Cardio is one of the most important things you can do for your body, whether you want to lose weight, build muscle or improve your health. The great thing is, there are plenty of choices for cardio exercise. Anything that gets your heart rate into your target heart rate zone will work.
The confusing thing is, there are so many choices out there...which exercises are the most effective? There's no 'right' cardio exercise and the best choice is the one you enjoy and the one you'll work hardest at, but there are some that work best if your goal is to blast calories and get in great shape.
Running is my favorite cardio exercise and is a great choice for a variety of reasons:
✔ It does not require special equipment except for some running shoes
✔ You can do it just about anytime, anywhere
✔ It is high impact, which helps build strong bones and connective tissue
✔ It gets your heart rate up more quickly than low or no impact exercise
✔ It helps you burn serious calories, especially if you add hills, sprints or try interval training.
In fact, a 145 lb person can burn 300 calories by running at 5.2 mph for 30 minutes. The same person would burn about half of that with a brisk walk. The downside is that it takes time to build the strength and stamina to run continuously and, because it's high impact, it may not work for every person.
Jumping rope is another calorie-scorcher and, as an added bonus, a jump rope packs easily in your suitcase, making it an excellent travel exercise. A 145lb person can burn a whopping 330 calories with a 30-minute workout, but you'll want to slowly work your way up to that.
Start by jumping for 1-2 minutes at a time, taking breaks by marching in place and swinging your rope in a figure eight motion. Continue alternating for 10-20 minutes and, over time, gradually increase the amount of time you jump while decreasing your rests.
You can add variety by trying different foot patterns (jumping on one foot, scissor jumps, etc.). I like to jump to energizing music. It keeps be pumped up, especially during a long stint of jumping!
Kickboxing is another great choice for exercisers who want to work hard with more choreographed workouts. Combining kicks and punches not only enhances your coordination, it involves both the upper and lower body, making this an excellent overall workout.
Kickboxing offers a great full-body workout because it requires you to use every major muscle group and includes interval training. Your heart rate will soar and stabilize several times throughout the class, which is optimal for weight loss.
There are a variety of videos available or you can opt for a class at your local gym to get a more social interaction. Once you are familiar with the different lingo- names of the kicks and punches, you can even create your own workouts or, better yet, use a punching bag to get an even better workout.
If you're looking to burn maximum calories, cross-country skiing is an excellent choice.
Whether you're on a gym machine or swooshing over miles of snow, cross-country skiing is an incredible cardio exercise. Because it involves both the upper and lower body, it doesn't take much work to get your heart rate up, which is where the calorie-burn comes in.
A 145 lb person burns about 330 calories during 30 minutes of skiing.
There are a few downsides, however. If you're going for the full outdoor experience, there is lots of gear required, and you will need practice to get the hang of it . . . and of course, snow.
You can mimic the movement at the gym by using a Nordic (or similar) cross trainer (such as an elliptical with arms or an Arc Trainer), but machines are never exactly the same.
Whether you are outdoors or indoors, cycling (spinning) is an excellent cardio workout. Biking: 600- 900 calories per hour on average depending on the level of resistance and intensity.
You can burn up to 700 calories at your average cycling class or take to the road on your own to enjoy fresh air to boot! Just make sure you keep a pace of about 14 to 16 miles per hour to reach the 700 calorie goal.
By using the power of your legs, you increase endurance while burning lots of calories, anywhere from 250-500 in 30 minutes, depending on how fast you go and how high your resistance is.
What makes cycling even better than other activities is that you can incorporate it into your daily life. You can ride to and from work or use your bike to run errands around town.
It's also low impact, which is great for your joints and perfect cross-training for high impact activities like running or aerobics.
Often found next to the treadmills, the elliptical trainer is another popular cardio machine at the gym.
The elliptical trainer allows your body to move in a natural way, but without the impact of the treadmill. Intensity can be added by increasing resistance and some machines include adjustable ramps and arm handles for added intensity as well.
As a bonus, you can go backwards on an elliptical trainer, which helps people burn 11% more calories than cycling forward, adding variety while working your muscles in a different way.
The elliptical trainer is also a good choice for runners looking for a break from pounding the pavement. A 145 lb person burns about 300 calories in 30 minutes.
Swimming is another great choice because, like cross-country skiing, it's a full body exercise. The more body parts you involve in your workout, the more calories you'll burn. Spend 30 minutes doing the breaststroke and you'll burn almost 400 calories.
Best of all, your joints are fully supported so you don't have to worry about high-impact injuries. It's also great cross-training for other cardio activities.
Zumba or Aerobic Classes: 500-650 or more calories per hour
Who knew an hour of dancing and hopping around could produce such results?!
Zumba is a very popular Latin-inspired dance workout which uses the principles of interval training and resistance exercise, the workout will boost your metabolism considerably, according to FitnessZumba.com.
However, like any fitness regimen, the number of calories burned varies from person to person depending on weight, sex, current fitness level, and how a hard a person works out.
Still, the massive weight loss and toning benefits of hip-swishing and shimmying make Zumba and similar aerobics class workouts a few of the most popular today.
Step aerobics, for example, is another great choice, particularly for people who like choreographed workouts, but do not enjoy the jackhammer feel of high impact aerobics. The step offers intensity without the pounding and it's easy to up the energy by adding risers.
It's also a great calorie-burner, targeting your legs, butt and hips while burning 300-400 calories in 30 minutes (during high intensity sessions). Though it might look complicated, step is easy to learn if you start with a beginner class or video.
This is an often overlooked machine in the gym because we're confused about how it works and, perhaps, aren't sure it delivers a great workout.
Rowing is a physically demanding exercise involving both the upper and lower body, which means a higher heart rate and a greater calorie burn.
Like an elliptical trainer or stationary bike, there are different levels of resistance, allowing you to get a challenging workout no matter what your fitness level. In 30 minutes, a 145 lb person can burn about 300 calories, but if you've never tried rowing, it can be tough.
Start with 10-15 minutes and add time to subsequent workouts to give your body time to adapt.
Walking is another great choice for cardio because, like running, it's accessible: You don't need special equipment and you can do it anywhere, anytime.
It's harder to get your heart rate up with walking since it is low impact but, if you work hard at it, a 145 lb person can burn about 180 calories in 30 minutes.
Adding hills, hiking, speed walking or using walking poles can also increase the intensity. Make sure you walk briskly. Keep the head up, back straight, engage and tighten your core and swing the arms.
Resources: AskMen.com, Shape.com, Bodybuilding.com, livestrong.com