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Best Forms of Cardio for Weight Loss

After getting your diet in check, burning calories through exercise is the next step in a weight loss journey and becoming a healthier version of yourself. The generally accepted guideline is to aim for 150 minutes of moderate intensity cardio per week to get the best bang for your buck. However, there is no ceiling for health improvements with improved cardiovascular health, and studies have shown that the better cardiovascular fitness someone has, the lower chance of all-cause mortality [1]. This also means that any cardio is better than no cardio. 

Let’s take a look at what I recommend as the best forms of cardio for weight loss and get you moving like your life depends on it. Because it actually does.

Walking

It really can be as simple as walking off the pounds. It can be really easy to discount walking as a weight loss exercise because of how low effort it is but that is exactly what makes it so great. It puts very little stress on your body so you can do it everyday without having to worry about needing rest and recovery days. It also is one of the best forms of cardio for preserving muscle mass while still burning calories. 

Walking can also be a great way to relieve stress and clear your mind. During my lunch break, I like to go for a 20-30 minute walk and always find that it resets me so that I can sit down after my break refreshed and ready to go again. I will also try to find times to get up from my desk and walk around the office during the day to get that same effect. I have found walking to be a great thing to sprinkle in throughout the day and love that I can listen to music, podcasts, or audiobooks while doing it. Furthermore, I know a lot of people who have had success when they set a rule that they can only watch their favorite show while walking on a treadmill at the gym. This small rule has given them the extra motivation they need to get to the gym and exercise.

For walking, calories burned are more dependent on distance and body weight than speed. The advantage of speed is you can cover more distance in less time, meaning you can burn more calories during your workout. You do burn more per mile at a higher speed but the difference is so small it is basically negligible. If you look at the next section, you might be surprised how close running is to walking in terms of calories burned per mile.

Estimated Calories Burned: 65 per mile for a 120 lb person, 100 per mile for a 180 lb person [2]

Running

Anyone surprised running makes the list? Humans are built to run. Our ancestors used to slowly chase animals for hours to days at a time until the animal died of exhaustion because humans have superior endurance capabilities [3]. Talk about hardcore. 

Obviously, we have gotten very far away from those days, but running is still a great way to get into shape. The caveat is that running can be stressful on the body if done incorrectly. Jumping straight into running after being inactive can lead to injury, so it is best to start slow and with shorter distances to give your body time to adapt. Starting by doing a mix of walking and running while increasing your distance or run time by 10% per week is generally considered a safe increment. This slow build up will give your joints and muscles time to adapt to the new stress and minimize your chance of injury. The goal is to stay injury free so that you do not have to stop exercising.

Similar to walking, calories burned is more dependent on distance and bodyweight than speed. The advantage of running compared to walking is that you can burn many more calories in the same time of workout because you can cover a lot more distance. For instance, over a 30 minute session, an 180 lb person walking 3 mph (20min/mi) burns 150 calories while running 6 mph (10min/mi) burns 420 calories. 

Estimated Calories Burned: 90 per mile for 120 lb person, 140 per mile for 180 lb person [4]

HIIT

High intensity interval training (HIIT) is rapidly growing in popularity as a way to improve health and burn calories in a shorter time than traditional methods. HIIT focuses on periods of high intensity exercise cycled with low intensity/rest periods. The idea is you do high intensity exercise, such as a sprint, for a period of time as short as 20 seconds to as long as minutes, followed immediately by a period of rest or low intensity exercise, such as walking. HIIT cardio can include anything from battle ropes to stationary cycling to box jumps. There are lots of different ways to go about HIIT cardio with many ideas easily found with a quick google search (or reach out to me ?). 

The advantage of HIIT that makes it so popular is that you can usually get a solid workout in with less time commitment due to the high intensity bouts. This usually allows you to burn more calories in less time compared to steady state cardio (cardio with one intensity throughout e.g. walking or biking). The high intensity of HIIT also usually allows for some calorie burn to continue after exercise has concluded while the body tries to catch up on its oxygen deficit, called EPOC. However, the calories burned from EPOC are often overstated and it most likely only in the range of 10-70 calories, depending on the overall intensity of the workout. HIIT is not the only form of exercise that produces an EPOC effect. Any high intensity exercise will do so and the longer you perform at a high intensity state, the larger the EPOC effect will be.

The disadvantage of HIIT style cardio is that it can be tough on your body and require longer recovery, due to the high intensity exercise. This means that depending on how hard your HIIT sessions are, you may not be able to do them everyday as a form of cardio, as the body needs time to recover. Using a low intensity form of cardio, such as walking, on days after a difficult HIIT workout can allow proper recovery while still letting you get a workout in.

Calories are hard to estimate for HIIT due to no two workouts being the same and people having different gauges for what high intensity looks like. Furthermore, many videos and trainers will oversell how many calories you burn during their workouts. The below estimate is a much safer guess for what you probably burned during a typical HIIT workout. You will also most likely be in the lower to mid range of the estimate. Anyone who tries to sell you a program that promises a higher calorie burn than this range is most likely lying to you to convince you to use their program. The higher range of the estimate is HARD to achieve. Either way, HIIT is a great way to get in cardio and burn calories with less time commitment.

Estimated Calories Burned: 100-300 in a 20-minute HIIT workout.

The Kind You Enjoy

This may seem like a cop out category, and it kind of is, but this is the real lesson of this post. Cardio can suck and forcing yourself to do something you hate is miserable. Instead of making yourself do a certain form of cardio because it is the “best”, try to find something that you enjoy, or can at least tolerate. There are hundreds of forms of cardio and all of them will burn calories, so why choose to do one you hate? It is all about finding something that you enjoy and continue to do throughout your life, hopefully without it feeling like a chore. 

One of my favorites is riding my bike. It does not feel hard on my body and I get to go out and explore where I live at my own pace. Sometimes, I will push myself on the bike but most times I just go out and enjoy the weather. Either way, I am burning calories and staying active. What form of cardio do you enjoy? I have listed a few ideas below with some estimated calorie burn rates.

All estimates are for 20 minutes of exercise

  • Basketball (plenty of local rec leagues): 50-200 calories 
  • Dance: 50-150 calories
  • Hiking: 50-150 calories
  • Kayaking: 50-100 calories
  • Racquetball (not just for old people): 100-200 calories
  • Rock Climbing: 100-200 calories
  • Swimming: 150-250 calories
  • Jump rope: 150-300 calories
  • Any local rec sport league (there are plenty out there)
  • Any other activity that gets you moving

[1] James McKinney, MD, MSc, Daniel J. Lithwick, MHA, Barbara N. Morrison, BHK Hamed Nazzari, MD, PhD, Saul Isserow, MBBCh Brett Heilbron, MB ChB, Andrew D. Krahn, MD. THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF PHYSICAL ACTIVITY AND CARDIORESPIRATORY FITNESS. BCMJ, vol. 58 , No. 3 , April 2016.

[2] https://www.verywellfit.com/walking-calories-burned-by-miles-3887154#:~:text=Your%20weight%20and%20the%20distance,Your%20walking%20speed%20matters%20less.

[3] Carrier, David R., et al. “The Energetic Paradox of Human Running and Hominid Evolution [and Comments and Reply].” Current Anthropology, vol. 25, no. 4, 1984, pp. 483–495. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2742907. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.

[4] https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/lifestyle/tools-calculators/physical-activity-calorie-counter/