How Cardio Exercise Can Help You Lose Weight

Women in a fitness class

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

The good news is that you have a wide range of options from which to choose, and you can vary both the type and intensity of your workouts on a daily basis. In fact, you get better results from mixing up your workouts.

Doing a variety of exercises prevents your body from adapting to a specific routine, which gradually lowers the rate at which you burn calories. Switching things up also keeps you from getting bored and losing motivation. If you're a beginner, take your time, find activities you enjoy, and slowly build your endurance with workouts that gradually get more challenging.

How Cardio Helps You Lose Weight

Weight loss occurs when you create a calorie deficit, burning more calories than you eat. While some people prefer to reduce calories strictly through dieting, the most efficient and healthiest way is to combine cardio, strength training, and a healthy, balanced diet.

Cardio is a key component because you can:

  • Add to your overall calorie deficit: Burning calories through exercise means you don't have to cut as many calories from your diet—that is, as long as you don't compensate by eating more after your workout.
  • Burn more calories at once: When you boost your heart rate into your target heart rate zone, your blood is pumping faster, you're breathing harder, you're sweating—and your body is burning more calories. The harder and longer you work, the more calories you burn. For example, a 150-lb person can burn approximately 150 calories during a brisk 30-minute walk.
  • Do cardio more frequently than strength training: After you lift weights, your muscles require rest to recover and grow stronger. You can do a prudent cardio routine most days of the week without worrying about injury or over-training.
  • Increase the intensity to boost your calorie burn: Even minor changes in intensity—running faster, jumping higher, climbing hills, or trying new activities—will accelerate your metabolism.

The Best Cardio Exercises

So, which exercises are best, and how much of each do you need for weight loss? The truth is, there is no universal "best cardio exercise." The best activity is the one you'll do on a regular basis.

Finding a cardio exercise you like is critical to achieving your weight loss goals. You shouldn't do anything that makes you feel miserable.

With that said, some exercises offer more intensity than others, such as:

  • High impact activities: High impact exercises such as those that involve running or jumping will often burn more calories than lower-impact activities such as walking, but your workout doesn't even need to consist entirely of high impact moves. You can add a few to your current workout and you'll burn more calories.
  • Impact activities: Exercises that involve some impact, like walking, will usually boost your heart rate faster than non-impact activities like swimming or cycling.
  • Whole-body activities: Cardio routines that engage both the upper and lower body, such as cross-country skiing, can boost your heart rate and burn more calories. You can also do this with compound strength exercises, which provide the benefits of cardio while building strength and endurance.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't bother with low impact exercise. You'll want both for a well-rounded program.

It's beneficial to combine more arduous workouts with others that allow you to recover while still exercising. You should spend most of your time just a bit beyond your comfort zone, with the remainder at a higher intensity.

You can accomplish that by trying interval training, in which you alternate short bursts of high-intensity exercise with periods for recovery. 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 average number of calories burned by a 150-pound person in 30 minutes:

  • Mowing the lawn with a push mower: 200 calories
  • Running at 5mph: 270 calories
  • Stationary bike: 300 calories
  • Step aerobics: 325 calories
  • Swimming: 200 calories
  • Walking at 4mph: 150 calories

How Much Cardio Do You Need?

There's no black and white answer. However, there are guidelines to help you start, after which you'll gradually get a better idea of what your body can handle.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity activity per week, with muscle-strengthening activities on 2 days during the week to stay healthy. But the truth is that how much cardio you need varies from person to person and depends on factors such as:

  • Body fat percentage and weight
  • Exercise frequency
  • Exercise intensity
  • Fitness level
  • Metabolism, age, and sex
  • Number of calories you eat

Tips for a Beginner Cardio Program

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

  • As you get stronger, try interval training once a week to help boost endurance and burn more calories.
  • Choose an activity that feels good to you. Walking is always a great place to start because you can do it anywhere and you can control how hard you work; it's easy to increase the intensity by speeding up or walking up hills.
  • Increase your time each week towards a goal of 30 to 45 minutes of continuous exercise.
  • Start with 3 days of that activity, working at a moderate level of intensity. That is about a Level 5 on this perceived exertion chart.
  • Work for as long as you can, shooting for 20 or more minutes. 
  • Work your way up to 5 to 6 days of cardio and try to vary what you do and how hard you work.

Before beginning a new exercise program, it's important to consult your doctor or other healthcare professional, especially if you are coping with a medical condition.

Cardio for Muscle Gain

You may think you shouldn't do cardio exercise if you're interested in gaining muscle, not losing weight. However, cardio isn't just a tool 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 hours of cardio. But, doing at least three 20-minute sessions a week won't hurt your muscle-building goals and will help you reap the benefits of cardio without burning too many calories.

Keep in mind that high-intensity strength training can also boost your heart rate. For example, kettlebell training is an excellent way to build muscle while also working your cardio system.

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