Cardio workouts play a crucial part in any fitness program. They help to lower blood pressure, boost your mood, and reduce your risk of heart disease, among plenty of other benefits. But, if your main goal is losing weight, you may be wondering exactly what type of cardio is best and how it works at targeting fat. Maybe you’ve heard that high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, is the magic method to shed pounds. Or perhaps people you know swear by their long runs to stay in shape. But, how do you shut out the noise and find workouts you can stick to?
Is all cardio the same?
Confused? You’re not alone—and we’re here to set the record straight. The good news: Any form of cardio will do the trick. “From a scientific standpoint, all types of cardio have a place and time,” says Jordan Syatt, personal trainer and founder of Syatt Fitness. That means that whether you’re taking a slow, long run or doing sprint intervals, you’re boosting your fitness level, torching calories, and burning fat. For most people, all this leads to losing weight. The key, Syatt says, is simply doing it.
This should come as great news to anyone who’s just starting an exercise program and doesn’t exactly feel up to sprinting on and off for 20 minutes. “If you can’t sprint for any reason, that’s OK,” Syatt says, “I have plenty of clients who use long, steady jogs as their form of cardio, and it works well for them.”
How to choose your cardio workout.
1. Low-Intensity Steady-State Cardio
If you prefer longer, slower workouts at a pace where you can still keep up a conversation (known as low-intensity, steady-state cardio, a.k.a. LISS)—great! Research shows that people are more likely to stick to their LISS workouts since they’re more enjoyable and they’re lower impact than interval workouts. Plus, studies show long, low-intensity workouts help your body tap into fat to burn as fuel. Aim for at least three LISS workouts per week for 30 to 45 minutes each, Syatt suggests.
2. High-Intensity Interval Training
High-intensity interval training (a.k.a. HIIT) also has a place in a weight-loss program. (And the Aaptiv app has plenty of interval-style runs and walks to make it easy for you!) These are shorter than LISS workouts, letting you reap the benefits of exercise in less time—but you’ve gotta really go all out when it’s time to sprint, so it can be more taxing on your body. If HIIT’s more your style, fit it in three times per week for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, Syatt says.
3. A Bit of Both
Like to mix it up? Do one- to two sessions of HIIT and one- to two sessions of LISS per week. And remember, the treadmill isn’t your only option. Both HIIT and LISS cardio can be performed indoors or out, or you can swim, cycle, use the elliptical or even do squats or burpees for an interval workout.
The Bottom Line on Burning Fat
Syatt’s main point: There’s no need to over-complicate cardio. But unfortunately, many people do just that, Syatt says. For example, one popular claim is that HIIT training helps your body keep burning calories at rest, after your workout is over. Technically, this is called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC, Syatt explains. Research does show there’s a slightly greater—about 6 to 15 percent—calorie expenditure following a HIIT workout than a steady-state cardio workout.
The catch: Those extra calories burned post-workout are minimal if you look at the big picture, Syatt says. In short, cardio alone isn’t the key to losing weight. For most of us, it’s way easier to put down that slice of bread or skip a snack than kill yourself sprinting on a treadmill every single day. Diet and cardio have to go hand-in-hand when losing weight is your goal—regardless of how you get your calorie burn in.
On that note: Do whatever type of cardio you enjoy (and will stick to), but nutrition is still king when it comes to losing weight. “What fat loss boils down to is simply energy in and energy out, as well as protein intake,” Syatt says. In other words, what you’re putting into your body is even more important than what you’re burning away.
To kickstart healthy food choices, check out our nutritionist-approved list of “healthy” foods to avoid.