Fitness tip: What’s the best cardio exercise?

In the last column I referred to the effectiveness of various cardio equipment. In light of the emails asking for details I thought I would elaborate in this column. Thanks for your questions and comments.

The most popular (note: I didn’t say effective) form of exercise to shed unwanted pounds and condition the heart and lungs is cardio. Our clients and readers often ask us to comment on what machine works best. With so many options out there, people want to ensure that they are making good use of their time.

Everyone is different and as not all machines are created equal, it’s important to select the piece that best suits your individual goals and ability. Having said that, we fitness people like to box solutions to make things simple, so here we go.

There are generally two types of cardio training: steady state (constant) and interval (hard, easy, hard, repeat).

Each mode has its pros and cons. Steady state tends to be more Zen but burns less fat. Interval training (HIIT, Tabata) is tough but known for melting fat. (One study at Laval University suggested interval-style training can burn up to nine times more fat than steady-state exercise).

Before we get started, just a quick sidebar. Sweat is not an accurate indicator of energy expenditure. Sweat is affected by many variables, including individual physiological differences, humidity and ambient temperature. It’s your body trying to dissipate heat against external conditions.

Also, remember that increased sweat production and weight loss are not connected. A good sweat may make you feel good but don’t correlate that to pounds lost.

So, when choosing your cardio equipment, consider the following criteria. In the end, it’s what gets you going that matters most. As always check with your doctor to determine which exercise best suits your condition.

  1. Depending on the program selected, some cardio machines have the ability to put you into a state of mindful Zen. By design, the machine propagates movement making it comfortable and repetitive. Treadmills and Cross Trainers are a good example as they can be a bit of a ‘ride.’ Perhaps not the best of the bunch for fat loss but great for getting you moving or de-stressing after a busy day.
  1. Treadmills offer impact relief that you won’t find outside. With a flat deck, however, you give up terrain variation which enhances muscle recruitment, balance and co-ordination. You can vary your angle by elevating to an incline, although you may need to watch for tendinitis. Also remember, when you run outside you push your body forward. On the treadmill, you stay still as your feet get thrown backward, resulting in imbalance between the quads in front and the hamstrings and glutes in back. Running can be hard on your joints. To reduce stress, switch things up to challenge your body in new ways and to prevent overtraining.
  1. Using the large muscles in your legs to resist gravity is tough but very effective. Running stairs and usubg PowerMill Machines (especially when hitting every second step) works your legs and glutes through a full range of motion and burns a ton of calories. Definitely consider seeing your doctor if you plan on tackling stairs — especially in the summer heat. Note: Due to design and because people tend to avoid full range of motion, Steppers aren’t nearly as effective.
  1. ARC and SPARC trainers are in the Cross Trainer family but with much better ergonomics and enhanced resistance. Tough but much more effective than traditional Cross Trainers.
  1. With the right music and instructor, spin classes can be highly motivating, pushing you beyond what you would do on your own. Two comments, though. Beginners need to learn how to manage resistance before they jump into their first class (going from nothing to 60 minutes can be tough). To fill the hour, some classes have a little too much fluff. Shorter and harder may be a better use of your time.
  1. Rowers have become more popular. They provide a great full body workout and are easy on the joints. They rank a little lower on the list because you aren’t supporting your body weight or using your legs much which, as stated earlier, is when the real calorie burn happens.
  1. Honourable mention: When performed with short rest periods, resistance training is working the same energy system as internal training. Yes, that means you can drop pounds lifting weights.

In the end, the best exercise is the exercise you are prepared to do.

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