Which is best: steady-state or high intensity? Treadmill or elliptical? Outdoors or indoors?
When it comes to cardio, it often seems like there are more options than answers. Which is best: steady-state or high intensity? Treadmill or elliptical? Outdoors or indoors? All of these are fine options, but how do they differ when it comes to delivering results? If you’re like most people, your intention involves burning fat, and you want to accomplish it fast. With that in mind, let’s look at a few different cardio options, and try to determine which is best for your goals. (Note: all figures for calories burned are based on a person who is around 155 pounds.)
Running (Moderate, steady pace)
When performed at a moderate, steady rate of 6-7 MPH (or a 9-10 minute mile) you’re looking at a calorie burn of between 370-400 per 30 minutes. While this is a tried-and-tested form of cardio, it does come with downsides. It can be hard on the knees and can actually break down muscle-mass over time. Ideally, you’ll run outside on a soft, uneven trail, which forces you to compensate thereby burning more calories while supporting muscle retention and reducing knee strike. If you’re on a treadmill indoors, increase the incline to 2-3 per cent to simulate the benefits of trail running.
There’s a reason jumping rope is the preferred form of cardio for so many pro-athletes. Not only can it burn a ton of calories (anywhere from 370-500 in 30 minutes depending on your speed and skill level), but it improves dexterity, coordination and shoulder strength. The main drawback to a jump rope is that it can be hard to keep going over a long period. To offset this, try alternating between slow jumps and fast jumps, or jump for one minute, pause for 20-30 seconds, then go again.
Many people assert that swimming is the best form of cardio. It certainly can be highly effective at burning calories, all while providing a solid full-body workout, but form and speed both have a massive impact on how effective swimming will actually be for fat loss. Swimming laps or even treading water at a vigorous pace can burn as many as 400 calories in 30 minutes. Slow down the pace, however, and that number falls off quickly. Swimming at a slow speed is still a great way to burn calories if you’re concerned about protecting your joints and maintaining muscle.
An elliptical is a great tool for anyone who wants to get in a cardio workout, but who is concerned about the health of their joints, particularly the knees. While it burns less calories than some of the other activities on this list – around 300 in 30 minutes – it accomplishes it in safety and from within the comfort of the indoors. To get the most out of an elliptical workout, be sure to increase the intensity, speed or resistance.
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
HIIT can be applied to any activity that involves zipping through a series of high-intensity movements that are punctuated by short rest or low-intensity periods. For example, jumping rope can be a great HIIT workout if you jump fast for one minute, rest for 20 seconds, then go again. Or doing battle ropes for 30 seconds followed by 10 reps of a bodyweight workout before getting back to the ropes. Or sprinting up a flight of stairs or bleachers, then walking back down before sprinting back up. The variations are endless, and can be highly effective. Depending on the activity and speed, you can burn anywhere from 250-750 calories in 30 minutes. HIIT is especially useful if you have a busy schedule and need to burn a lot of calories in a short amount of time.
There’s a reason spin classes are so popular among people trying to lose weight. If you pound out an hour’s worth of high-intensity cycling, you can burn somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 calories. The problem with cycling is that if you don’t maintain that high rate of intensity, the effectiveness drops off fast. In 30 minutes of moderate cycling you’ll burn less than 300 calories. So if the bike is your choice, keep up the speed, or alternate between high speeds and slow speeds to get your heart racing.
When all is said and done, there is no “best” form of cardio. The real question involves intensity. Your goal should be to find a form of cardio you enjoy, then to crank up the intensity of the workout as much as possible. Keep safety in mind. If you worry about your joints, the elliptical, bike or swimming pool might be right for you. In any case, the more effort you put in, the more calories you’ll burn out.