Cardiovascular exercise, also known as aerobic exercise, focuses on burning calories and building up endurance through extended periods of relatively low intensity exercise. The benefits of cardio are many, engaging in regular cardiovascular exercise can improve heart health, reduce symptoms of depression and chronic fatigue, and lower cholesterol. However, for most people these effects are all secondary to their primary objective: losing weight. One thing that people looking to add more cardiovascular training into their weight-loss program often overlook is the need to focus on the right cardiovascular exercise for them.
Most often when someone wants to lose weight they will buy a bargain membership to a gym, hop on a treadmill, elliptical or bike for a half an hour at a time, and then give up after a month or two of seeing little to no results from their effort. While one should never discourage someone from getting more exercise, the fact is that people who approach cardiovascular exercise from that perspective are not going to see the results they are looking for. They did not understand the mechanics of cardio and likely didn’t focus on an effective exercise routine.
There are two primary methods of achieving weight loss through cardiovascular training. The more familiar of these is referred to as “steady state training.” This is the kind of exercise most people think of when they consider going to the gym. Walking, jogging, running, biking, and swimming are all usually qualify as steady state training. Steady state training focuses on engaging in continuous, moderate intensity exercise. For most people, a regular 45 minute session, at least three times a week on the elliptical, treadmill or stationery bike is acceptable, although for those in poor shape to begin with may have to work to build up to the 45 minute mark overtime, and for those already in good shape a workout of an hour or more may be necessary to continue to see weight-loss. The problem with Steady state cardio is that you only burn calories, you do not gain muscle. Gaining muscle is important because it burns more calories, which results in creating the SHAPE that you desire your body to be.
For those who are interested in really losing weight at a more rapid pace, and gaining muscle another option would be to focus on what is referred to as HIIT. HIIT stands for high intensity interval training and is characterized by alternating periods of high intensity exercise interspersed with less intense recovery periods. HIIT sessions can range in workout time from as little as 4 minutes to as much as 90 minutes at a time. HIIT training is usually performed 3-4 times per week, although some very intense variations may require a daily commitment.
A standard HIIT session usually begins with a low intensity warm-up, followed by up to ten repetitions of very high-intensity exercise that focuses on increasing your heart-rate and blood oxygen levels to their maximum. These repetitions are separated by short recovery periods of moderate intensity exercise, generally at a ratio of 2:1, that is to say, if you perform 2 minutes of high intensity exercise your recovery interval will be 1 minute. This technique condenses a lot of exercise into a very short time and is therefore regarded as the best way to keep up with a cardiovascular regimen for people who cannot devote much time to their fitness.
HIIT has proven to be more effective at burning fat than traditional aerobic exercises, despite the fact that one spends less time in HIIT than in steady state exercises. The science behind this can be a bit confusing, but let’s break it down: In general, lower intensity exercise burns more energy from fat. Higher intensity workouts tend to draw more energy from carbohydrates.
It almost sounds like lower intensity workouts would be better for fat burning, but the difference is in the total volume of energy consumed. While a nice walk may burn 150 calories, about 130 calories would have been burned from fat. The same amount of time spent doing a jog would burn around 300 calories, and while half of that energy may come from carbohydrates, you still burned 150 calories from fat. Performing an equivalent HIIT session could burn more than 500 calories, about 200 of which would be from fat.
While the benefits of cardiovascular training are many, like any form of exercise, it comes with its own risks. The greatest risk posed by overdoing a cardiovascular workout is the potential for damage to your body. Pushing too hard at the gym can lead to tissue break down, hormonal imbalance, a weakened immune system and, in the worst cases, cardiac arrest. Despite these dangers, anyone who is serious about losing weight and staying fit needs to engage in some level of cardiovascular training, and the best way to ensure that this is done safely is to consult with a certified personal trainer.
“The key to success is to focus our conscious mind on things we desire not things we fear”- Brian Tracy
Tamara Barbee Savoie
ISSA Certified Personal Trainer and Wellness Consultant