Cardio Workout Program for Weight Loss

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Setting up an effective cardio program for weight loss can be confusing. The guidelines of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) suggest:

What the guidelines don't explain in detail is how to set up a routine that incorporates a variety of workout intensities, activities, and durations. If you only do slow workouts, you not only risk boredom, you may experience slower weight loss. Working harder forces your body to adapt by building more stamina while also burning more calories.

But too many high-intensity workouts can lead to burnout, overtraining, or even injuries. The key to a well-rounded cardio program is to include all levels of intensity each week so that your workouts don't get stale and your body isn't always doing the same thing all the time.

Set Up a Weekly Cardio Program

When mapping out your weekly cardio workouts, you'll want to include three different intensity zones so you hit all your energy systems without overdoing it or spending too much time at an uncomfortable intensity (which may turn you off of exercise). You'll want low-moderate intensity workouts, moderate workouts, and high-intensity workouts.

Low to Moderate Intensity Workouts

This is between 60% to 70% of your maximum heart rate, or a level 4 or 5 on the perceived exertion chart. You should be able to talk easily. This type of workout could be:

  • A slow bike ride
  • A leisurely walk
  • A leisurely swim
  • Light strength training

Moderate Intensity Workouts 

This is between 70% to 80% of your maximum heart rate, or a level 5 to 7 on the perceived exertion chart. You should still be able to talk, with some effort. Examples of this type of workout:

  • Brisk walking
  • Step aerobics, Zumba, or other types of aerobics
  • Light jogging

High Intensity or Vigorous Workouts

This is between 80% to 90% of your maximum heart rate or a level 8 or 9 on the perceived exertion chart. You should have difficulty talking. Examples:

To monitor your intensity, make sure you keep track of your target heart rate or use a perceived exertion chart.

Build a Cardio Routine for Weight Loss

Below is a chart detailing a sample week of cardio workouts for a person who exercises six days a week. This is simply an example of how to incorporate different types of cardio workouts into a typical week. Modify the workouts according to your own fitness level, time constraints, and preferences.

Day Intensity Length Sample Workouts
Mon High intensity 20-30 min Sprint interval HIIT workout
Tues Moderate intensity 45-60 min Brisk walking or jogging
Wed Low to moderate intensity All day Use a pedometer and try to get 10,000 steps
Thurs Moderate to high intensity 30-60 min Treadmill workout
Fri Moderate intensity 30-45 min Cardio endurance intervals
Sat Low to moderate intensity 30-60 min Walking or a long bike ride
Sun Rest All day None

Start slowly, if you're a beginner, and work your way up to this level of exercise. How much you need is based on a number of factors, including your fitness level, age, gender, and your goals. Be sure to warm up before each workout and cool down after. Stay hydrated, and stretch after your workouts.

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  1. Garber CE, Blissmer B, Deschenes MR, et al. Quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuromotor fitness in apparently healthy adults: Guidance for prescribing exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011;43(7):1334‐1359. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e318213fefb