A recent Gallup Poll found that over 50% of Americans would like to lose weight. Cardio workouts, along with the right nutritional choices, can be a great tool to burn calories, slim down, and live a healthier life. Losing weight the right way (i.e., no crash dieting) won’t be fast or easy, but it can be done with the help of cardio workout routines. Here’s what you need to know about the power of cardio fitness, along with examples of the best cardio workouts for beginning, intermediate, and advanced exercisers.
What Is Cardio Exercise?
According to Very Well Fit, “Cardiovascular exercise is exercise that gets your heart rate up.”
Many different activities can be considered cardio exercise, such as:
- Walking your dog around the neighborhood
- Cleaning your home
- Gardening in the backyard
However, a cardio workout routine is meant to raise your heart rate into your target heart rate zone where you will burn more fat and calories.
How Do Cardio Workouts Help You Lose Weight?
You burn calories all the time, even while you sleep. Your body uses energy (aka calories) to breathe, moderate your body temperature, digest food, and keep your heart beating.
When you exercise, your body needs to burn more energy to keep up. For example, you’ll probably notice that your pulse picks up after you’ve been walking the dog for five or ten minutes. If your dog sees a squirrel and bounds away, tearing the leash out of your hand, you may need to run to catch up to your furry friend. By the time you grab the leash again, you may feel your heart pounding in your chest. Your heart has to work harder to pump oxygenated blood into your muscles, which means a higher calorie burn.
How much cardio should you do to lose weight? One study found that 300 minutes (or five hours) of moderate physical activity per week helped participants lose weight, (though the amount of physical activity needed for you to lose weight will vary depending on your current physical fitness and the intensity of your activity).
Understanding the Link Between Intensity and Weight Loss
Don’t have enough time each week to devote five hours to cardio workouts? Understandable. There is another way to perform cardio routines for weight loss. There is a link between workout intensity and calorie burn. The higher the intensity of your workout, the more calories you’ll burn per minute. It makes sense, right? You’ll burn more calories running for ten minutes than jogging, and you’ll burn more calories jogging for ten minutes than walking.
High-intensity exercise also creates a special weight-loss compounding effect known as EPOC. When you work out at a high intensity, you’ll put your body into a state of excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). In a nutshell, this means your body will have to work hard to restore your body’s normal oxygen levels after your workout is complete, meaning you’ll be burning calories even after you head home from the gym.
High-intensity workouts are not for everybody. Beginners need to take things slow to help their bodies adjust to a new workout routine. High-intensity workouts are short and painful. While it’ll usually be over in 15 – 30 minutes, get ready to feel the burn!
A Quick Note on the Other Benefits of Cardio Workouts
While cardio workout routines are an excellent way to burn calories and lose weight, it’s also important to recognize that cardio exercise also provides a huge amount of additional benefits. Even if you don’t notice changes in your body right away, that’s not a reason to give up on cardio. In fact, cardio workouts should be a part of every person’s fitness routine, whether or not they’re trying to lose weight.
The benefits of regular cardio exercise include:
- Lower stress
- Reduced risk of heart disease
- Better sleep
- Stronger lungs
- Stress and anxiety relief
How to Track the Intensity of Your Cardio Workouts
When you begin performing cardio workouts for weight loss, how will you know if you are at the right intensity to burn the highest number of calories? A simple way to monitor your progress is to track your heart rate using beats per minute.
Begin by establishing your maximum heart rate (MHR,) which is 220 minus your age. (Check out this maximum heart rate cheat sheet from Heart.org.) This is a rough estimate of the maximum number of beats your heart can complete in a minute. Your target heart rate will depend on what level of intensity you want to hit during your cardio routine.
- Low-Intensity Cardio: No more than 50% of your MHR
- Moderate-Intensity Cardio: 50% – 70% of your MHR
- High-Intensity Cardio: 70% – 85% of your MHR
It’s easier than ever to track your heart rate. You can always use the old-fashioned method of counting your heartbeats for 10 seconds then multiplying that number by six to get your heartbeats per minute. However, this method can be hard to do in the middle of a workout. Most smartwatches and fitness watches can track your heart rate. Certain apps can also estimate your heart rate based on your speed and distance.
Best Cardio Workouts for Weight Loss
Ready to start your cardio journey to weight loss? The good news is that there are many different ways to develop a cardio routine for weight loss. Just remember that the lower the intensity, the more cardio you’ll need to do in order to burn extra calories.
Beginner Cardio Workout for Weight Loss
Beginning exercisers don’t need to worry about jumping into high-intensity cardio workouts. Instead, focus on spending 10–30 minutes in a low- or moderate-intensity heart rate zone. Your goal is to slowly and safely improve your cardio capability over time. The best beginner cardio workouts are steady-state cardio workouts. This means performing a single cardio activity at a low or moderate intensity.
Great steady-state cardio exercises include:
- Power walking
- Elliptical trainer
Start with 10-minute sessions, then increase the time domain as you begin to feel more comfortable. See if you can eventually maintain a 30-minute steady-state cardio session at 50% – 70% of your MHR.
Intermediate Cardio Workout for Weight Loss
Want to burn more calories in less time? Then you’ll need to increase the intensity of your workout. Circuit training is an excellent training template for moderate-intensity cardio workouts. During a circuit training session, you’ll perform a number of exercises, also called “stations.” Moving through all the stations is the completion of the circuit. Most circuit workouts include three to five complete circuits with five to 10 exercises in each circuit. If you are just starting circuit training, you may want to add a minute of rest between circuits.
Here is an example of a cardio circuit training routine for weight loss:
- Perform three circuits of the following:
- 30 jumping jacks
- 30 seconds of box step-ups (or climbing stairs)
- 30 seconds of high-knee running in place
- 20 alternating lunges
- 30 seconds of side shuffle (15 seconds each direction)
- Option: one minute of rest between circuits
Try to keep your heart rate in the 50% – 70% MHR range throughout the workout.
Advanced Cardio Workout for Weight Loss
Do you want to achieve the highest calorie burn in the shortest amount of time? Then high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is the name of the game. This workout template requires you to perform a set of exercises as fast and hard as you can for a short amount of time; it’s followed by a short amount of rest. The goal is to get your heart rate up and keep it elevated to put your body into a state of EPOC.
Here is a typical cardio HIIT workout to try:
- Perform three rounds.
- Perform each exercise at a high intensity for 30 seconds followed by 30 seconds of rest
- Jumping rope
- Mountain climbers
- Bear crawls
Try to get your heart rate up to 70% – 85% of your MHR. If your heart rate goes above 85% or you start to feel lightheaded or nauseous, slow down but try not to abruptly stop moving. Switch to an active rest state (such as walking) until you feel recovered.
Cardio Workout Routines Are One Tool in Your Weight-Loss Tool Belt
Consistent cardio workouts can help you achieve a healthier lifestyle and lose weight, but they are only one tool you can use to lose pounds. (Learn 5 Healthy Ways to Lose Weight.) The best weight-loss system includes eating healthy foods in the right portions, adding resistance training into your workout routine, and giving attention to your self-care.
If you aren’t sure how to start a cardio routine for weight loss, a great first step is to join a group fitness class. Many gyms offer cardio dance classes, step classes, and cycling classes, as well as classes that use circuit training and HIIT formats. If you would like more personal assistance, consider hiring a personal trainer who can design a customized weight loss fitness plan for you.