The BEST Type of Cardio for Fat Loss

There is a special breed of fitness freak that enjoys doing hours of cardio. Over the years, my own relationship with cardio has run the full gamut from head-over-heels in love, to indifference, to burning hatred. 

It all started out when I was in junior high, running on the cross country team. I actually ran for fun. Fun. Can you believe that? Let’s just say things got pretty hot and heavy between us for a few years.   

Once, during the last mile of a 6-mile run with my pupper, it began pouring rain. I had to take my shirt off and wrap my cell phone up to keep it dry, but I ended up having to carry not only my bundled up shirt, but my 35-lb. DOG as well, who decided that we had simply gone too far and she was not going to move any farther of her own accord. 

But even incidents such as that did not stop me. 

I eventually fell out of love with running, but I stayed with it because I thought that it was the key to my fat loss goals. 

When I started lifting weights, I joined the death-to-cardio camp. I double tapped every “cardio sucks” meme on Instagram, and proudly proclaimed how I had renounced my aerobic ways.

Nowadays, I enjoy it because it’s challenging, and makes me feel good (afterwards, at least). I can appreciate cardio for its slew of health benefits, in addition to it being a tool to aid fat loss. 

Do you have to do it to lose weight? No. But if you want to include it in your fat-fighting arsenal, here’s what you should know: 

What’s the difference between steady state and interval training? 

The traditional type of cardio we think of is steady state. It consists of your activity of choice, e.g. walking, running, biking, stair stepping, rowing, etc. at a solid pace, keeping a relatively steady heart rate, until the show you were watching on the tv at the gym is over or you keel over from boredom (something like 20-60 minutes). 

The other type of cardio, one that’s been growing in popularity for some number of years now is HIIT, or high intensity interval training. Typical HIIT protocol is alternating between a high intensity activity for ~30-60 seconds (I’ve heard of 15-90 seconds at the outer limits) and a low intensity activity, either complete rest, or active rest like walking, for ~60-90 seconds. This is repeated for several predetermined cycles or until you keel over from exhaustion (around 7-20 minutes, plus a warm up and cool down). 

Which is better? 

HIIT carries an increased risk of injuries, especially with certain activities like sprinting. It’s typically more painful because of the lactic acid levels that you reach during the high intensity periods. 

It’s also probably not the best choice for beginners and detrained individuals because in order for it to be effective, you really have to go all out in your high intensity periods. That’s not only difficult, it’s uncomfortable—so you have to be not only able to hit that level, you have to want to—and not every entry level exerciser embraces the necessary masochism. 

Steady state, depending on the intensity, can also burn more calories than HIIT. 

So I should do steady state cardio then, right? Not so fast. 

An excess of steady state cardio, especially at those higher intensities when you’re burning more calories, can cause muscle loss. And you should be aware that an excess of either one can cause overtraining (exercising more than your body can recover from).

One of the reasons HIIT has grown in popularity is because it’s time efficient, so it’s great if you’re pressed for time. Or if you get bored easily. You’re not only spending less time on the session, you’re constantly switching back and forth between intensities, so the sessions seem to go by quicker as well. 

You may have heard that your body continues to burn calories after you exercise. Bonus! This is called Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption, or EPOC, and HIIT can generate a larger EPOC than steady state[1]. HIIT may also lower insulin resistance and fat oxidation, and improve glucose tolerance[2]. 

 Great! It’s decided then. I’ll do HIIT. Again, not so fast. 

What type of cardio should you do?

The two most important things you should take into consideration are your training level and your overall program. Can you handle the necessary intensity of the intervals, and how much can you recover from? The amount and intensity of the cardio you add will depend on your goals (are you a beginner? a bodybuilder looking to lean out for a competition?), the current demands of your program, and what your abilities and tastes as an individual are. 

Keep in mind that you don’t have to choose one or the other, and doing a combination of the two is another way to go about it.

The only way to get the benefits of cardio is to do types that you enjoy, and to stay consistent with it.

If you hate doing cardio indoors, get outside. If you live in Siberia, or anywhere else it’s not practical to be outside, line up some good podcasts or shows to keep you entertained while you’re on the machines in the gym. Buy a jumprope and do it at home. There are lots of options. 

If you have decided that you really hate everything about it but you still want to lose weight, be prepared to lower your calories. But if you do decide to include it in your routine, try out some different activities and find ways that you can make it fun.

References:
1. Yoshioka M, Doucet E, St-pierre S, et al. Impact of high-intensity exercise on energy expenditure, lipid oxidation and body fatness. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2001;25(3):332-9.
2. Boutcher SH. High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat LossJournal of Obesity. 2011;2011:868305. doi:10.1155/2011/868305.