best types of cardio

The 10 Best Types of Cardio & How to Get Started

Interested in researching the best types of cardio? Whether you’re fully committed to cardio training, you’re hearing the word “cardio” for the first time or you’re an experienced endurance runner, this article will give you extra tips and ideas. Apart from weight loss, cardio has tons of other benefits. From cardiorespiratory function improvement to cholesterol control and mood enhancement, the list goes on.

What is Cardio?

Cardio is classified as a cyclic activity that is done with a specific tempo. This type of training increases heart rate, oxygen consumption, and energy production. Mainly, cardio activates the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, placing the body under higher than regular energy demands.

Check Out: 6 Cardio Hacks to Burn More Calories

How Many Calories Does Cardio Burn?

In terms of fat loss and weight management, one of the specific reasons people why go for cardio is its efficiency to burn calories. This is logical because cardio training can be done for a longer duration and it incorporates larger muscle groups.

Cardio training is very effective for weight loss, but which type is the best? It really depends on the individual. For some, one hour of light running feels very good, while others can’t even think of that, but they can box or swim a lot. It mainly comes down to personal preferences for activity.

To put things into perspective, here’s a reference. One hour of:

IntensityActivity Typekcal per hour
Very light activity housework, sitting, standing, and sleeping burns around 100 kcal
Light activity golfing, yoga, walking, or light dancing 250 kcal
Moderate Activity tennis, aerobics, weightlifting, cycling, and climbing 400 kcal
High-intensity/ Vigorous activity fast running, swimming, elliptical, and jumping rope 500 kcal+

The question is, how long can you perform the exercises with higher intensity?

Intensity Level of Cardio

Although classifications differ, they can be broadly split up into five phases, or five levels of intensity. With the development of structural training programming for professional endurance athletes, the five-phase model of intensity was created.

The intensity of such activity is measured in HRmax % or VO2Max values. The higher the HRmax and VO2max values are, the greater the intensity. Here’s a reference.

IntensityVO2max %HRmax
Very Low Intensity/ Light Activity 30-39 %45-55%
Low Intensity/ Light Activity 40-59% 40-59%
Moderate Intensity/ Moderate Activity 60-79% 70-90%
High Intensity/ Vigorous Activity 80%+ 89%+ HRmax
Near Maximal to Maximal 100% 100% HRmax

The Effect of Cardio

The cardio effect on the body depends on the intensity of the training. The higher the intensity and longer the duration, the more calories we’ll burn. However, the duration is shorter with vigorous-intensity training and longer with the moderate tempo ones.

This is important because each of these different levels affects the body in a different way. While the most similar point is each level will help us burn calories, different levels are suitable for different goals.

  • Light Activity is mainly used for warm-up, recovery, and very long duration races
  • Moderate Activity is the best and most efficient for weight loss and fat-burning
  • High Intensity (70-80% HRmax) is best for aerobic fitness, improving endurance
  • Vigorous Intensity (80-90% HRmax) is best for Anaerobic training, Lactate, and Speed
  • Maximum effort trains movement with maximal speed, which can be only sustained for short periods (sub 10 sec.) and trains the anaerobic, glycolytic systems.

Different Types of Cardio

To choose the best and most suitable cardio training type, we need to first acknowledge all the existing ones. We will examine the most popular cardio training, and based on evidence and experience, you can choose your own. Also, don’t miss the three most important questions at the end, if you want to find your type.

1. Brisk Walking or Jogging

Whether you like to lightly jog or speed walk, both can produce a similar effect. As you burn calories with the lighter activity performed for a longer duration, weight loss is on the way. The only thing is, does this have any other benefits too?

It seems like these light activities play a very similar role in the reduction of hypertension, diabetes, and other CVD disease risks, as vigorous running. (1)

Since it is the easier form of running, walking can be a great way for older individuals to stay active, without putting too much pressure on the joints.

2. Running

Running is definitely the most popular and performed type of exercise that’s cyclic in nature. It is a faster way of movement, which uses up the elastic energy of our tendons. Running can be a great tool to improve one’s endurance, test his cardiorespiratory system and lose weight.

Large meta-analyses show that habitual running plays an important role in many factors related to health and longevity. It effectively reduced body mass, and body fat, increased VO2max values, and HDL “the good” cholesterol. (2)

Since the movement is cyclic, the calories burned to depend on the intensity and duration of the exercise, aside from some individual factors. But in general, running is pretty efficient in terms of burning calories, because it uses large muscle mass and lasts longer. On average 5km (3.1 miles) runs account for 300-400 kcal burned, 10km (6.2 miles) for 600-700 kcal.

Another great benefit from running, which potentially comes as a consequence of improved blood markers, is the reduction of premature mortality by 25-40%, study shows. (3)

3. Swimming

The self-propulsion of the human body through water is swimming. It is about moving the whole body through the water, mainly by swinging with your arms and legs. Swimming also wins an extra point, as there are many different styles.

One of the best types of cardio for older adults or individuals with joint pain or low bone density. The fraction and force on the joint are almost completely reduced, as gravity doesn’t work as it does on the earth. This depends on the BMI values, body density, and liquid density.

With continuous swimming, we can improve the strength of our pull muscles, back, and legs mainly. Aside from this swimming comes with a broad range of benefits such as improved physical ability, strength, physical composition, reduced blood lipids, etc. (4)

Swimming burns around 250-450 kcal per regular session, which lasts around 30-60 minutes at moderate intensity. It also lengthens and decompresses the spine, which can in turn improve circulation.

4. Cycling

Another popular cyclic activity that’s very suitable for many people is cycling. It is basically riding a bike, to travel a certain distance. It is also generous on the joints, reducing gravitational force.

Cycling is very good as it is the easiest one to perform, in terms of coordination. Maybe for amateurs, it’s good to build some balance, but it’s easy to get into the flow state with the bicycle. You don’t have to think about how to move, you just move, which is great for a cardio workout.

Research showed that riding a stationary bike which is similar to cycling was effective for weight loss. Without altering the participant’s diet or restricting calories, cycling along with walking was effective, while swimming wasn’t. (5)

Also, spinning cycling was shown to be very effective in a 6-week training for sedentary women. In only 6 weeks, the results were amazing. The obese group transformed into overweight, while the overweight to normal, assessed by BMI. Fat loss was present and this training method was efficient, for the ladies who worked out 3 days a week, with 30-60 minutes per session. (6)

5. Boxing

Boxing is a fighting sport, where individuals fight with their fists. In terms of its uses for weight loss, boxing makes one hell of a cardio workout. Think of all the jumping, skipping, pushing, punching, and twisting.

It activates very large muscle mass, incorporating the push, pull, and leg muscles. It also involves some coordination and agility, but for those who’ve perfected their form, this won’t be a problem. It is one of the most efficient calorie burners, standing head-to-head with skipping.

Research shows that 12-week HIIT boxing training did wonders for obese individuals. It is worth noting that the intensity increased as time progressed. Benefits ranged from reduced body-fat percentage, and reduced blood pressure to improved VO2max and vitality values. (7)

The best part is, boxing is so fun you forget it burns calories. All you need is gloves, a punching bag, and a few sessions with an instructor if you’re a newbie puncher.

6. Skipping

Jumping rope is by far one of my favorites. It is a repetitive skipping activity, where one jumps over the rope he controls with his hands. The best part is, it is so fun and progressive, it’s almost impossible to turn your head off it.

Skipping is a great way to warm up the whole body, matter of fact one of the fastest. By all the little jumps you do, you get your ankles and knees prepared, increase your heart rate, and start sweating. The coordination and agility requirements also stimulate your nervous system, so it’s a win-win.

Aside from countless contractions of the calf muscles, jump rope is a whole-body activity since it indulges the arms too. The core works to keep you balanced, the arms swing, and the legs jump.

The best part of jump rope training is adding complexity and different variations. It is fascinating how easy it is to learn new and impressive-looking skills, so fast if you do it continuously. Enough with the chit-chat, let’s see the benefits.

Studies show positive results and benefits of jumping rope on:
Improving respiratory capacity, VO2max values, and physical fitness measured by functional movement screening (8)
– Improvement in vital capacity, body mass index (muscle-to-fat ratio), cardiopulmonary function, and endurance  (9)

7. Climbing or Hiking

The best medium between running and jogging, is great for elderly individuals and adults. Hiking can be a great way to improve one’s balance, stability, and proprioception but it also makes a hell of cardio. In fact, you aren’t just traveling the horizontal, but also the vertical distance.

This requires leg flexion and extension, working your quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and core. Whether you climb stars, do elliptical training, or hike, lifting your own body weight is quite a task, hence why it burns so many calories.

Many people in Norwegian countries describe hiking as a “whole-body” experience, similar to yoga. While I believe this should be the case with any activity we’re fully indulged in, hiking has a special spine of nature, and a bit of an adventurous vibe going on.

Benefits of hiking range from mental benefits such as improving mood, well-being, and reducing stress to physiological ones like blood sugar control, weight loss, and better cardiorespiratory function.

8. Nordic Skiing

Nordic skiing is the sport that will get you closest to the “floating on snow” experience you can. It is very popular in northern countries, preferred by older individuals. It does reduce the pressure regular skiing may have on the joints while packing a great cardio workout on its own.

It is a type of skiing where the top of the ski boot is fixed, allowing the heel to rise. With different styles, we can walk, run or ski differently. Personally, my experience with Nordic skiing was great, as we learned more and more styles it got even more fun.

It is more of a touring style of skiing, where you indulge in the nature around you. It makes it easier to go upwards, which is the whole point of it.

Nordic skiing is great for the heart, very similar to hiking or jogging. It is a great exercise for balance, coordination, and agility. It increases heart rate, helps you sweat, and helps you burn more calories, while it is an activity that can be done for a longer duration of time.

9. Rowing

One of the best types of cardio that maximally involves your upper body, especially backs muscles is rowing. Rowing is the preferred method of practice and warm-up for pro-cross-fitters since it’s also one of the main disciplines they compete in.

Rowing engages very large muscle mass, activating the rear deltoids, scapular retractors, rhomboids, trapezius, latissimus dorsi, teres minor and major, and many more. This in turn strengthens the back, which has a profound effect on posture, enabling one to keep a straight back and neutral spine.

Studies show that there are multiple positive effects of the eccentric work of rowing on a machine. Some of these include favorable effects on body composition and improved cardiovascular and cardiorespiratory function/performance. (10)

As a method that is easy to perform coordination-wise, that also indulges larger muscle groups, is cyclic in its nature, increases heart rate (11), and improves the strength of large muscle groups, rowing is also pretty efficient in burning calories too. Around 200-300 kcal are burned every 30 minutes during vigorous rowing activity.

10. Elliptical

Although it’s fair to say that the old elliptical is far from my favorite cardio machine, the newer and improved ones used for Crossfit can make a hell of a cardio machine.

The best thing about ellipticals is the versatility and customizability they offer. And I don’t mean just the seat height, but the ability to choose the resistance you’ll be pushing through each cycle with both your arms and legs.

The reason why ellipticals may elicit a greater fat-loss effect is again the activation of larger muscle mass which requires more oxygen. It burns calories efficiently, hits large muscle groups, and also gets your heart working.

Elliptical can also elicit higher quadriceps activation and quadriceps to hamstring coactivation, compared to treadmill walking. (12)

Working out on an elliptical seems to be quite efficient in terms of calorie burning. An article comparing different activities shows that elliptical training burns between 270-370 kcal in a 30-minute session, dependent on weight. (13) The great thing about it is, only ski machines, high-impact step aerobics, and vigorous cycling burned more calories out of 18 activities in total.

Research Limitations

*Studies have some limitations, important to evaluate the validity of their results. Here’s a highlight of some and NOT ALL studies (and limitation), shown in this article, for context.

  • A systemic review which was limited in choosing/combining data, as some outcome measures are hard to identify, where they’ve used multivariate models.
  • Lack of randomization and relatively small sample sizes *difficult to generalize.
  • Research data dominant in women seeking to lose weight *biased results.
  • Study using only rapid dance music *higher-speed leads to more intense movement.
  • Speed discrepancy between overground walking test and treadmill walking test *high difference due to an error in the real-time velocity indicator.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the best types of cardio exercises?

Different types of activities which are rhythmic and cyclic, that can be done at a specific tempo/intensity. The best types of cardio include: boxing, swimming, skipping rope, sprinting, hiking, running, cycling, elliptical training etc.

How long should a cardio workout last?

It heavily depends on the intensity of the activity. Generally, a long steady cardio session would last around 60-120 minutes, done at fairly low intensities, including exercise such as jogging, swimming, cycling or hiking. For more intense activities such as boxing, sprinting, jumping rope, running uphill etc., aiming at 10-20 minutes of total activity can be enough for a good sweaty session.

What are the most common benefits of cardio?

Depending on the type of cardio, its intensity and duration, cardio can be beneficial for: improving circulation, fat-loss and weight management, blood sugar control, energy boost, mood improvement, cholesterol-lowering and stamina.

What warm-up exercise should I do before running?

Exercises that can raise your temperature like light running, an exercise that enhances your ankle stability and mobility, like ankle circles or toes-walk, plus a couple of quads stretches, lunges, and hip rotations. Going slowly into your running session can reduce the amount of lactate build-up, making it easier for you to run next time and regenerate faster.

How To Get Started

To get started with cardio training, you really need to know what your goals are. Different types work on different abilities. Some are more favorable in terms of functionality and balance, some are better for weight loss, while others are just very fun and improve strength. Answering these three questions is vital before understanding what to pick.

What Is Your Primary Goal?

So first of all, why would you do cardio at all? Is your goal to lose weight, shred fat off, strengthen your muscles, have fun, or learn new movement skills?

Any of the previous activities can be great as a cardio workout, with the main goal of improving cardiovascular function, getting your heart rate up, sweating a bit, and burning calories.

It is very important to the intensity you’re training at, hence why we’ll go back to the intensity levels.

  • Doing low-impact activities for a longer duration of time will improve endurance and cardiovascular function dominantly.
  • Doing moderate intensity is best for weight loss and fat loss, to get the most efficient calorie-burning for the time you put in work.
  • Doing vigorous intensities can improve your strength, explosiveness, and anaerobic performance, and while it is shorter in duration it has the after-burn effect which is favorable for fat loss.

What Abilities Are You Training For?

The second one is, which abilities to you want to improve. Intensity-wise, if you want to go for aerobic endurance you’ll stick with running, swimming, and cycling at lower intensities for a longer duration.

If you are all about fun, learning new motor skills, and improving coordination while burning fat, jump rope (skipping), boxing, and dancing might be your top pick.

If you’re more of an adventure, recreation, and nature-loving type you can go hiking, climbing, or Nordic skiing instead. These may also have a profound effect on mood and stress reduction.

If you want to get your heart rate up and sweat, and you’re better off staying in the gym, ellipticals, rowing machines, and treadmill runs might do it for you, it’s all personal preference.

What Type Of Workout Is Your Favorite?

The last one’s probably the most important, what type of cardio is the most fun for you? This is because cardio can get boring fast, so finding new types to spice it up works amazing. What is it that you enjoy doing?

This is purely individual and depends on many variables. Some love to run, others to swim, third to box, others to ski and hike, etc. Choose what is most suitable for your schedule and what you enjoy the most.

You want to pick something that is enjoyable and practical because playing the long game is more important than one crushing session. A functional, physically healthy body should be strong, mobile, and flexible while having the ability to endure and withstand aerobic intensity.

Cardio doesn’t have to be a full workout done in a structured manner, it can be a 10-minute pre-session or post-session treadmill run, occasional boxing, short laps in the sea, or a part of one’s hiking adventure. Do what’s most suitable, practical, and enjoyable.


Cardio is a cyclic activity done with repetitive movements, that increases heart rate and requires cardiovascular work above the regular daily intensities. Due to its high energy demands and longer duration, it is a pretty efficient way to burn calories, making it a great fat-loss tool. The top 8 types of cardio include brisk walking, running, swimming, cycling, boxing, skipping, elliptical, hiking/ climbing, Nordic skiing, and rowing. To sustain cardio fitness at greater levels, we need to be consistent. The best way to do this is to pick something fun, practical, and enjoyable.

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