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The best cardio exercises to lose weight

Cardiovascular exercise, or cardio, refers to any kind of activity that increases your heart rate and breathing. It improves your blood circulation, strengthens your heart, burns calories and improves your mood.

There are many different types of cardio, ranging from gym machines to bodyweight exercises you can do at home. Cardio can also vary in intensity - you can choose to complete a quick, intense workout or spend an hour walking outdoors instead.

This article will outline and explain 9 different types of cardio. By finding the type of exercise that works for you, you’re more likely to make a habit of it - improving your overall health in the long term.

Medically reviewed by Dr. Caroline Fontana Written by Dr. Kyle Collins Last reviewed 06-01-2024

How does cardio help you lose weight?

Weight loss happens when you burn more calories than you consume. It’s all about calories in vs calories out.

Cardio helps you to lose weight by increasing the number of calories you burn per week, resulting in a larger calorie deficit.

But, what is a calorie deficit?

A calorie deficit takes place when you eat fewer calories than your body burns. For example, if you normally burn 2000 calories per day but you only eat 1800, this will put you in a 200-calorie deficit.

If you are eating in a 500-calorie deficit daily, your weekly deficit will be 3500. This number roughly equates to losing 1lb (455g) of body weight.

But, if you add 3 cardio sessions into that week (with each burning roughly 400 calories), you increase your deficit to 4700. This would equate to losing roughly 1.35lb (612g) of body weight.

Calorie deficit Calorie deficit and cardio
Monday -500 -500 -400
Tuesday -500 -500
Wednesday -500 -500 -400
Thursday -500 -500
Friday -500 -500
Saturday -500 -500 -400
Sunday -500 -500
TOTAL: -3500 deficit -4700 deficit

By doing more cardio, you can increase the rate at which you lose weight and speed up your weight loss journey. You can also do cardio anywhere - it doesn’t require a gym membership or any extra expenses.

Remember, although cardio can help you lose weight, it only works when changes to your diet are made too.

For example, doing cardio every day will not result in weight loss if you continue to eat in a calorie surplus (which is when you eat more calories than you burn):

Calorie surplus and cardio
Monday +500 -400
Tuesday +500 -400
Wednesday +500 -400
Thursday +500 -400
Friday +500 -400
Saturday +500 -400
Sunday +500 -400
TOTAL: +700 surplus

By consuming 700 extra calories per week, you would end up gaining a pound of weight after 5 weeks.

High vs low-intensity cardio

Cardio can be high-intensity or low-intensity. These two different types of training are referred to as:

  • high-intensity interval training (HIIT)
  • low-intensity steady state (LISS)

HIIT sessions can be as short as 20 minutes and can burn as many calories as an hour of LISS. It involves working near your maximum heart rate from anywhere between 30 seconds to 2 minutes, followed by a short rest, and then repeating.

This is also known as interval training.

A HIIT workout plan for weight loss

LISS sessions are less intense but need to last between 30 and 60 minutes to burn as many calories as a HIIT session.

Examples include walking on the treadmill at an incline whilst watching your favourite series or walking with a friend outdoors for an hour or two.

Many of the following cardio exercises can be done at both high and low intensities. Whichever you choose to do depends on your preference, and how much time you wish to spend working out.

1. Walking

Walking for weight loss can be a great option if you’re not used to exercising much. It’s low-impact, improves endurance, and can be done anywhere.

A woman walking through the park on a sunny day.

Walking workouts could include:

  • going on a dog walk
  • meeting a friend for a coffee and a walk in the park
  • walking uphill (or on an incline setting on a treadmill)
  • walking to work or to the shops (instead of driving)

Aim to walk for at least 30 minutes. Anything less than 15 minutes won’t burn a significant number of calories and doesn’t count as a ‘walking workout’.

Also, the faster you walk the more calories you’ll burn. Once you’ve built up some endurance you might consider jogging or running as the next level up in your exercise routine.

2. Jogging or running

Just like walking, you can run or jog anywhere you feel comfortable doing so. You can do it alone or with a friend - finding a running partner can be a great way of staying motivated.

A graphic depicting a running workout plan

Start by setting yourself a distance goal. Once you can jog or run this far, start increasing this distance slowly as time goes on. This will increase both your fitness and the number of calories you burn.

Due to its high intensity, running burns a lot of calories. The average person can burn up to 500 calories by doing 30 minutes of running.

Something to bear in mind - running along main roads can be damaging to your lungs due to air pollution. Opt for side roads and open spaces instead, and don’t run during rush hour if possible.

3. Cycling

If running isn’t for you, you might consider trying cycling as an alternative. It’s straightforward and can be done at a lower intensity (meaning you probably won’t feel the need to take breaks).

A row of bikes inside a gym.

You can choose to cycle indoors or outdoors, depending on what’s available to you. You can also try out a spin class if you struggle to stay motivated in the gym.

A spin class is a group indoor cycling class, where a trained instructor leads you through the workout. Normally these classes are exciting and intense. They often go by faster compared to working out alone.

Cycling targets the quads, hamstrings, calves, glutes, and core. It can also be easier on the joints, especially when using a cycling machine.

4. Interval training

Interval training is a form of HIIT. It involves alternating between short periods of very high and very low intensities.

If you find cycling for 45 minutes too monotonous, consider trying this type of cardio.

A woman in activewear doing interval training at home.

Interval training doesn’t involve being in the gym for an hour. Instead, you should aim to spend around 20 minutes (with a focus on really pushing yourself).

It can be done anywhere, with or without equipment. A home workout that involves a bodyweight circuit can burn as many calories as an hour of moderate-intensity exercise done at the gym.

If you have a busy schedule with very little free time, try the following workout from the comfort of your home:

  • 1 minute of high-intensity exercise, where you push yourself as hard as you can
  • 2 minutes of rest
  • Repeat the above 5-7 times

Examples of high-intensity exercises include:

  • mountain climbers
  • jumping jacks
  • push-ups
  • burpees
  • skipping
  • lunges
  • jump squats
  • planks
A graphic depicting 8 different high-intensity exercises

5. Swimming

Another excellent form of cardiovascular exercise is swimming.

Swimming is a full-body workout that builds endurance and targets all of the body’s main muscles. It is also a low-impact activity, meaning that it won’t put any pressure on your joints.

If you do have access to a swimming pool, try swimming for 20-30 minutes at a time. If front crawl is too difficult to maintain initially, you can stick to breaststroke and backstroke until you build up enough stamina.

If you are more advanced, you can also attempt butterfly.

 A graphic demonstrating the four main swimming strokes

6. Stair master

The stair master machine acts like a continuous staircase which you climb. You can set the speed to a comfortable setting and hold on to the handles if you need a little extra stability to begin with.

A young woman using the stair master in the gym.

You can find stair master machines in nearly all commercial gyms. If you feel unsure about using one, ask a staff member to demonstrate how it works.

Stair climbing is challenging - which means it’s good at burning calories. Try using it for 10 minutes to begin with, and over time, work your way up to longer intervals.

If you happen to live in a block of flats that has a suitable staircase, you could also climb from the ground floor to the top floor several times to get in a good workout.

7. Skipping

If you’re not looking to spend money on a monthly gym membership, you might consider the one-off purchase of a skipping rope.

Skipping is a great cardiovascular activity, and doesn’t require a huge amount of space. It’s a great option for a home workout if you don’t have time to make it to a gym too.

A graphic demonstrating a high-intensity skipping workout for weight loss

Because you’re constantly jumping, skipping can burn lots of calories in a short space of time. It’s efficient and the technique isn’t too difficult to get the hang of.

8. Rowing

If you have access to a gym or rowing machine, why not consider a rowing workout?

Rowing is versatile (you can choose the intensity level) and good for calorie burning. You can choose to row moderately for 45 minutes or do interval training instead.

The rowing motion is relatively easy to master:

  1. Bend your legs so that the seat rolls forward, keeping your arms straight.
  2. Extend your legs, pushing with moderate force.
  3. Lean back once your legs are straight, and then bring the handlebars in towards your chest.
  4. Extend your arms, lean your torso forward, and finally bend your legs to return to the starting position.
 A graphic demonstrating how to use a rowing machine with good form

Rowing is beneficial as it targets some of the upper body muscles as well as the legs.

If you have the extra time and money, you might consider joining a rowing club. Rowing on water (with a group of people) is more exciting and scenic, plus being outdoors more often can benefit your mental health.

Which cardio exercise burns the most calories?

Some types of cardio burn more calories than others and can therefore be more beneficial when it comes to losing weight. The following table shows how many calories the average person burns during 30 minutes of each exercise.

Remember, these numbers don’t apply to everyone - they simply act as a guide to demonstrate how some types of cardio burn more calories than others.

In general, if you are larger and heavier than average you will burn more calories. If you are shorter and lighter than average you will burn less.

HIIT 500 cals Cycling 250 cals
Walking 100 cals Swimming 300 cals
Jogging 300 cals Hiking 150 cals
Running 400 cals Stairmaster 250 cals
Skipping 300 cals Rowing 300 cals

Increasing the intensity of your workout will increase the number of calories burned.

What are the benefits of cardiovascular exercise?

Even if your aim isn’t to lose weight, doing more regular exercise comes with a wide range of health benefits.

Cardio has positive effects on both your physical and mental health:

Physical benefits Mental benefits
  • improves heart and brain health
  • reduces your chances of developing serious health conditions (like heart disease)
  • strengthens muscles and improves fitness
  • boosts your mood (by releasing endorphins)
  • helps to improve anxiety and depression
  • improves self-esteem and cognitive function

In fact, studies have shown a strong link Trusted source National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) Government Source Biomedical Research and Literature Go to source between regular cardiovascular training and the maintenance of cognitive brain health.

How often should you do cardio?

There’s no set rule for how many times you should be exercising per week.

However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that every week, adults aged between 18-64 should do at least:

  • 150 - 300 minutes (2.5 - 5 hours) of moderate cardiovascular exercise
  • OR
  • 75 - 150 mins (1.25 - 2.5 hours) of intense cardiovascular exercise

If you’re trying to lose weight, start by incorporating 2-3 cardio sessions a week. Start things slow - there’s always plenty of time to build up your endurance and the number of times you work out.

But, by making exercise a regular habit, it’s easier to make time for it as you become more disciplined.

Is cardio best for weight loss?

When it comes to losing weight, cardio isn’t necessary - although it certainly helps. By burning extra calories throughout the week, you increase your calorie deficit.

Alternatively, you can try strength training for weight loss. This type of exercise helps you lose weight in a slightly different way. By lifting weights and building muscle, you can increase your metabolic rate in addition to burning calories.

Further reading

Weight lifting for weight loss

Home workouts to lose weight Weight lifting for weight loss

Reviewed by Dr. Caroline Fontana
Walking and how it can help with weight loss

Home workouts to lose weight Walking and how it can help with weight loss

Reviewed by Dr. Caroline Fontana
The benefits of exercise for weight loss

Home workouts to lose weight The benefits of exercise for weight loss

Reviewed by Dr. Caroline Fontana
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