It’s a question we’ve all pondered while making our workout selection; what is the best form of cardio? To be brutally honest, it’s tough to answer directly as it depends on how the word "best" is being used. Are you simply trying to burn as many calories as possible? Are you training for an event? Are you looking to increase your maximum heart rate? Or are you just trying to find the type of cardio that’s the least taxing on your body?
Whatever your reasoning may be, it’s important to determine which type of response you want to get out of your training, while still remaining within the limits of your body’s abilities.
Yes, that’s right, you have limits - whether you like it or not. I’m not saying you don’t have the ability to push yourself through a tough workout, or that you can’t run five miles every morning before work. However, if you have a history of knee injuries, then running five miles per day may not be the wisest decision. Just as someone with a recurring shoulder issue would be wise to find another form of cardio in place of swimming laps every day, individualization is important. The point I’m trying to get across is that knowing your body’s true, physical limitations is a vital component to choosing your best form of cardio.
The good news is that there are countless types of cardio for you to experiment with, allowing you to work around your weaknesses or, better yet, attack them.
Instead of telling you which type of cardio is best for you, I’m going to list some of the most common (not all) types, along with some pros and cons of each.
Running (moderate pace)
Running has always been one of the most popular forms of cardio, partly because of the sheer number of calories you can burn while working up a good sweat. At a moderate pace, running can be a great way to clear your head and empower your mind for hours to come. It is also a great way to burn calories and increase your VO2 max, which measures your body’s ability to use oxygen during high intensity exercise. On the downside, steady-state running can over-stress your bones and joints, extending recovery time and increasing the risk of injury. You also run the risk of losing muscle mass during prolonged running sessions, which many people work tirelessly to preserve. So before you start running every day of the week, try doing one or two days per week to reap the respiratory and calorie burning benefits, without overworking your bones and joints. You can also try indoor running on a treadmill, which is built to absorb shock and help relieve bodily stress associated with running.
If you love running but want a quicker, more intense workout, then sprinting might be your best choice. Sprinting can be done either outdoors or on a treadmill and is a great way to divide your workout into increments of your choice. Including sprint intervals in your workout is an efficient way to burn calories and increase your heart rate without spending 30+ minutes doing so. Other benefits include increased leg strength (due to performing an explosive power movement) and EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption), which continues to burn calories even after your workout is complete. Unfortunately, sprints are not possible for everyone and may not be practical for someone who is solely focused on steady-state endurance training. This is a form of exercise that is meant to push your body to its aerobic and anaerobic limits, meaning leg soreness and extended recovery time can be expected.
An elliptical machine can be a nice change of pace from running, literally and metaphorically. This form of cardio is a solid option for someone with any kind of lower body pain, whether it be bone or joint related. You also have the freedom to increase the incline and resistance, boosting the amount of calories you burn. By adjusting the incline, you can place a greater emphasis on your hamstrings and glutes, while an increase in resistance will focus more on your quads. Elliptical machines also give you better control of your speed and intensity, allowing you to go as hard (or soft) as you’d like. But before you claim the elliptical as your golden ticket to fat loss, keep in mind that it will take you longer to burn as many calories as most other forms of cardio. This is mainly to due to the ease of use and the assistance provided by the machine to complete the movement.
Anyone who’s taken a spin class understands the amount of calories you can burn during a good cycling workout. The form of cycling we are talking about here is not on a recumbent or upright bicycle, but on a bike that is designated for spin classes. Although you can work out on your own, a spin class will keep your mind occupied and give you proper guidance to get the best conditioning possible, while still enjoying the workout. Cycling is on the higher end of calorie-burning types of cardio, which also means increasing your heart rate and VO2 max. However, this is one type of exercise you want to ease yourself into in order to avoid chronic knee and hip pain. One good tip for new cyclists is to go at your own pace until you can follow along with your instructor. Do your best to follow their workout plan, but don’t hurt yourself trying to impress other people or yourself.
The stair climber is one of the best ways to get in a cardio and strength session at the same time. By using your legs to climb against a falling column of steps, you’re not only burning calories at a super-fast rate, but you’re increasing your leg strength along with it. This also works great to elevate your heart rate and increase EPOC, which is the perfect combination to shed those extra pounds away. And while this may seem like another golden ticket to fat loss, you should know that leg soreness is almost certain with this type of exercise. Give yourself a day or two of recovery before hopping back on for round two. It’s also important to properly monitor your ankles, knees, and hips for an overuse injury, as most of the general population is not accustomed to this machine.
Last but not least is my all-time favorite, swimming. This is just as much a cardio workout as it is a strength workout. While most types of cardio are leg-dominant, swimming uses nearly all the muscles in your body to keep yourself afloat and moving forward. There is a large emphasis on the chest, shoulder, back, arm and core muscles to help pull your body, while your legs are constantly pumping behind you to propel you through the water. This is why swimming has become so popular, especially with an aging population. It allows you to increase your heart rate and breathing rate, while still experiencing the all-body strength benefits, which will both build muscle and increase your VO2 max. Swimming is also a very low-impact form of exercise, which relieves everyday stress placed on your bones and joints. But as with anything else, safety comes first. So make sure you take the time to find a pool with lifeguard supervision and accessible aqua-exercise equipment.
Now that you’re all caught up on a variety of cardio exercises, it’s on you to determine which one best fits your needs. Instead of sticking solely to one exercise or assuming one is better than the rest, push yourself to experiment with as many as you can. Not only will this help you find the type of cardio you enjoy most, but it will spice things up in a setting that can become all too routine and stale. And remember, doing any type of cardio is better than doing none at all.
Key Word: Cardiovascular