We all know that cardio is good for your cardiac health. Over the years, however, questions have bounced around regarding this type of exercise.
- Does it really help you burn fat?
- Is it bad for your joints?
- Is the calorie-burn significant?
We’re going to find out.
Research to the Rescue – Does Cardio Help You Burn Fat?
In 2011, Stephen H. Boutcher published his research on High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat Loss. The article makes a surprising statement that: “the effect of regular aerobic exercise on body fat is negligible.”1 This means that regular aerobic exercise makes little to no difference on your body composition!
So, according to his research, cardio is great for your aerobic and anaerobic fitness, but it does little for your level of body fat. He explains, however, that there are other forms of exercise that have the desired impact. Boutcher cites some emerging research that indicates High Intensity Intermittent Exercise (also known as High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT) “may be more effective at reducing subcutaneous and abdominal body fat than other types of exercise.”1
To summarize, Boutcher essentially found that High Intensity Interval Training is more effective for losing fat and maintaining fat loss than long duration and low intensity training. Therefore, if you want to use cardio for fat loss, you must increase the intensity of your workouts. One easy way to measure the intensity is by monitoring your heart rate. For high intensity work, you’ll want to push your heart rate to 70 to 85% of its maximum ability.
Is Cardio Bad for Your Joints?
Any repetitive movement can subject your muscles and joints to overuse, and most cardio requires a lot of reps. Unless you’re switching between exercises often, your cardio routine can be doing some damage. The best way to protect your joints is to choose exercises that are naturally more gentle on the body.
Here are some examples of cardio that are kind to your joints:
The elliptical eliminates the shock to your joints that would be present if you were running normally or on a treadmill. It smooths your movement and provides a guide for your feet as your body follows the running motion.
Rowing can be problematic if bending and stretching your knees is uncomfortable. Otherwise, it is a low-impact exercise because you are sitting down for the movement. Be sure to take things slowly until you can gauge how your body is handling the exercise.
Water exercises are often used in physical therapy because the resistance of the water engages your muscles but also supports your weight. Swimming is a great way to safely get some cardio.
Alternatively, you can follow a HIIT style format and do shorter bouts of different workouts with only enough of a break in between to safely set up for the next exercise. This way you can keep your heart rate up and offer your joints a break from repetitions of the same movement.
What Determines How Many Calories You Burn?
Your calories burned will depend on your age, gender, and weight, regardless of the type of exercise. When we’re talking cardio, however, a few different things can help you blast the calories even faster:
We’ve already learned that intensity is the key to burning fat with cardio. The harder you work, the more calories you’ll burn. It’s as basic as that. Increasing your intensity will also challenge your heart and improve your cardiovascular health.
Next time you’re on the treadmill, raise the incline. Uphill movement requires the engagement of different muscles, and the more muscles you must use, the more calories you burn.
Training for distance is a great test of endurance. The farther you have to go, the more fuel your body needs. Now pair that with a time goal, and you will need to push yourself a little faster to go the distance. This is a good way to increase the intensity of your workout because you’re working towards a specific goal instead of just putting in your time.
You will be hard-pressed to find an athlete or trainer who trash-talks cardio. Many of us hate it, but that might be because we’re not consistent enough to improve how our bodies handle the activity. The key to building cardiovascular health, endurance, and ability is to maintain a regular cardio routine. You’ll find it very difficult to enjoy cardio if you never give your body a chance to get better at it.
The bottom line is that reaping the maximum benefits of cardio means you’ve got to workout smarter, not longer. Doing endless amounts of cardio is more likely to result in muscle overuse and injury, so unless you’re training for a marathon, keep your cardio workouts short but intense.
To read about measuring your fitness level, read our registered dietitian’s post: Step Off the Scale and Onto the Gym Floor. To access our monthly blog post highlights, subscribe to our newsletter today!
- Boutcher SH. High-intensity intermittent exercise and fat loss. J Obes. 2011;2011:868305. doi:10.1155/2011/868305