Fitness

Cardio guide: Find the best aerobic option to hit your fitness goals

Whether you want weight loss, muscle tone or improved eating habits, we've deconstructed seven of our favourite aerobic workouts to figure out which is best for you.

Woman swimming laps in a pool

Swimming is a great option if you’re looking for a great aerobic workout (Photo by Getty Images).

Cardio is great. It’s shown to be more effective for training the brain to control appetite than anaerobic training (think weightlifting for example), it boosts endurance, burns more calories than resistance training and can be done in so many different ways. It’s those ways I want to talk about today.

There are a wide variety of methods to get your heart and breathing rate up for an extended period of time. Some burn more calories than others, but there are a lot of other things to consider when it comes to finding your cardio soul mate (one thing your really love doing).

One thing I’ll note when it comes to weight loss is that even though it is all about diet, exercise can still play an important role. Some activities do a better job at transforming your eating behaviours than others. As a general rule, the more intense the exercise, the better it’s ability to transform your eating habits into something healthier. So take this into consideration when evaluating these exercises from a weight loss perspective.

Before we get into the specific exercises, take a look at the legend I’ve created to match each workout with your desired outcome.

Moderate: Minimal effect on weight loss, but lowering of a variety of health risk factors.

Good: Somewhat positive effect on weight loss, larger improvements in overall health profile and reduction of cardiovascular and cancer health risks.

Very good: More highly correlated with weight loss, with dramatic improvements in energy levels, endurance, stress reduction and increased longevity.

Excellent: Highest correlation with weight loss, improved health and longevity, mental wellbeing and increased cognitive capabilities.

So whether you’re looking to really push it, or for an easier option to help boost cognition, you should be able to find a great option in my curated list below:

1. Walking
Pros

  • Something almost anyone can do as it’s not that physically taxing
  • No special equipment needed
  • Can be made social with family or friends
  • With proper preparation, can be done in almost any weather, or on a treadmill while reading or watching television
  • Is contemplative/meditative

Cons

  • Not a great calorie burner
  • Lower intensity exercise like walking does not have a large effect on improving the brain’s ability to gain control over food cravings
  • Health benefits, while good, are not as high as more intense activities
  • Not very time efficient
  • Walking burns fewer calories per mile than running does, and takes much longer to cover that mile.

Overall results for health and weight loss: Moderate

2. Running
Pros

  • Just about the best calorie burner there is, and very time efficient
  • Can be social, with friends, family or by joining running groups
  • Encourages improvement by tracking times and entering races
  • Can be done outside year round (if you’re a little crazy like I am)
  • Great brain booster, specifically for appetite control if weight loss is desired

Cons

  • It’s hard. This is a tough activity to fall in love with
  • It can be painful and cause injuries if you’re not careful
  • Requires some special equipment — especially for all-weather runners

Overall results for health and weight loss: Very good to excellent, depending on your intensity and speed

3. At home exercise DVDs
Pros

  • Relatively inexpensive (compared to a gym membership). There are even free options available on the Internet
  • Great for those with small children who have problems getting childcare or getting out of the house for other reasons
  • There’s a wide variety that are often progressive. You can keep choosing more challenging programs
  • Some are great calorie-burners and good for building functional movement

Cons

  • Motivation can be an issue for some. Research shows people who exercise alone, at home, have the lowest adherence rates.

Overall results for health and weight loss: Depends on difficulty level, but there’s potential for it to be excellent.

4. Cycling
Pros

  • Very enjoyable for most people – speed factor can make it fun
  • It’s a useful, and efficient, form of transportation. You can cycle to work and back without worrying about parking.
  • An efficient calorie burner and good for improving fitness (whether done inside or out)

Cons

  • Winter! My bike is locked in the shed six months of the year.
  • Only works the lower body
  • This can become a very expensive activity if you become an addict to high-end bikes (like me).

Overall results for health and weight loss: Good to very good, depending on intensity

5. Swimming
Pros

  • Many consider it to be meditative. I’ve heard it referred to as one of the most stress-relieving exercises there is.
  • Total body workout — the “swimmer’s body” looks good.
  • Good calorie burner

Cons

  • Requires a pool or other body of water
  • Can dry out your skin
  • A good pair of goggles can be pricey

Overall results for health and weight loss: Good to very good, depending on intensity

6. Aerobic machines (elliptical or stairclimber)
Pros

  • Don’t have to worry about the weather
  • Can watch TV – good for those suffering lack of motivation
  • Low impact for those with joint issues

Cons

  • Not a very functional exercise
  • Moderate calorie burners
  • Require gym membership or expensive piece of home equipment that might turn into a coat rack

Overall results for health and weight loss: Moderate

7. Fitness classes
Pros

  • Excellent for motivation. If you have a good instructor and do the class with the same group of people regularly you’ll likely make friends who expect you to show up. This is very helpful when it comes to motivation and adherence.
  • Can graduate to high intensity classes that build functional ability and burn a lot of calories

Cons

  • Need to stick to someone else’s schedule (can also be a “pro” for those needing a scheduled class to help motivate them to exercise)
  • Can be expensive
  • If you don’t have a lot of confidence these can be intimidating at first

Overall results for health and weight loss: Very good to excellent, depending on intensity

I’ve talked about finding an aerobic training soul mate, but know that you don’t have to be monogamous to any one form of exercise. In the fitness context, polyamory equals cross training.

Feel free to experiment with a variety of these and find what works best for you. It doesn’t have to be the best calorie burner; enjoyment factor should be paramount. You can always up your game with something tougher later on. And if you really want to boost your health and improve the way your body looks, don’t forget about hitting the weights too.

James S. Fell authors the nationally syndicated column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Chicago Tribune and interviews celebrities about their fitness regimens for the Los Angeles Times. Get your FREE WEIGHT LOSS REPORT from James.