Cardio workouts involve moderate to vigorous activity that uses large muscle groups to spike the heart rate to at least 65 percent of its maximum capacity. While this intensity isn’t the go-to for building muscle, but it can help you burn fat and lose weight with more benefits to boot:
“It increases the efficiency of the heart, and endurance of the muscles and heart,” explains Michele Olson, PhD, fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), and adjunct professor of sports science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, AL. “It also reduces the risk of heart disease by making the heart a stronger muscle.”
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This improves the organ's efficiency and stamina, according to Marius Maianu, ACSM certified exercise physiologist and fitness consultant at Cooper Clinic in Dallas.
So how much cardio do you need? Maianu recommends at least 20 minutes, but preferably 30 to 60 minutes, three to five times a week. While that can amount to quite a bit of time, there's good news: Cardio workouts don't have to be boring. Here are the different types of cardio workouts, their benefits, and why you might want to try them—especially if your goal is to achieve the fastest weight loss.
7 Basic Cardio Exercises
1. Circuit training
If running on a treadmill isn’t your thing, circuit training may be a good way to get in cardio. Safe for beginners and advanced gym-goers alike, “it’s all about moving from one exercise to another,” explains Olson. While you can stick with traditional cardio moves like jumping rope, box step-ups, and jumping jacks, a weight-training circuit that alternates between resistance-training moves like jumping jacks and dumbbell squats, skipping rope and push-ups, or step-ups and back rows can make your workout even more efficient: You’ll burn calories, reap benefits of cardio, and strengthen your muscles while you're at it.
2. High-intensity interval training
Also known at HIIT, this technique calls for an all-out effort during quick bursts of exercise. Afterward, you rest for a short period of time, insuring you get the most out of every minute of your workout. Compared to other cardio techniques, “it’s more effective at reducing belly fat and has an after-burn effect, too," Olsen says, describing the way the body burns calories after the activity in its effort to recover. The downside is that you really have to push yourself to about 90-percent of your max heart rate to truly be doing HIIT, he adds—meaning this approach isn't for beginners.
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3. Kettlebell training
While you might think kettlebells (those round weights with handles) are a resistance-training tool, any exercise that involves swinging the bells can deliver a nice cardio benefit. “They’re designed to develop muscular endurance rather than pure strength and use the entire body, including the legs, core, back, shoulders, and hips,” Olson says. Don’t be fooled though—using them properly isn't as simple as you might think since form is super important. If you’re new to kettlebells, learn how to correctly use them to avoid cardio injuries.
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4. Non-impact workouts
Biking, rowing, and swimming can deliver the benefits of cardio and help with fat burn plus they can be adjusted to meet your fitness level and capabilities. “Rowing and swimming more actively engage the upper body and core, but all three are low impact so they can be beneficial for people with frail bones, such as individuals with osteoporosis or other orthopedic issues including back pain from a herniated disk,” Olson says.
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5. Sprints or speed work
Running fast for short periods of time—about 30 seconds or less—is an anaerobic type of exercise that can count toward your weekly cardio. And speed work is similar, but you may also be running backwards, or laterally side to side. “Sprints and speed work improve balance, power, strength, and running efficiency, utilizing fast twitch muscle fibers, which tend to be less functional as we age,” Maianu says. That said, speed work might not be the best choice for you if you're typically sedentary since you'll need to work up your strength to partake without injury.
6. Low intensity, steady state cardio
This method of cardio gets your heart rate up to an aerobic level, or 60 to 85 percent of your max heart rate, and keeps it there for 30 minutes or more—think a long brisk walk on the treadmill or the elliptical. If your doctor has approved you for exercise, steady state cardio is a great place to begin, even if you've never done cardio before, Maianu says.
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Discovered by a doctor and team of researchers in Japan, Tabata, which is an intense and precise type of HIIT, is all about intensity and precise timing: It involves 20-second bouts of exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest. “It [should] raise the heart rate between 85 and 100 percent of its max,” Maianu says, adding that the benefits include an after-burn effect, improvements in your body's ability to metabolize sugar, and the ability to improve your fitness level efficiently. Again, because of its intensity, this type of training is best suited for those who are already familiar with cardio and interval training. When taking part, three to four times a week with at least one day of rest between training sessions is ideal.
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