(Sometimes a reader will email me a question that requires a full article to answer properly, and sometimes it’s an answer that I think many people will benefit from hearing. This is one of those times.)
QUESTION: My main goal over the next year or so is to lose fat and keep it off, so I’m planning on doing some form of cardio workout on the days I don’t do any weight training. My question is, what form of cardio exercise should I do?
I find the treadmill to be very boring, but I have no problem using it if you think it’s best. I also love to ride my bike, but it gets too cold in the winter to be outside. I’ve heard swimming burns a lot of calories, and my gym has a nice pool I can use.
I guess I’m just wondering what form of cardio activity is best for losing fat?
ANSWER: Before we answer this one, let me quickly go over what this person isn’t asking and what I therefore won’t be answering in this article…
- This has nothing to do with what type of cardio exercise should be done when you have a specific endurance or athletic goal in mind. This question isn’t about training for a specific sport or activity, nor is it about improving cardiovascular health. This is strictly about doing cardio for the sole purpose of burning calories and losing fat.
- This also has nothing to do with whether this person (or you) actually needs to be doing any cardio in the first place, or if they (or you) should be doing it anyway even if it’s not truly “needed.” Basically, this isn’t about whether it should or should not be done. This person deems it necessary for their goal, so we’ll just assume it is. (More info here: Should I Do Cardio On My Rest Days?)
- This also has nothing to do with the way this cardio activity will be performed. As in, steady state or high intensity interval training (HIIT) or whatever else. This is about choosing the activity itself.
- And finally, this has nothing to do with how much cardio this person (or you) should do, what intensity it should be done at, and when and how often it should be done.
With me so far? Cool. These are all fantastic questions that I definitely plan to cover at some point, just not right now.
I bring this up because I seem to get asked these types of questions on an almost hourly basis, and since I rank writing about cardio somewhere between going to the dentist and going back to work or school after a long vacation on my list of things I’d much rather not do, I just haven’t gotten to it yet.
But, I eventually will… I promise.
Now back to the specific question this person asked. What type of cardio activity is best for losing fat? Hmmm, that’s a tough one…
Do Whatever The Hell Activity You Like Best!
On second thought, that was quite easy.
Seriously. Just pick the cardio exercise you like best and will be most likely to do on a consistent basis.
Whatever best fits that description for you will be “the best” form of cardio for you to do to lose fat.
Wait, What?!? What About Calories Burned? Doesn’t That Matter?
For fat loss, of course it matters. That’s why many people deciding what activity they will do as their cardio workout will go straight to the various “calories burned” calculators and seek out the activity that burns the most calories.
This seems like an obviously good idea, but there are 2 flaws.
- First of all, with all else being equal (intensity, duration, frequency, etc.), you’re not going to find a massive variance between the different cardio options out there in terms of how many calories they burn. And any differences you do find are unlikely to be anywhere near significant enough to actually matter in the grand scheme of your fat loss results.
- The second flaw is that the activity that burns the most calories may be something you don’t like doing.
Now while #1 shows why this line of thinking is mostly pointless in the first place, #2 shows how it can be detrimental. How so, you ask?
Because you may be choosing a cardio activity that puts you in the best position to burn a few more calories, but the worst position to actually perform this activity on a regular basis since it is something you are going to dread doing.
And let me tell ya… that hypothetical small amount of extra calories burned won’t matter much when you’ve quit doing it because you can’t stand that activity.
So if you hate jogging on a treadmill (does anyone NOT hate jogging on a treadmill?) or you hate whatever other form of cardio, picking that as the cardio exercise you’re going to be doing means you’re forcing yourself to do something you hate on a regular basis.
Sticking with any form of workout program is already hard enough for most people as it is. Why make it even harder by picking a form of exercise you flat out hate?
The Bed Test
A few years back, someone asked me to help them pick out what their cardio activity should be. Due to their schedule, they’d be doing this cardio workout first thing in the morning as soon as they rolled out of bed.
Assuming of course they could make themselves actually roll out of bed to do it.
And so I developed “the bed test.” It’s easy. Picture yourself in bed in the morning. Your alarm rings off. What cardio activity is most likely to get you out of bed? Whatever it is, do that. What’s most likely to make you roll over and go back to sleep? Whatever it is, don’t do that.
This bed test can be adapted to any other time of the day, too. Picture yourself coming home from work or school. Picture yourself after a busy and tiring day with your kids. Picture yourself in whatever state you’re going to be in right before you think “alright, time to do some cardio.”
What activity at that moment is going to make you most likely to actually follow through and do it? And not just do it once or twice… but every F-ing time?
Whatever that activity is for you, that’s what your cardio workout should be.
For Fat Loss, Consistency > Everything Else
Choosing the best form of cardio for losing fat comes down to, above all else, consistency.
What’s going to make you actually do the cardio you need to do on a regular basis…
to burn the calories you need to burn…
to create the required caloric deficit you need to create…
to lose the fat you want to lose?
That’s what matters here. Not whether activity A burns 27 more calories per hour than activity B.
So if you like running outside, run outside. If you like riding a bike, ride a bike. If you like jogging on a treadmill while watching TV or listening to music, jog on a treadmill while you watch TV or listen to music.
If you like swimming and have access to a pool, swim. If there’s some kind of class at your gym that seems like fun, go for it. If you like dragging a sled, drag away. If you like burpees, or jumping jacks, or boxing, or jumping rope, or dancing, or walking, or whatever the hell else… go nuts.
And if you like them all, then definitely feel free to pick your favorites and alternate between them to keep things fun.
Because when things are fun (or at least as close to “fun” as cardio can get), things stay consistent. And when things stay consistent, fat is lost.
Which is why in my opinion, the primary decision maker here should be choosing the cardio activity you personally like the best and will be most likely to regularly do.
In the end, that’s going to be the key to your success (or lack thereof).