What is the Best Cardio Workout? Walk 500 More

what is the best cardio workout

What is the best cardio workout? Walking! Walking provides you with so many awesome benefits backed by research – let’s dive in!

After scouring the internet, I found that many of the articles were opinion-based and were lacking important considerations. I spent 20 hours researching and included information from over 40 peer-reviewed, research-based articles!

Keep reading to discover the best cardio workout for you backed by science.

…I promise you don’t have to go through what this guy just did

What is the best cardio workout? Walking?!
What is the best cardio workout based on the number calories burned?
What is the best cardio workout for someone just starting out?
How much cardio should you be getting each week?
Which cardio activity are you most likely to consistently do for 5 hours or more each week?
What is the best cardio workout for people seeking something more intense? HIIT
Why bother? What are the benefits of cardio workouts?
Other considerations: What is the best cardio workout?
Wrap up and next steps

What is the best cardio workout? Walking?!

I crave going for a walk every day.  Walking also provides me a chance to listen to plenty of nerdy self-help audiobooks which is part of living my dream life. I also get to walk with friends, enjoy nature, and find it easy to walk for 7 hours a week.

It wasn’t always this way.

You don’t even necessarily need to speed-walk or swing those arms!

It goes back to my first year of teaching. My wife, Mugsy, had committed to riding her mountain bike to and from work everyday. After driving myself to work a few times, it started to gnaw at me. Mugsy was getting exercise and saving money. Her new habit also made me reconsider buying a second vehicle.

12 years later, and the habit has stuck. I walk the 27 minutes (1.6 miles) to and from work and Mugsy bikes the 2.11 miles to her school.

If you feel out of shape or are unsure where to start with cardio, why not start with walking?

Multiple research studies demonstrate that walking leads to important health benefits.

For example, walking:

  • Improves sleep quality for a wide range of people [1]
  • Leads to a higher quality of life [2]
  • Is low impact and provides little risk of injury  [3] [4]
  • Enhances balance and coordination [5]
  • Improves cardiovascular health [6]
  • May help prevent osteoporosis and improve bone health [7]
  • Reduces blood pressure  [8] [9]
  • Helps with managing depression [10]
  • Decreases risks for type 2 diabetes [11]
  • Leads to healthy fat loss and weight management  [12] [13]
  • Improves cholesterol levels  [14]
  • May help you live longer [15]
  • Can reduce stress levels and improve psychological health  [16]

What is the best cardio workout based on the number calories burned?

If walking is not for you, Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School provided a quick estimate of the number of calories that can be burned in a 30 minute session based on a 125lb,  155lb, and 185-pound person:

Exercise 125-pound person 155-pound person 185-pound person
Walking, swimming, shoveling snow, vigorous weight lifting 180 223 266
Elliptical, boxing: 270 335 400
Martial Arts: judo, karate, kickboxing 300 372 444
Bicycling, basketball, football, volleyball, X-country skiing 240 298 355
Gardening, Cleaning, mowing lawn 135 167 200

What is the best cardio workout for someone just starting out?

If you have been mostly sedentary for quite some time, the best cardio workout for you is likely the one that you are most likely to enjoy and stick with.

Many people get far less than the recommended doses of cardio exercise per week.

The Journal of the American Medical Association referred to this issue as “The escalating pandemics of obesity and sedentary lifestyle.” 

In The World Journal of Cardiology, Dr. Shigenori Ito writes “In a recent study from the World Health Organization [17], about 27.5% of the population in 2016 was recognized as sedentary (i.e., with insufficient physical activity).”

Why?

Below is a rough formula for reduced movement:

Long drives to and from work

  • already long and stressful days
  • more work to do at home
  • Housework and other demands at home
  • Pressure to start a side hustle, further one’s education, or do more work
  • Aches and pains from lack of movement encourage further sedentary living
  • super convenient opportunities to binge-watch episodes without moving

= a recipe for a sedentary lifestyle

I’ve done my share of sedentary living. I put on 80 pounds of fat within 2 years from not moving enough while eating more calories than needed.

How much cardio should you be getting each week?

In the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (2nd edition), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults get at least 30-60 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio per day. This works out to be between 2.5 and 5 hours per week. For vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, the recommended time is cut in half. 

The U.S. The Department of Health and Human Services explains that “additional health benefits are gained by engaging in physical activity beyond the equivalent of 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.” (p. 8)

If you have been more sedentary than you’d like, your first goal could be to find an enjoyable way to get moving for about 30 minutes a day or for 2.5 hours per week.

Here’s a question for you:

“What would be the easiest, most enjoyable way for you to get 30 minutes/day or 2.5 hours of cardio in per week?”

  • If you enjoy walking or biking, why not try walking or biking to work?
  • If you live too far for that, you might try parking at a location that would give you a 10-60 minute walk or bike ride. You might even find a place where you won’t have to pay for parking.
  • If you love watching Netflix in the evening, you might want to ride an exercise bike for 30 minutes while watching your favorite episode.
  • If you fancy learning and expanding your mind, try listening to audiobooks during your cardio sessions.
  • If you just don’t feel like you have any time for yourself, you might want to try getting your cardio in while working.

Many office workers find it convenient to use mini ellipticals or pedal exercisers that allow them to get cardio in while working.

In his study involving 12 participants, Dr. Jay Cho et al. found that reading comprehension and typing speeds were not affected while pedaling at low to moderate intensities [18].

Don’t worry – you have my permission to keep saying ‘no’ to that person who keeps pestering you to join CrossFit.

Choose an activity that fits your awesome personality and lifestyle.

Action steps:

Reflect on and write down your response to the following question: “What would be the easiest, most enjoyable way for me to get 30 minutes a day or 2.5 hours of cardio exercise per week?”

Carve out a plan right now or schedule a time later today to make it as attractive as possible to commit to the above cardio exercise routine. Include a way to pair your new habit with something you already enjoy doing or would like to do more of (ex. Netflix, audiobooks).

Make it hard to forget to do your new habit. Set reminders, hang post-it notes, and determine the location and times for when you will complete your new cardio habit. You may also want to integrate this habit into one of your existing routines. For example, after eating dinner I will ride my exercise bike and watch tv for 30 minutes.

Consider creating or joining an accountability group with friends or family members also wanting to ‘up’ their activity levels. I have used WhatsApp and Messenger. It’s quick to post sweaty proof-pics during or immediately after the cardio workout and can help you take ownership of your new routine.

Make it easy: this is a marathon, not a sprint. A great initial goal for the first month or two is to build the foundation for an awesome lifelong habit of cardio fitness.

Smart small. Break your habit down into a 5-15 minute chunk and build from there.

Give yourself an external reward immediately after completing your habit. This can catalyze your brain to associate feelings of pleasure with your new habit which can make it easier to commit to. 

When I start a new healthy habit, I often find it challenging to dial it down to bite-sized steps in order to make it last. I have learned that going all-in right off the hop has too often led me to peak in my first couple of weeks and to drop the habit soon after.

When I am deliberate and take my time to make the new habit convenient to fit in my day, rewarding, satisfying, attractive, and obvious – I know it will be much more likely to stick because soon enough I start to crave it.

Once you have laid the foundation, you will enjoy your cardio workout. You will also start craving your routine thanks to those helpful neurotransmitters. Noticing all of the amazing ways it is improving your life will boost your motivation to stick to it even more.

It will be extremely tempting for many people to start strong with heroic efforts. I encourage you to fight the urge and commit to starting small in order to make cardio a long term habit. 

Remember this quote from James Clear:

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. Your goal is your desired outcome. Your system is the collection of daily habits that will get you there.”

If you need some further guidance, consider modeling your new habit off of my guides to make walking or exercise bike sessions life-long habits

Which cardio activity are you most likely to consistently do for 5 hours or more each week?

Most forms of movement have awesome fat-burning potential. Once you have successfully made short cardio sessions a part of your life – you might want to increase the duration of your cardio sessions.

By increasing the length of your cardio sessions you will burn more calories.

Additionally, exercising more can make your life better by improving your mood [19], energy levels [20], cardiovascular fitness [21], brain function [22], and blood pressure [23].

Which cardio activity are you most likely to stick with and do for 5 hours or more per week?

…That is likely the best exercise for you!

What is the best cardio workout for people seeking something more intense? HIIT

If you are healthy and comfortable doing moderate-intensity cardio sessions and would like to mix it up, you might want to integrate 2-3 high-intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions into your routine each week. 

Researchers published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism describe that shorter HIIT sessions have similar fat-burning potential over a 24-hour period compared to longer, lower-intensity sessions [24].

In the European Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers similarly explain that HIIT sessions may result in burning more calories even after the workout [25].

Dr. Shigenori Ito also explains in The World Journal of Cardiology:

“The inclusion of “adapted” high intensity (relative to a subject’s current physical ability) in the exercise protocol is a key component for exercise to be more efficient as a “medicine” [26].

After reviewing multiple randomized controlled trials, Dr. Shigenori Ito et al. explains that HIIT showed higher levels of improvement than moderate-intensity cardio training based on a wide range of indicators including [27]:

  • skeletal muscles [28]
  • risk factors [29]
  • vasculature [30]
  • respiration [31,32],
  • autonomic function [33]
  • cardiac function [34,35,36,37]
  • exercise capacity [38]
  • inflammation [39]
  • quality of life [40]
  • maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 peak) [41] and
  • endothelial function [42]

What is HIIT and how do you do it?

In The World Journal of Cardiology, Dr. Shigenori Ito “describes HIIT as high-intensity exercise with aerobic intervals, with the target intensity existing in submaximal VO2max between 85% and 95% of the peak heart rate [43].”

There are many ways to do HIIT. Pretty much any form of cardio that you can safely do free of pain can be used in a HIIT workout.

For example, HIIT can be done through running, skipping, swimming, biking, rowing, and many other forms of cardio exercise.

Whichever form of HIIT you choose, it is important to remember to warm up first!

One way to do HIIT is to sprint for 10 seconds followed by dropping it down to a lower intensity for 60 seconds.

Depending on one’s fitness and comfort levels, a person may start with performing just one 5 or 10-second high-intensity interval followed by a longer low-intensity interval. As a person’s fitness levels improve, she may want to increase the number and duration of the high-intensity intervals.

For example, when able to complete 10 cycles of 10-second sprints (each followed by a 60-second lower intensity interval), a person may want to increase the high-intensity periods by 5 seconds. Many people find it is best to keep the sprints no longer than 30-60 seconds.

Precautions and considerations before using HIIT:

As mentioned before, make sure you warm-up. Not only will a warm-up help prevent injuries and strains, but it will also help you start your session with much more intensity and will provide a better cardio workout.

It is also important to stick to exercises that you know how to do properly in terms of form and practice. When learning new exercises it is always better to take it slow to get the proper form down before ramping up the intensity.

If you are unsure, run it by a physical therapist or other health professional. I often ask my physical therapist to check my form on exercises. He hasn’t turned me away yet and it gives me that extra confidence that I am doing my workouts properly.

If you have issues with your bones or joints, it would probably be best to choose exercises that are low impact.

As always, consult with a medical professional before engaging in a cardio training session and program.

Why bother? What are the benefits of cardio workouts?

Looking to lose weight? In a study described in the Obesity Research Journal, women struggling with metabolic syndrome who carried out aerobic exercise along with a low-calorie diet lost on average nearly 50% more weight than those who only underwent the low-calorie diet treatment. In the 14-week program, women who exercised and followed the diet lost an average of 19.4 lbs (8.8kg); the women who focused on diet alone lost 13lbs on average [44].

Feeling stressed or needing to shake that negative mindset? Cardiovascular exercise can help!  

According to Robert Yeung in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research [45], “there is strong support for the existence of acute mood benefits derived from a single bout of exercise” (p.138). Yeung also states that “exercise may be a valuable short-term strategy for the self-regulation of mood” (p.138) [46].

Cardiovascular exercise can help prevent cancer.

In the journal of Current Treatment Options in Oncology [47], Dr. Newton and Galvāo explain that “Regular and vigorous physical exercise has been scientifically established as providing strong preventative medicine against cancer with the potential to reduce incidence by 40%” (p. 135).

Dr. Carmen Fiuza-Luces et al.describes in Nature Reviews: Cardiology (a peer-reviewed journal for cardiologists) that cardiovascular exercise prevents “age-related loss of muscle mass and strength, promotes “a healthy gut microbiota,” and has many other benefits that us science-nerds might appreciate [48].

Cardiovascular exercise can also improve brain function. In the Journal of Psychoses and Related Disorders, Dr. Alena Svatkova et al. describes that “regular physical exercise such as bicycling significantly increases the integrity, especially of motor functioning related, white matter” in the brain [49].

Looking for a healthy way to unwind and re-energize?

In PeerJ: Brain and Cognition, Drs. Bretland and Thorsteinsson conclude that “cardiovascular exercise increase[s] well-being and decrease[s] psychological distress, perceived stress, emotional exhaustion [and] may be an effective treatment for burnout” [50].

In Frontiers of Cardiovascular Medicine, Drs. Nystoriak and Bhatnagar write that “Physically active individuals have lower blood pressure, higher insulin sensitivity, and a more favorable plasma lipoprotein profile” [51].

Other considerations: What is the best cardio workout?

When it comes to choosing the best cardio workout for you, there are three important elements that will determine how many calories you will burn:

  • Frequency (how often you perform the cardio workout)
  • Duration (how long you perform the cardio workout)
  • Intensity (how hard you push yourself during the cardio workout)

It is key to choose an activity that aligns with your unique personality and life circumstances.

Wrap up and next steps

You have the knowledge – now it is time to act!

Take what you learned, make a workout schedule that you are willing to commit to, and post it in the comments below.

If you want some more guidance, you may want to plan your cardio workouts with inspiration from my guides to make walking or exercise bike sessions life-long habits.

 

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