First and foremost, any form of exercise will help you to lose weight. Losing weight is simply calories in versus calories out, or burning more calories during the day than you consume. For example, if you eat 1,700 calories in one day but burn almost 2,000 calories from daily activities, metabolic pathways, and exercise, then you’ve burned 300 calories for that day. Likewise, if the numbers were reversed and you consumed 2,000 calories but only burned 1,700 calories, then you would gain 300 calories that day.
However, there are better ways to initially lose body fat. High-intensity cardiovascular activity will initially burn more fat because of the energy pathways it requires. If done consistently, you’ll be well on your way to losing inches quickly.
Cardiovascular exercise requires more energy than lifting does. (It’s why you’re more out of breath after a five-mile run than a handful of deadlifts.) This is because cardiovascular activity requires energy from fat stores, not glycogen stores. It also requires the energy pathway of oxidative phosphorylation, or the conversion of oxygen into ATP energy, instead of glycolysis, which converts glucose into stored ATP energy.
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Oxidative phosphorylation requires more energy and more work. Your body has to work harder to convert this type of ATP versus already stored ATP from the muscles, hence a greater percentage of fat loss. So the harder you work, the more your body has to work to keep up with you, and the more fat you burn. Easy, right?
So What Makes it High Intensity?
You should be able to tell when an exercise is intense by how hard you’re breathing. If you can hold a conversation, it’s not that intense. If you can’t speak without wheezing, chances are the exercise is intense enough. Intensity is also calculated through the scale of Rates of Perceived Exertion (RPE). This is a scale from 1-10, where 1 is the easiest (think: lying in bed) and 10 is the hardest (think: about to faint because you’re so minded).
Any cardiovascular exercise you do with the goal of losing significant amounts of body fat should be upwards on the RPE scale. Again, you’re aiming to be sweaty and out of breath in order for your body to continually fight for oxygen and generate ATP. If you can grab energy from your muscles, then the body has no reason to work as hard for its energy. If that happens, your metabolism slows. Don’t let that happen!
Get sweaty! Breathe hard! Make your body work!
Various Cardiovascular Exercises
So now you’re thinking, “Well okay, I need to work hard to lose body fat. What exercises are good for that?”
Any exercise that gets your heart rate up, gets you sweaty and makes you lose your breath is a fantastic form of cardiovascular exercise. However, there are some exercises that are easier to perform than others:
- Cardiovascular machines. These machines are commonplace gym equipment, such as the: treadmill, elliptical, Stairmaster, and stationary bike. Your gym may have something more unique than those, but those are the main four cardiovascular machines that, when utilized properly, can help to get your heart rate up. Most newer models even have workout options for an increased heart rate, which is great for beginners!
- Running. And yes, actually running. Jogging will not get your heart rate up as much, so spare it when you can. Use it as a cool down method to bring your heart rate back to baseline at the end of your workout.
- Sled pushes, tire flips, or battle ropes. For the more skilled athlete training at more rugged-style gyms, sled pushes, battle ropes, and tire flips are a great option. These exercises give a greater resistance during activity, which helps to sustain muscle while still getting your heart rate up.
The King of all Cardio
Although the list above is great, there’s something even better. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a cardiovascular exercise that has interchanging periods of rest and activity. The purpose of HIIT is to get your heart rate up to the highest possible level — or the optimal “fat burning zone” — and then let it come back down again before starting the whole process over again. This is a great tactic because the optimal “fat burning zone” can only be withheld for so long before your body needs to stop. It simply cannot produce oxygen that quickly.
A great example of HIIT cardio is a treadmill sprint. Generally, a sprint can only be held for about 20-30 seconds before you’re physically out of breath. This is the “activity” portion of the exercise. The “rest” portion lasts for about 90 seconds to 2 minutes, depending on your current level of fitness. It gives your heart rate a chance to come back down. However, the key here is to make sure that your heart rate doesn’t return to baseline. Make sure your rest periods are only as long as it takes you to catch your breath. Then you’re off again!
An example of HIIT cardio would be:
20 minutes of full activity –> 90 seconds rest, 30 seconds sprint (activity) / Repeat 10 times.
The General Takeaway
Cardiovascular activity of any intensity is great for heart health. Cardio in of itself gets your blood pumping and your heart beating, which helps to regulate your cardiovascular system. However, when wanting to burn fat, the more intense the exercise the more fat is burned in a shorter period of time.
Exercise intensity is based on how you feel through Ratings of Perceived Exertion. Remember: aim for higher levels, like 7+, in order to really get your heart rate up and increase your body’s demand for oxygen and ATP energy. Without that high demand, the body can use stored energy and the metabolism will not have to work as hard in that moment. That equals less fat loss, which is no good.
In general, the more you sweat the more fat is burned. So get sweating!
Alexa Bauer has a Master’s degree in nutrition from the University of Maryland and works as a full-time researcher at Swol Headquarters. Alexa Bauer spends her spare time blogging about cardiovascular health and nutrition. She’s specialized in weight loss.