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Cardio for Weight Loss

The Facts about Weight Loss and Cardio

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Updated June 02, 2014

Cardio for Weight Loss
Blake Little Collection/The Image Bank/Getty Images

If you're trying to lose weight, cardio exercise is just one of the things you need in your weight loss toolbox. The trouble is figuring out how much you need, how hard to work and the best cardio exercises. Your first step in setting up an effective cardio program is to learn just what it can do for your body.

How Cardio Helps You Lose Weight You already know that you lose weight when you burn more calories than you eat. The best way to do that is with a combination of cardio, strength training and a healthy diet. Cardio is a key component because:

  • You burn more calories at one time - Getting your heart rate into your target heart rate zone means your blood is pumping, you're breathing hard, you're sweating and burning calories.
  • You can easily add intensity to increase your calorie burn - With cardio exercise, it's easy to increase your calorie burn with small changes: Going faster, jumping higher, climbing hills or trying new activities that your body isn't used to. .
  • It adds to your overall calorie deficit - Burning calories with exercise means you don't have to cut as many calories from your diet.
  • You can do cardio most days of the week - With strength training, your muscles require rest to recover and grow stronger. Cardio can be done most days of the week without worrying about injury or overtraining.

The Best Cardio Exercises

You know cardio is important for weight loss, but which exercises are best and how much do you really need for weight loss?

The truth is, there really is no best cardio exercise. The best activity is the one you'll do on a regular basis. So, finding something you like is critical to reaching your weight loss goals. That said, some exercises offer more intensity than others.

  • Impact activities: Exercises that involve some impact, like walking, will usually boost your heart rate quicker than no-impact activities like swimming or cycling.
  • High impact activities: High impact, or exercises that involve running or jumping, will often burn more calories than lower impact things like walking.
  • Whole body activities: When you involve both the upper and lower body, as in cross-country skiing, it's often easier to get the heart rate up and burn more calories.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't bother with low impact exercise. Both types of activities offer opportunities to burn calories and doing both gives you a well-rounded program. To get an idea of just how much cardio can do for you, check out the following list of common exercises. Below is the number of calories burned for a 150-pound person in 30 minutes:

  • Step aerobics: 340 calories
  • Stationary bike: 238 calories
  • Swimming: 270 calories
  • Walking 4 mph: 170 calories
  • Running 5 mph: 270 calories
  • Mowing the lawn with a push mower: 200 calories

As you can see, everything from walking to cutting the grass can burn a significant number of calories, which is one reason cardio is so important for losing weight.

How Much Cardio Do You Need?

It's tough to know exactly how much cardio we need for weight loss. The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association recommend about 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity activity on most days of the week. But, the truth is, how much cardio you need varies from person to person and depends factors such as:

  • How many calories you eat
  • How hard you exercise
  • Your metabolism, age and gender
  • Your fitness level
  • Your body fat percentage and weight
  • Your exercise schedule

That said, there are some tips for setting up an effective cardio program:

  • If you're a beginner, start with 3 to 4 days of the cardio exercise of your choice, working at a level you can handle.
  • Add time each week to work your way up to 30 to 45 minutes of continuous exercise.
  • As you get stronger, try interval training once a week to help boost endurance and burn more calories.
  • Work your way up to 5 to 6 days of cardio and try to vary what you do and how hard you work.

You can learn more about different levels of intensity in Burn More Fat with Cardio Exercise. These sample cardio schedules will help you set up your own program.

Bottom line, cardio will help you lose weight. But it is most effective when combined with strength training and a healthy, low-calorie diet.

How much cardio do I need if I want to build muscle?

Not everyone wants to lose weight and gaining weight or muscle can be just as tough as trying to lose it. You may think you shouldn't do cardio exercise if you're trying to gain muscle. But, cardio isn't just for weight loss. It also helps condition the heart and lungs and promotes health and well-being.

If your goal is to gain muscle, you won't need tons of cardio. But, doing at least three 20-minute sessions a week won't hurt your goals and will help you reap the benefits of cardio without burning too many calories.

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