There are benefits to all forms of cardio, but certain types will help you lose weight a heckuva lot faster than others.
When looking at the best type of cardio to lose weight, there are two factors to consider: How many calories you’ll burn during the actual workout, and how many calories you’ll burn after — or, how a workout will affect your resting metabolism.
When it comes to running versus walking versus the elliptical versus burpees, the truth is if you do any form of cardio long enough, you’ll burn your target number of calories.
A study in the The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that when women worked out five times a week for 12 weeks, those who practiced high intensity interval training — better known as HIIT — saw better improvements in their body composition compared to those who did moderate intensity continuous exercise (like 45 minutes of jogging).
Similarly, a nine-month study of 62 overweight and obese participants showed that HIIT can improve body mass, body mass index, waist circumference, total fat mass — particularly abdominal fat — and maximal exercise capacity in the long term. On the flip side, when overweight and obese women completed short bouts of HIIT over six weeks for a small study published in the journal Obesity, they reduced their abdominal and leg fat.
So, while you can turn to any form of cardio to lose weight, HIIT has a few legs up over the competition to make it the most efficient form of cardio to lose weight.
Why Is HIIT So Effective?
For starters, the total amount of energy you expend during a HIIT workout can be similar to that spent during continuous moderate-intensity training; but, HIIT exercisers can reap body-altering benefits in less time and lower overall training volume.
What’s more, you’ll continue to burn calories after you leave the gym, because HIIT launches your body into a state of excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), according to a study published in Sports Medicine. An exhaustive, high-intensity cardio workout revs your metabolism to restock your oxygen and energy stores, increasing your calorie burn for hours after you’re done moving.
“At a physiological level, the intensity of HIIT training places a significantly higher demand on your metabolism than more traditional, lower-intensity forms of cardio,” explains Brandon Mentore, ACE-certified personal trainer and strength and conditioning coach in Philadelphia.
This is mostly because during HIIT, the intensity forces your body to eat up much of its accessible energy stores, so your metabolism shifts gears to accommodate the higher energy needs.
It works like this: Your body runs on energy, called ATP, which can be converted from stored protein, carbs, or fat, Mentore explains. Carbs are the easiest macro to convert into ATP, which is why your body burns through this the fastest during a workout. However, fat yields the greatest amounts of ATP, he adds.
After you’re done working out, your body needs to replenish your ATP stores and since it’s not on a time crunch to supply fuel ASAP anymore, it breaks down the more ATP-rich fat.
What’s more, because your body is launched into that EPOC state, it burns fat for longer. In fact, when previously untrained people started doing HIIT, their fat oxidation increased by 60 percent over six weeks, according to research published in Applied Physiology Nutrition and Metabolism.
The last notch on HIIT’s belt? You can tailor your routine to include strength training (incorporating free weights or completing bodyweight resistance exercises, for example).
“At the end of your session, you have not only done cardio but also built muscle, which will help burn fat after you’re done exercising,” says Lalo Fuentes, C.S.C.S., personal trainer in Beverly Hills, California. That’s because lean muscle takes more energy to maintain (compared to body fat), so building muscle boosts your resting metabolism.
How Do You Do HIIT?
A HIIT routine consists of a work interval that’s completed as close to all-out effort as you can, followed by a rest period. If you design your own workout, how many sets and what activities are involved are up to you to decide; you can stick to a solo activity, such as sprints, or switch up every interval to include battle ropes, mountain climbers, burpees, and so on.
Mentore recommends aiming for work intervals that last between 20 and 120 seconds, with rest periods of however long you need to recover enough to perform another work interval at maximum intensity. The total workout time should range from 20 to 40 minutes.
If you want well-designed, effective HIIT routines that you can perform at home without a lot of extra equipment, Beachbody on Demand provides many options, such as INSANITY, INSANITY: MAX 30, INSANITY: THE ASYLUM, and 22 Minute Hard Corps.
Don’t Be Afraid to Modify
If you’re new to working out or coming back after a long break and find HIIT to be really, really hard, don’t get discouraged.
“HIIT is particularly taxing on people who are out of shape — exactly the people who want to lose weight the most,” points out Fuentes. In fact, a study from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse found that when untrained people worked out for eight weeks, those who tried a form of HIIT called Tabata rated their experience as much less enjoyable than those who did steady-state cardio, even though HIIT only took four minutes and steady state took 20.
Since being unconditioned increases both your risk of injury and chances of giving up on the workout altogether, try this instead: Start with a few weeks of low-intensity, steady-state cardio, such as 45 to 60 minutes of walking or cycling. You could also try one of Beachbody’s high energy, fun dance workout plans, such as CIZE, Country Heat, or YOUV2.
Then, move up to a HIIT routine and opt for the modifications. Most Beachbody programs have a dancer in the group who modifies the moves to make them more suitable for beginners. As you become more comfortable and accustomed to the higher workload, you can move from following the modifier to tackling the full-blown, fat-burning routine.