Which cardio exercise burns the most calories? If I had a nickel for every time I hear this question from a client or curious gym-goer, I’d have a pretty fat wallet! In this article, I’d like to not only compare the calorie burning effects of various forms of popular cardio exercise, but also consider the pros and cons of each.
- The Bicycle: Since the pedaling motion incorporates the big and powerful muscles of the leg, bicycling is a great choice for calorie burning. Many individuals, however, do not choose a resistance that is high enough to involve these muscles, and instead let the bike do the work for them. To get maximum benefit, choose a resistance that makes it very difficult to achieve 90RPM. RPM stands for “Revolutions Per Minute”, and most indoor stationary bicycles show this number on the computer display. For RPM on an outdoor bicycle, simply count the number of pedal strokes you take in a minute. While the back rest on a recumbent bicycle can relieve stress on the lower back, neck, elbow and wrist, this type of bicycle should only be used if you have pain in these joints while seated on an upright bicycle, since it is more difficult to achieve a high intensity on a recumbent. Depending on your intensity, bicycling can burn 500-1000 calories per hour. On the other hand, the arms and core do not get much benefit from bicycling.
- The Run: Running is a full body workout that burns 600-1200 calories per hour, and technically requires no additional equipment. Even when using a treadmill, you will burn more calories running than most other forms of exercise in the gym (but using a treadmill burns slightly less calories than running outdoors). However, running can be much more difficult on the joints than a non-weight bearing exercise like swimming, bicycling, or the elliptical trainer – inadequate recovery can therefore lead to injuries and chronic joint pain. Listen to your body, and do not run through pain.
- The Walk: Walking is much easier on the joints than running, but burns far less calories – about 300-400 per hour. The primary reason is because humans are very efficient at walking, as most of us have done so since an early age. Any exercise at which your body is efficient should be avoided when trying to burn calories. However, walking can be beneficial and convenient. If using a treadmill, avoid the common mistake of choosing a high incline, then holding on to the handrails to keep up. The rails should only be used if you have extreme balance difficulties, or must stabilize yourself to change a setting. So pump those arms instead!
- The Swim: Swimming is a great full body exercise that is easy on the joints and can burn about 800 calories per hour, depending on your intensity. Individuals with chronic joint pain, arthritis or musculoskeletal injuries, as well as pregnant mothers, can benefit highly from aquatic exercise. However, swimming cannot increase factors such as bone density, does not elicit as high a muscular contraction as weight bearing exercise, and is often not convenient.
- The Elliptical Trainer: Most elliptical trainers overestimate the actual amount of calories burnt, especially in individuals who lean against the railing. You can generally burn about 600 calories per hour on the elliptical, and slightly more on an elliptical that includes arm resistance. However, the elliptical is a relatively non weight bearing exercise that offers a bonus of assisting with upright balance, arm movement, and adjustable ramp settings to target different muscles. The two most common mistakes made on the elliptical trainer are: 1) excessive leaning against the rails on the trainer with no arms; 2) inadequate resistance on elliptical with arms. So to get the most benefit, try to use the rails as little as possible, and challenge yourself with the resistance settings (the same goes for the stairclimber)!
- The Rowing Machine: An incredible upper and lower body cardiovascular challenge, the rowing machine can burn over 1000 calories per hour, but can also be uncomfortable and boring for long periods of time. To make time go by faster while still maintaining a high intensity, incorporate short periods or distances of very hard pulling combined with easy pulling. For instance, row for 250 meters as hard as possible, then 100 meters easy, and repeat 6-8 times. Be sure to use as many body parts as possible when rowing, including the torso and the legs – not just the arms.
There are many additional forms of cardio, including rollerskating, rock climbing, jump roping, basketball, racquetball…the list goes on. For maximum calorie burning benefit, be sure to choose a form of cardio that is inefficient or unfamiliar to your body. If you constantly walk, try switching to cycling or elliptical, or if you constantly run, try the rowing machine. If you want to avoid a fitness plateau, don’t let yourself get in a cardio rut. Most importantly, have fun and maintain frequent and consistent exercise!
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Until next time, train smart,
M.S. PE, NSCA-CPT, CSCS