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Best Cardio Exercises

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Updated September 02, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Cardio is one of the most important things you can do for your body, whether you want to lose weight, burn fat 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, but there are some exercises that give you a little more bang for your buck.

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.

1. Home Cardio Exercise

home cardio exercise
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I hesitate to put this category first, simply because it's hard to quantify just how many calories 'home cardio exercise' burns. If you just march in place for awhile? Um, that's probably not going to be very effective. However, this is the most accessible type of exercise and there are plenty of cardio exercises you can do right in your own living room that can burn calories, depending on how hard you work. For example, if you have a jump rope, 145-lb person can burn a whopping 330 calories with a 30-minute workout. Of course, 30 minutes of jumping rope might kill just about anybody, but you can always start with a few minutes and work your way up. Some other ideas for home cardio exercises and workouts:

2. Running

Woman running on treadmill in gym
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Running is a great choice for a variety of reasons:

  • It doesn't require special equipment (except some quality shoes)
  • You can can do it just about anytime, anywhere
  • It's 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.

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3. Cross-Country Skiing

Getty Images/David Madison

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.

Pros and Cons

  • You need cold weather and, of course, snow
  • You also need plenty of gear
  • It takes lots of conditioning and practice
  • You can only do it in the winter

Alternatives

If you have no snow, no skis or no interest in freezing your patootie off, your best bet is the elliptical trainer or other cross-training machine that has arm handles. You'll find some suggestions below in the Elliptical Trainer section.

4. Elliptical Trainer

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Next to the treadmill, the elliptical trainer is the most popular cardio machine at the gym and it's no wonder.  The elliptical trainer allows your body to move in a natural way, but without the impact of the treadmill.  You can add intensity 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, 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 or for people who want to total body action of cross country skiing (see above) but without actually having to go out into the snow. A 145-lb person burns about 300 calories in 30 minutes.

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5. Bicycling

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Whether you're outdoors or indoors, cycling is an excellent cardio workout. 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.

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6. Swimming

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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 breastroke 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.

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7. An Aerobic Step

Paige Waehner

Step aerobics is a workout for old people...at least, that's what my young clients tell me. It's true that traditional, choreographed step aerobics classes are a little on the wane, but if you like those classes or videos and you're still stepping, you can burn up to 300-400 calories in 30 minutes (during high intensity sessions).

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Stepping Into The Current Century

Now, if step aerobics is out of the question for you, that doesn't mean you can't use a step in your workouts for some great cardio exercises.

8. Rowing

Rowing Machine
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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.

However, 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.

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9. Kickboxing

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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 involes both the upper and lower body, making this an excellent overall workout.

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're familiar with different kicks and punches, you can even create your own workouts or, better yet, use a punching bag (compare prices) to get an even better workout. 

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10. Walking

Getty Images/Kane Skennar

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's low impact but, if you work hard at it, a 145-lb person can burn about 180 calories in 30 minutes.

Adding hills, speedwalking or using walking poles can also increase the intensity.  Make sure you walk briskly--pretend you're trying to catch a bus--and keep you head up, back straight and swing your arms.

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Related Video
Quick and Effective Cardio Workout for Heart Health

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