If you’re going to take the time to do something, you want to get the greatest rewards from your efforts. In the realm of health and fitness, this leads to questions like What is the best type of cardio?
If fat loss is your goal, is one type of cardio superior to others?
What if you just want to improve your health and reduce your risk of disease? Should one type of cardio be prioritized?
Is one type of cardio better than the others if you just want the ability to survive a potential zombie apocalypse?
The Different Types of Cardio
We’ll discuss three types of cardio along with how to do it, when to do it, and whom it is best for. Let’s begin with a form of “cardio” you may not have even considered.
This isn’t what most people think of when they hear the word cardio. Unstructured activity, or simply play, is an activity you do for fun, because you enjoy doing it. There is no age limit for playing — everyone can benefit from having fun. This can be a hobby like hiking, biking, kayaking, swimming, dancing, skiing, Zumba, ultra-competitive hula-hooping while twirling a flaming baton. Whatever has you moving your body in an enjoyable way.
Traditional sport type activities aren’t the only options. Research has shown health benefits from increasing activity in any form (study). This includes activities like yard work, gardening — anything that gets you moving on a regular basis.
For an individual wanting to improve her health and give fat loss a boost, I usually recommend she first include, or increase, her amount of unstructured activity.
Simple. You’re more likely to consistently participate in activities you look forward to and enjoy. Because then it’s fun, not a chore. And, as we’ve covered, doing something consistently for a long period is the true “secret” to fitness success.
Furthermore, this is customizable for every individual and can be determined by climate, location, and can change with the seasons or preferences.
This type of cardio is best for: The individual who won’t be consistent with the other types of cardio discussed here. In particular, someone who loathes the thought of structured exercise. As in, the person who would rather roll in honey then belly-flop into a kiddie pool filled with fire ants than climb on a piece of cardio equipment for half an hour.
How often to do it: As often as possible. Someone who strength trains three days per week could benefit from including additional fun activity 1-4 times per week. For the individual who doesn’t get much activity beyond the gym (perhaps they have a sedentary job), a minimum of 30 minutes three times per week is a good target, in addition to strength training three times per week.
Low-Intensity Steady State (LISS)
When most people hear the word “cardio,” they imagine someone jogging; someone plodding along on an elliptical machine; someone, in some way, moving at a steady pace for an extended period either on a machine or around their neighborhood or local park.
Since the difficulty of the activity is low, it can, and should be, performed for an extended time like 20-40 minutes. That’s why this activity is also referred to as long, slow distance activity, or LSD if you like acronyms, and want to do LSD that’s good for you, and legal.
This type of cardio is best for: The individual who needs something structured to keep them consistent (e.g., scheduling a 30-minute session on the treadmill twice per week); those who don’t participate in other physical activities regularly.
There are also individuals who prefer this type of activity: many people report low-intensity steady state work to be therapeutic or meditational, and they enjoy it more than they would an all-out high-intensity sprint session on an air bike (addressed next). This low-intensity activity allows them to zone out, think, or do something else they enjoy and would do anyway, like listen to their favorite podcast or the audio articles on this site and iTunes channel.
Low-intensity steady state cardio is a great option for sedentary individuals or someone who hasn’t exercised since neon sweatbands and leotards were popular attire. For individuals who self-profess to be “out of shape,” steady-state cardio is an excellent place to start.
Methods of low-intensity steady state: The options are endless, from cardio machines — treadmill, elliptical, bikes, rower — to doing something outside like going for a brisk walk, hiking, riding a bike. Essentially any activity that has you moving at a deliberate, sustained pace while being able to maintain a conversation.
You don’t have to maintain the same speed for the entire low-intensity session. This is where pre-set programs on cardio machines are useful. In my steady-state workouts, for example, to break up the monotony I’ll go at a faster pace for 60 seconds every third minute. It’s not a sprint, but I simply pick up the pace before returning to the somewhat-easier work level. (E.g.: on my air bike I may sustain 43 RPMs for two minutes and every third minute I’ll go up to 48 RPMs — I’ll do this for 30 minutes.)
How often to do it: This depends on your goals and the other activities you perform. If you don’t get much activity outside of dedicated exercise, then including a couple weekly sessions of low-intensity steady state cardio is beneficial for improving cardiovascular health and conditioning levels.
Someone wanting to boost fat loss or improve conditioning could begin with two sessions per week and increase it to three after a couple months, for example.
How to progress: Progression is possible in several ways. Increase the duration of the activity — begin with 20-minute sessions and add five minutes every four or five weeks. Increase the intensity — using an air bike, for example, pedal at a sustained rate of 30 RPMs and gradually progress to 40 RPMs over a couple months. Increase the frequency — begin with one session per week and progress to two after several weeks, and then three weekly sessions a few weeks after that.
To keep the cardio sessions efficient, once 30-35-minute sessions are sustained, I like to focus on increasing work capacity, like gradually increasing the resistance level on a cardio machine, for example, or the RPMs on an air bike.
When to do it: Anytime. If you strength train three days per week, a great way to schedule the activity is to do cardio work on non-lifting days. Cardio work after strength training is fine too if you need to do it on the same day.
Low-intensity steady state cardio sessions can be broken up into chunks as well. If dedicating 30 minutes to a cardio session isn’t doable, break it up into something like a 15-minute walk in the morning and a 15-minute walk in the evening.
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
High-intensity intervals are, by definition, hard to perform. The intensity is high, the physical effort is high, and it’ll make you feel like you’ve inhaled fire, which is fun in a weird sadistic way.
The perk to this high-effort level is that a HIIT workout takes less time to complete than a low-intensity steady state session. Low-intensity steady state sessions can last 30 minutes or more, but an effective HIIT workout can be done in about 15 minutes.
High-intensity intervals consist of a brief warm-up, then a sprint, followed by an “easy” rest interval. Details in a moment, but first …
This type of cardio is best for: Someone with minimal time to work out; someone who wants to spend minimum time working out; someone who won’t do low-intensity steady state consistently because they find it so boring that after a mere two minutes they shout Screw this! and stop.
I don’t have trainees perform HIIT if they don’t already have a decent conditioning base (i.e., I don’t recommend HIIT to someone who hasn’t done any type of physical activity recently; I prefer they start with low-intensity steady state to develop a base of conditioning).
Methods of high-intensity interval training: For most people, most of the time, I recommend using an air bike, upright bike, or recumbent bike for HIIT. Why? Because there’s no skill involved with those machines — there’s no learning curve, so it’s hard to screw it up compared to, say, sprinting on a treadmill which comes with the risk of tripping and getting catapulted across the gym before splattering on the floor leaving you with bumps and bruises to your body, and ego.
Other options for high-intensity interval training include the elliptical machine, rower (if you’re proficient at the movement), and even things like hill sprints or pushing/pulling a loaded sled.
How to do it: I like a 1:4 sprint to recovery ratio. Meaning, a 15-second sprint would be followed by a 60-second “easy” recovery period. Or a 30-second sprint followed by a 2-minute “easy” period.
How to progress: Gradually perform more sprints — begin with five sprints (sprint 15 seconds, go at an easy pace for 60 seconds) and every few weeks add one round until you perform 10 sprints. Gradually increase the resistance level if using a cardio machine or increase RPMs if using an air bike.
How often to do it: If you’ve never done HIIT, or haven’t done it in a while, begin with one session per week. After a month or so it can be increased to two weekly sessions, and a month later another session can be added, if desired. For those who strength train and want to build muscle or strength, limit HIIT workouts to once or twice per week. Due to its intensity, HIIT produces more fatigue than something like low-intensity steady state.
When to do it: Whenever it fits your schedule is the best answer. If you also strength train, perform the HIIT work after the workouts, on non-lifting days, or several hours before or after a strength training session.
Do I Need Cardio if My Job is Physically Demanding?
“My job is physically demanding, so I don’t need to do cardio.” Some, particularly those with physically-demanding jobs like construction work or running a farm, can make this claim.
If your job has you on your feet for several hours a day most days per week, do you need dedicated cardio work?
Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on your goals.
An individual interested exclusively in health benefits (prevention of cardiovascular disease, for example) may not need additional dedicated cardio activity if their job has them moving regularly. The American Medical Association recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week to improve overall cardiovascular health. If you accumulate this activity through your job, great.
Once you’ve become accustomed to this activity level, it no longer provides a novel stimulus because your body has adapted to it. Think about a time when you suddenly increased your physical activity drastically. Maybe you worked a physically demanding job during the summer. Or you started a new job that had you on your feet all day. You were sore and exhausted initially. But after a while, you adjusted to the demand and it was just part of daily life and didn’t represent the same physical challenge it did at first.
This means for an individual wanting to further improve cardiovascular health or work capacity, or boost fat loss, training will be needed. This is when one of the cardio methods can be useful.
This is no different than if you started strength training for the first time. Let’s say you deadlifted 135 pounds for 3 sets of 5 reps, and you did that three days per week. Initially you would get sore, and the new stimulus would build strength and muscle, but if you deadlifted 135 pounds for 3 sets of 5 reps three days per week and never added weight or sets, you wouldn’t get stronger or build more muscle. Your body is fully adapted to the demand and that stimulus no longer elicits a response.
So, What Type of Cardio is “Best”?
You likely noticed what was missing above — no single cardio method was labeled “best” for fat loss or overall health improvement and disease prevention.
What type of cardio is best for fat loss?
What type of cardio is best for improving health?
Is one type of cardio superior for fat loss, improved quality of life, and health benefits?
Yes. The one you will do consistently. It can be that simple. Doable and sustainable are more important than theoretically optimal.
When it comes to fat loss, the most important thing is achieving a sustained caloric deficit. This can be accomplished by simply eating less, burning more total calories through exercise and increased physical activity, or a combination of the two. No cardio method is better than the other (though one may have an advantage which is discussed below).
You’re not limited to any single type of cardio. What you do can change as your preferences, or schedule, change. For instance, if you prefer low-intensity cardio but your available time to work out gets shortened, switch to the more time-efficient high-intensity interval training.
Or maybe you love winter sports. Your cardio activity during the winter months could be skiing several times per week. You can participate in LISS or HIIT during the other months.
Something to keep in mind: Not every activity fits neatly into one of the cardio categories above. For example, mountain biking could be a combination of high-intensity and low-intensity cardio work. Same thing could apply to swimming, road biking, and other activities.
How to Include Cardio in Your Routine
Want help adding cardio into your routine, or not quite sure where to begin? Here are some layouts you can use to include cardio in your weekly schedule.
An excellent goal is to do something every day to help solidify a workout habit. Here’s an excellent weekly schedule that works well for many, especially those who like to do something most days:
- Day 1: Strength training workout
- Day 2: 20-minutes low-intensity steady state*
- Day 3: Strength training workout
- Day 4: 20-minutes low-intensity steady state
- Day 5: Strength training workout
- Day 6: Fun activity for 20-60 minutes
- Day 7: “Off” or fun activity for 20-60 minutes
*Every four to five weeks five minutes can be added, up to 30 minutes.
Remember, low-intensity work can be broken into chunks throughout the day; 15 minutes in the morning and 15 in the evening, for example.
Here’s a sample weekly schedule for someone who wants, or needs, to spend minimum time working out:
- Day 1: 30-minute strength training workout
- Day 2: 10-minute HIIT workout*
- Day 3: 30-minute strength training workout
- Day 4: Off
- Day 5: 30-minute strength training workout
- Day 6: 10-minute HIIT workout*
- Day 7: Off or fun activity for 20-60 minutes
*Two-minute warm-up, sprint 15 seconds, easy recovery for 60 seconds. Every three to four weeks add an additional sprint.
These sample weekly schedules can be tailored to your goals, preferences, and needs, but both are good frameworks to build from.
- Regular physical activity clearly provides health benefits (article). Do something and do it consistently.
- Some research demonstrated that high-intensity and very-high-intensity exercise may suppress appetite more than moderate-intensity exercise of the same duration, thus contributing more to fat loss (article).
- Enjoyment should be a consideration when selecting a method of exercise to ensure long-term compliance (article). In other words, if you despise HIIT, don’t do HIIT. If you loathe LISS and find it mind-numbingly boring, don’t do LISS. If you hate any type of “structured” exercise, find a sport or activity you enjoy.
- High-intensity interval training and steady-state cardio are both useful for combating obesity. However, compliance may be higher with HIIT for some individuals because of its time efficiency (article).
There are no “bests” or unbreakable rules when it comes to cardio.
Do something. Do it regularly, consistently. That matters most.
- The Women’s Beginner Strength Training Guide
- Here’s the Simple Guide that Shows You How to Eat Healthy
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