    As you can see, everything from walking to cutting the grass can burn a significant number of calories, which is one reason cardio is so important for losing weight. Almost anything can become a cardio workout if you work hard enough at it.

    How Much Cardio Do You Need?

    There's no black and white answer to how much cardio we need to lose weight. There are guidelines to give us a place to start, after which you can start to get a better idea of what your body can handle.

    The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association recommend about 20 to 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity activity on most days of the week. But, the truth is, how much cardio you need varies from person to person and depends on factors such as:

    • How many calories you eat
    • How hard you exercise
    • Your metabolism, age, and gender
    • Your fitness level
    • Your body fat percentage and weight
    • Your exercise schedule

    That said, there are some tips for setting up an effective cardio program.

    Setting Up a Cardio Program When You're a Beginner

    • If you're just starting out, choose an activity that feels good to you. Walking is always a great place to start because you can do it anywhere and you control how hard you work. It's easy to increase the intensity by speeding up or walking up hills. You can also add walking poles to increase the intensity.
    • Start with about 3 days of that activity, working at a moderate level of intensity. That is about a Level 5 on this Perceived Exertion Chart or just a bit out of your comfort zone.
    • Work for as long as you can, shooting for 20 or more minutes. 
    • Add time each week to work your way up to 30 to 45 minutes of continuous exercise.
    • As you get stronger, try interval training once a week to help boost endurance and burn more calories.
    • Work your way up to 5 to 6 days of cardio and try to vary what you do and how hard you work.

    These sample cardio schedules will help you set up your own program.

    The bottom line is cardio will help you lose weight. But it is most effective when combined with strength training and a healthy, low-calorie diet.

    Cardio for Muscle Gain

    Of course, not everyone wants to lose weight. If you're interested in gaining muscle, you probably know just how tough that can be.  

    You may think you shouldn't do cardio exercise if you're trying to gain muscle. But, cardio isn't just for weight loss. It also helps condition the heart and lungs and promotes health and well-being.

    If your goal is to gain muscle, you won't need tons of cardio. But, doing at least three 20-minute sessions a week won't hurt your goals and will help you reap the benefits of cardio without burning too many calories.

    And keep in mind that high intensity strength training can also get the heart rate up. For example, kettlebell training is an excellent way to build muscle while also working your cardio system.

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