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Comparing Different Forms of Cardio: Is There a Best?

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When it comes to burning calories, the best way to do so is cardio. Cardio is also the best way to train the most important muscle in the body: the heart. If you want your body to perform at its best everyday, you need to have a strong heart. The recommended amount of cardio is about 150 minutes of medium intensity cardio a week, but anything is better than nothing. There is also no upper limit to the health improvements that can come from doing cardio, meaning the better your cardiovascular endurance, the better your body will function.

There are hundreds of different ways to do cardio. The best form of cardio for you could be different than for anybody else. I always recommend finding a form of cardio that you enjoy doing so that it does not feel like a chore. Yeah, it may not be the form of cardio with the best return on time invested, but if you enjoy it, you are more likely to do it. And being able to stick to something long term will always give you a better return than forcing yourself to do something short term. Cardio alone without diet change will not help you lose weight but it can help you increase the amount of calories you burn throughout the day.

So, in case you are someone who likes comparisons, let’s do some analysis of popular forms of cardio and see how they can help you reach your goals.

Walking/Hiking:

Walking is the form of exercise that is so simple that it barely feels like exercise. This is because walking has a low stress impact on the joints, meaning you can do it for hours a day, day after day, and not become overtrained from it. This makes it an amazing exercise for preserving and building muscle mass, because it will not impact your weight lifting sessions. 

Plus, walking can be a great way to lower your stress level throughout the day. You can easily fit a quick walk into your day at multiple points. It can be as short or as long as you would like. Furthermore, while walking, you can pop on a podcast or audiobook and increase that brain muscle at the same time. Now that’s smart. 

The one downside of walking is that it burns less calories than many other forms of cardio. For example, a 150 pound person burns about 100 calories per mile walked. So, if you were to walk at a 20 minute/mile pace, you would be burning about 300 calories an hour. This is still great though, especially because you can mix in walks at multiple points throughout the day and burn extra calories that you would not have by sitting on the couch or at your desk. If you have the ability, going on a walk while on conference calls can be an awesome way to burn calories when you would usually be stuck in a chair.

Running/Jogging:

Running is probably the most popular form of exercise and for good reason. You can burn a lot of calories while out running. It has one of the highest calorie burn rates per time invested out of the exercises in this article. While running, you burn about 10% more calories per mile than walking the equivalent distance. So, if you are a 150 pound person, you would burn about 110 calories per mile. Speed is negligible for changing calories burned per mile, but it does help you cover more distance faster.

The downside of running is that it is a high impact activity, meaning there is a lot of stress on your joints. This is because of the repeated pounding of your feet on the ground. This stress on the joints and muscles causes some wear and tear that the body needs to repair. Therefore, if you are trying to make muscle gains in the gym, running can slow your progress because the body needs to use energy to repair the damage from running. So, when you combine the stress from lifting weights and running, your body may need even longer to recover between sessions. It is still very possible to gain muscle while running, it can just be at a slower rate.

There are things you can do to minimize the stress on your body from running. Those would be making sure you are running with proper form, wearing proper footwear and replacing it when it is worn, and running at a slower pace than you would normally. It is also very important to slowly ramp up how much you run, at about a 10% increase in mileage or intensity/pace per week. This allows your joints and muscles to get used to the associated stress of running, which helps prevent injury. As your body becomes more accustomed to running, however, you can cover further distances at faster paces while recovery between sessions can remain the same.

Sprinting

Sprinting is a nice happy medium between walking and running. While each step puts a higher stress on the joints than a step while running/jogging, you are putting this stress on the joint for a shorter period of time. This can lead to less overall stress on the joints, which means your body would need less recovery between sessions. However, the fact that sprinting is high intensity does mean that it will damage your muscles and stress the joints, so you do still need recovery between sessions, there just is a possibility that you need less than steady state running at a constant pace. It all depends on the relative intensity of your session and how it compares to your fitness level.

Just like walking and running, sprinting is more dependent on the distance covered during your workout for calories burned than the speed itself. It would also only burn about 10% more calories than running per mile covered. The advantage that sprinting has though is it trains explosive muscles. This sort of training can have a carry over effect to the gym that helps your progress in the gym rather than hurting it, like running can. Some people also find the interval style of sprinting to be more enjoyable, as they can add more variability to how they train. Plus, the explosive style of training has a more athletic feel to it, and can carry over better to sports if you are involved with them.

Elliptical

The elliptical is one of the best ways to burn calories per time invested (and it doesn’t even brag about it). Good for you elliptical. For a distance of 1-mile on the elliptical, a 150 pound person can burn about 140-170 calories (pretty variable per person and machine). The reason you burn more calories on an elliptical than you would from running is that you are using your lower body and your upper body, which means that more muscles are working together to make you move, leading to more calories burned by those hungry muscles.

Another advantage of the elliptical is that it is low stress on the joints, since your feet are not leaving the machine. Not having the pounding of the feet from running/sprinting means that there is less shock force that the joints have to absorb. This means that your body needs less recovery since there is less damage to the joints and muscles. 

Another advantage of the elliptical is that you can easily pull up something like Netflix on your phone and watch the minutes fly by as you catch up on your favorite show. The only downside would be that you do not have an easy free hand if you wanted to use your phone. Plus, you have to go to the gym to use it, unless you are lucky enough to have one in your home.

Stair Stepper/Incline Treadmill

Putting these two together because the reason they are both great ways to burn calories and do cardio is because of the incline. How important is the incline part you might say? Well, at a 15% incline on the treadmill you burn double the calories you would burn walking on a flat treadmill. So, for a 150 pound person, you would burn 200 calories per mile walked. Basically, the steeper the incline, the higher the calorie burn. Plus, since you can go at a slower rate and you are going uphill, there is less strain on your joints and muscles. Win-win! Side note: going downhill puts much more strain on your joints. Think of what the landing impact feels like when you jump on flat ground versus onto an elevated surface versus off an elevated surface. The shock when you jump off an elevated surface is much higher because gravity helps accelerate you down. It is the same for running downhill.

One of the key things to be aware of is that holding on to the handles can drastically cut the calories you burn. This is because if you are using the handles to pull yourself up or support yourself, you are lowering the amount of weight that your legs need to carry up the incline. As a result, you will burn less calories. If you want the full effect of the exercise, you need to let your legs do the work.

Another advantage of this exercise is that the incline means your muscles have to work harder, which can lead to some extra strength gains that can carry over to the gym. This type of muscle gain might not increase muscle size or overall strength very much, but it can help build muscle endurance. Also, just like the elliptical, the treadmill and stair stepper lend themselves very well to watching the minutes fly away while binging your favorite show.

Cycling:

Cycling is another great form of cardio that is low stress on the joints since there is no pounding of the feet into the ground since they are stuck on the pedals. Again, this would mean less recovery needed between sessions. Cycling is also typically much easier than another form of cardio, such as running, so you can workout for longer. The fact that it is easier though means that you are burning fewer calories per mile covered. A rough rule of thumb is that a 150 pound person will burn about 40-60 calories per mile biked. This can depend on the type of bike used and what terrain you are biking on. However, while you are not burning as many calories per mile, you can cover many more miles an hour. It is not too uncommon to cover 10-15 miles in an hour, which would mean you could burn about 400-900 calories per hour. Plus, since it is easier, you can bike for a longer period of time than you would do other forms of cardio.

Another advantage of cycling, at least in my opinion, is that you can see a lot of scenery on your ride because of the distance covered. Call me a sucker for nature and views, but I love the adventurous feeling of covering numerous miles on my bike, noticing things I would not typically notice if I was driving by.

The one thing to be aware of when talking about cycling as a whole is that if you are using a stationary bike, you may be burning less calories than a traditional bike because you do not need to balance yourself as much, which means less muscles are being used. This becomes even more pronounced if using one of the recumbent bikes. Plus, if you want the full workout, you want to make sure that the resistance is high enough to provide a challenge. 

Rowing:

Rowing is another great way to burn a lot of calories in a short amount of time. Just like using the elliptical, rowing is a full body workout leading to a similar calorie burn as rowing per the distance. Plus, rowing can help build muscular endurance and power, depending on the resistance level you row at.

The downside of rowing is that it can be tough on the body. As a result, it is hard to go for a significant amount of time. Plus, it can be hard on the lower back because of the nature of the movement. This can lead to needing more recovery time between sessions, depending on the intensity and duration you row for. However, like with all forms of exercise, the better you get at it, the easier it is to go for a longer amount of time and the less stress it puts on the body.

Swimming:

Swimming is a great combination of a full body workout that is low stress on the joints. It can be one of the best ways to burn calories and can also improve your muscular endurance. The downside of swimming is that it is hard to go for a long amount of time if you are not decent at it, making it harder to burn more calories. But practice does make improvement so if you like swimming, you can increase your ability to burn calories by getting better at swimming. There’s a reason Michael Phelps reportedly eats 8,000-10,000 calories per day just to maintain his weight.

HIIT:

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a very popular form of exercise. Many people like the feeling of shorts burst of exertion followed by periods of rest or low intensity. It can also be a great way to improve your explosive output, or the amount of force you can produce in a short time. There are many different ways to do HIIT cardio, so it can be a great way to experiment and find what types of movements you like best.

The downside of HIIT cardio is that since it is high intensity, it could require more recovery between workout sessions. This is dependent on it actually being high intensity though. Many people you see at the gym perform something that is more in line with MIIT (medium intensity), as they are not really going all out for each burst of exertion. To get the most out of a HIIT workout, you really have to push yourself to give it your all for each bout. Otherwise, it may be better, calorie wise, to do steady state cardio at a low or medium intensity level.

Workout Classes:

Many gyms offer classes that are an awesome way to get cardio in. The added motivation of other classmates and an instructor can be a great way to make sure you are getting a great workout in. Plus, there are numerous different types of classes out there to try and find what you like. This can be the perfect way for many people to get a better workout than they would do on their own.

The downside of classes is they often cost extra. However, if this is a form of exercise you like, it is worth that cost. Staying healthy and fit will pay dividends in return throughout your life. One thing to be aware of is that many of these classes like to sell that they will get you “toned.” While the classes are great, they are not going to get you toned. The real best way to get the “toned” look is to build muscle through resistance training while lowering your body fat level. 

*toned is in quotes because it is a made up marketing word and not actually a thing you can do to your muscles. Yeah, it triggers me

Conclusion:

At the end of the day, the form of cardio that you enjoy doing is the best kind. It is much easier to stay consistent with your workouts when you actually enjoy it. So, while some forms of cardio may be “better” for reaching certain goals, like muscle building or burning calories, at the end of the day, we want to enjoy the process. Consistently exercising by doing something you like is much better than short bursts of motivation by forcing yourself to do a form of cardio because it is the “best”.

You are also not limited to just one form of cardio. Variety is a great way to keep things interesting. Personally, my go to forms of cardio are running and biking because I really enjoy them, but if I am feeling the rower/kayaking or elliptical that day, that is what I do. Plus, I like to try all sorts of different forms of cardio cause I never know if I will find something that I like even more. 

I am also a huge advocate for walking/hiking because it is a great way to burn some extra calories and it is not hard on the body. Plus they are great ways for me to relieve the stress of the day and reset myself. Also, hiking usually comes with some great views and being in nature is extra relaxing. But again, this is just me and the forms of cardio that you enjoy may be entirely different and may change as you become proficient in different forms.

If I missed a form of cardio you want some information on, comment down below and I will give you my overview of that form of cardio, as well as my best guess of what the calorie burn looks like in relation to other forms of exercise in this list.

Get up and get it,

Jesse

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