How can you properly do cardio for optimal weight loss, fat burning, fitness and health? My goal is to give you all the information you need, plus a cardio workout program at the end.
It is possibly the most overused word in the gym... "Cardio."
- The buff guy walking on the treadmill says he's doing an hour of cardio.
- The lady maxing out the speed on the elliptical says she's doing cardio, right before she passes out from exhaustion.
- The strange guy with the short shorts doing some form of a crossfit workout says it's his cardio day.
Which one of them is actually doing cardio?
What is Cardio?
To answer the above question, we will need a definition of what cardio means. We'll need to understand this so we can actually make sure we're getting the benefits we think we are from the activity we're doing.
Cardio is short for "cardiovascular." I know you already knew that, but I'm going somewhere with this...
Training the cardiovascular system implies that we're performing Aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise is any activity from low to high intensity that relies primarily on the aerobic energy system; this means that the body is able to use oxygen to meet all of the demands of the activity.
Exercise Intensity Determines whether it's aerobic or not.
As exercise intensity increases, the aerobic system can no longer supply all of the energy needed to continue. As a result, the anaerobic energy system will begin to dominate. Instead of oxygen, stored energy in the muscles will be used for energy, and will run out fairly quickly.
So, the buff guy on the treadmill gets a pass. The lady sprinting on the elliptical was probably outside of the aerobic zone. The short shorts guy doing Crossfit; well it really depends on the intensity and duration of his workout.
Let's go ahead and get a definition so we can move on:
Cardio - Any activity, from low to high intensity, involving constant movement lasting at least 20 minutes, where the aerobic energy system is supplying the majority of the energy.
Cardio Can Serve Different Purposes
If I were your trainer, I would never tell you to go do "cardio." I would tell you specifically:
- What to do
- How long to do it for
- What heart rate range I want you in for the duration of the session
- How it should feel to you (perceived exertion), on a scale from 1-10
This is because there is no best form of cardiovascular exercise. The best method of training depends entirely on your goals and your current abilities. The form of cardio you're doing should match up with this.
Fat Burning and Weight Loss
Understanding how the body works can really open your eyes to what you're doing in the gym.
Your body stores fat as a means to store energy for future use. Fat cells are basically balls of energy. It's a survival mechanism. If food became scarce, that stored fat could keep you alive. Of course, food isn't exactly scarce these days. We're cursed with our own biological adaptations.
Our bodies burn fat most efficiently at rest and during low intensity activity. This is because the process of breaking down fat cells into energy is very efficient, but slow. Fat cannot be used to fuel more intense anaerobic activity. Thus, fat is burned most efficiently during lighter activity.
The traditional "fat burning" zone would look like this:
- 50-70% of your max heart rate. (Max HR = 220 - Age)
- A pace where you could carry a conversation, a level 3-5 on the perceived exertion scale.)
- Use any cardio machine, fast walking/jogging, or a combination.
- 30-60 minutes of low intensity exercise
For Optimal Fat Burning, You Need Higher Intensity Training
The "Fat Burning Zone" is great and all, but it's only a piece to the puzzle. It is not the ultimate method for losing fat. Again, understanding our bodies can really give us insight into what we're doing when we work out.
During higher intensity workouts, it's true that we burn a smaller percentage of fat for energy. However, at higher intensities you're also burning far more total calories. Less efficient doesn't necessarily mean less total fat burned. Here's an important fact to keep in mind:
The only place in the body where fat gets burned is in Muscle tissue
Training only at low intensities will never encourage your body to build or maintain muscle. More powerful muscles are fat burning machines. They take more energy to maintain. As a result, resistance training and higher intensity cardio can increase your resting metabolic rate.
Resting Metabolic Rate
Your resting metabolic rate is the amount of calories your body burns at rest. If you can burn more calories while you're binge watching Netflix or shopping on amazon, you will inevitably lose more fat and become leaner.
Recovering from higher intensity workouts takes energy, too
Higher intensity workouts create an "after-burn" effect. Since the body requires more energy to recover from these sessions, additional calories will be used. Since you're at rest while you recover, fat will be used to fuel this recovery. It's a simple concept that adds value to incorporating some resistance training and higher intensity training to your workouts.
The 3 Cardio Zones
I don't really like the traditional cardio "zones." I like things to be simple, and there's no need to complicate things unless you're an elite athlete looking for very specific adaptations. I like breaking it down into 3 groups:
|Low Intensity||Moderate Intensity||High Intensity|
Good for beginners
Improve aerobic abilities
Major Health Benefits
|50-70% of Max HR||70-80% Max HR||80-90% Max HR|
|30-90 Minutes||20-60 Minutes||10-25 Minutes|
How To Train in Each Zone
Here are some examples of how to train in each of the 3 zones. As you'll see towards the end of this article, using a combination of these methods is what will get you optimal results for burning fat and losing weight.
- Use any cardio machine, brisk walking/jogging, or any light activity.
- You should keep constant movement and be able to hold a conversation
- You should feel like your level of exertion is a 3-5 out of 10.
- Heart rate 50-70% of your max HR.
- 30-60 minutes
- Stimulates recovery in the body
- Burns fat
- Increases blood flow into joints and muscles
- Use any cardio machine, jogging or other activity
- You should be able to talk, but not full conversation
- Should feel hard but maintainable
- Heart rate 70-80% of max HR
- 20-60 minutes
- Improved Cardiac Output: Heart pumps more blood per beat
- Improved endurance
- Increased size of left ventricle of the heart - (stronger heart)
- Improved cardiovascular system
- Studies show can reduce risk of dying from all causes
- Running/Sprinting in intervals: (ex, 1 minute run, 1 minute walk).
- Can use circuits with full body exercises done in intervals
- Should feel difficult. Exertion 8-9 out of 10
- HR 80-90% of max HR or greater.
- Improved Aerobic power: Your body's ability to use oxygen
- Metabolic rate is higher for several hours after the workout
- Can gain muscle
- Can get a lot done in a short time
So What's the Best Way to do Cardio?
As stated earlier, there is no "best method." Each method has it's own place in your plan of attack, and all three are necessary if you want optimal results in losing fat and improving your health and fitness.
For Best Results, Use Various Approaches.
The best results will come by reaping the benefits of all three forms of cardio:
Use High intensity training to stimulate aerobic power, build muscle and boost metabolic rate.
Use low intensity to promote recovery from harder workouts and to continue burning fat when you would otherwise be doing nothing.
Use Moderate intensity training most frequently to reap the massive benefits of improved aerobic fitness.
The Massive Benefits of Focusing on Moderate Intensity Training
Studies have shown that the higher a person's level of aerobic fitness, the less chance that person has of dying from all causes. Read the quote below from the largest study on this topic every compiled:
“cardiorespiratory fitness was inversely associated with all-cause mortality without an observed upper limit of benefit."
I've mentioned this before in previous articles because it is so important. Aerobic fitness and mortality are intimately related. Improving your aerobic fitness can help you not only feel better and live a better life, but also to live longer. Read the article for yourself here:
By performing different types of cardiovascular exercise, you can build your aerobic fitness from the ground up, while burning fat, losing weight and getting a more toned body in the process.
An example of how to split up your cardio workouts:
This is just an example. Depending on your current abilities, you can always do more or less. The important points to always keep in mind are:
- Treat high intensity training with respect. More is not better. Studies show that 2 days per week, or 40 minutes per week, is optimal.
- Use low intensity training to stimulate recovery and keep your body moving and burning calories and fat.
- Focus on moderate intensity training to get the biggest overall benefits
I hope you enjoyed this article. If you think it's important, feel free to share it. Cardio is often misunderstood, but is a critically important part of any workout program. Understanding how your body works and what you're trying to accomplish can take you to new levels of fitness and health. As always, I hope this helps get you a little closer to that best version of you.