Table of Contents
What is cardiovascular exercise?
Moderate-intensity vs high-intensity cardio for weight loss
What is high-intensity interval training (HIIT) for weight loss?
The best exercise for weight loss: Putting it all together
How Forward can help you lose weight for good

Although research points to the quality of the food you eat as the most important factor in weight loss, physical activity plays a significant role in helping you lose weight and maintain your weight loss.

There are two types of exercise that can help you lose extra pounds or maintain your current ideal weight: cardiovascular exercise and weight training. Here, we look at cardio, including what it is, how it helps you lose weight, and what types of specific exercises cardio includes. Then, we’ll help you cobble together a workout plan that works for you.

What is cardiovascular exercise?

Also known as cardio or aerobic exercise, cardiovascular workouts raise your heart rate, blood flow, and breathing rate. Cardio involves prolonged use of all of your major muscle groups—chest, back, arms, shoulders, abdominals, and legs. Cardio exercise includes running, walking, hiking, dancing, yard work, vigorous cleaning, and anything else that leaves you a little out of breath.

Aerobic exercise not only helps you lose weight, but it also reduces your risk for a long list of diseases and conditions, improves your mental health, and helps you manage existing medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and high cholesterol or blood pressure. It increases your overall energy levels, improves your mood, and reduces your stress—all of which make it easier to control what you eat and stay motivated to manage a chronic condition like diabetes or heart disease. 

How much do you need to exercise to lose weight?

The Centers for Disease Control recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise—or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise—along with two days of strength training each week for optimal health and disease prevention. 

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) concurs with these numbers for preventing disease, but it recommends 200 to 300 minutes of exercise per week for long-term weight maintenance—and 250 minutes to 300 or more minutes per week for boosting weight loss.

High intensity vs. low intensity exercise: What’s the difference?

The difference between moderate-intensity and high-intensity exercise is your heart rate, or beats per minute (bpm.) Your heart rate is lower during moderate-intensity than it is during high-intensity exercise. 

Managing the intensity of your workout depends on knowing what the target heart rate range is for low, moderate, and high intensity workouts. The catch is that it’s different for everyone, depending on your age.

  • Target heart rate for cardio intensity is based on a percentage of your maximum heart rate (MHR), which is the fastest your heart can beat before you experience very serious cardiovascular consequences.
  • The target heart rate for low-intensity cardio, which won’t help you lose much weight, is between 40 and 50 percent of your MHR.
  • The target heart rate for moderate-intensity cardio is between 64 and 76 percent of your MHR. 
  • The target heart rate for high-intensity cardio is between 77 and 93 percent of your MHR.

In order for this to make practical sense, you have to know two things: what your MHR is, and how to calculate your target heart rate with it.

How do you figure out your MHR and target heart rate?

To determine what your maximum heart rate is, subtract your age from 220. 

If you’re 40 years old, your maximum heart rate is 180. If you want to do a moderate intensity workout (64 to 76 percent of your MHR,) keep your heart rate between 115 and 137 bpm, because:

  • 180 MHR x 0.64 = 115
  • 180 MHR x 0.76 = 137

If you’re 56 years old, your maximum heart rate is 164. If you want to do a high-intensity workout (77 to 93 percent of your MHR,) keep your heart rate between 126 and 153, because:

  • 164 MHR x 0.77 = 126
  • 164 MHR x 0.93 = 153

How do you monitor your target heart rate during exercise?

A simple wearable heart monitor will measure your heart rate in real time so you can adjust your intensity as needed to stay in the target range. 

If you don’t have a wearable monitor, or your FitBit battery dies mid-workout, speak a couple of sentences out loud while you’re exercising: 

  • If you can’t talk without pausing for breath after a few words, you’re working at high intensity.
  • If you can talk without pausing for breath, try singing the first line to your favorite song. 
  • If you can sing the whole line without stopping for air, you’re working at low intensity.
  • If you have to stop for breath after singing two or three words, you’re working at moderate-intensity. 

Moderate-intensity vs high-intensity cardio for weight loss

There’s an ongoing debate among health experts about moderate vs. high intensity exercise for optimal fat burning and weight loss. Some say it’s all about high-intensity, some say moderate-intensity is ideal, and some think interval training, a mix of high- and low-intensity exercise, works best.

When you exercise at lower and moderate intensities, your muscles burn a higher percentage of fat than carbohydrate—but fewer overall calories. At higher intensities, you burn a lower percentage of fat but more total fat and calories than at lower intensities. Here’s an example:

  • When your muscles are burning fat during moderate intensity exercise, they’re burning up to two times the calories when compared with carbohydrates. That’s because fat has nine calories per gram, while carbs have four calories per gram.
  • Since fat is denser than carbohydrate, your muscles need more oxygen to burn fat compared with carbs.
  • When you exercise at high intensity, you’re out of breath, and less oxygen reaches the muscles. Since the muscles can’t get enough oxygen to efficiently burn fat for fuel, they give up on the fat and start fueling up with carbohydrate, because it burns more easily with less oxygen. 

So, which leads to more weight loss, burning fat or carbs? Well, that depends on how much you eat. No matter how much you exercise or at what intensity, you have to burn more calories than you consume. If you exercise at a lower heart rate, you’ll burn more fat than at higher intensities. But overall, during a higher intensity workout, you’ll burn more total calories and more total fat. Here’s an example: 

Someone who weighs 150 pounds burns 100 calories per mile at 3 miles per hour (mph.) In one hour, that’s 300 calories burned. At 4 mph, that’s 400 calories burned:

  • If you burn 70 percent of calories from fat at 3 mph, you’ll burn 210 calories from fat.
  • If you burn 60 percent of calories from fat at 4 mph, you’ll burn 240 calories from fat. 
  • While you burn a higher percentage of fat calories at moderate intensities, you burn more fat and calories overall at 4 mph. 

Calculate how many calories you should eat daily in order to lose weight, based on your current weight, target weight, and current exercise level.

What is high-intensity interval training (HIIT) for weight loss?

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a very popular way to exercise and gives you the best of both worlds. HIIT workouts involve working out in cycles of high and low intensity for 20 to 60 minutes. Each cycle is called a set.

The high-intensity interval: During the high-intensity interval, called the work period, you increase your heart rate to 80 to 90 percent of your MHR—you should be unable to say more than one or two words without having to take a breath. 

The low-intensity interval: During the low-intensity interval, called the recovery period, your heart rate decreases, and you maintain it at 40 to 50 percent of your MHR—you should be able to sing the first line of your favorite song without too much trouble.

According to the ACSM’s HIIT information sheet, research shows that HIIT has a number of benefits for weight loss and overall health, including:

  • Efficient loss of belly fat while maintaining muscle mass
  • Better cardiovascular health
  • Improved insulin sensitivity
  • Lower blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol

Additionally, high-intensity interval training:

  • Has similar benefits as cardio workout of a single intensity—but you can get those benefits with shorter workouts.
  • Is easy to modify to a wide range of fitness levels, medical conditions, activities, and personal preferences.
  • Burns more calories than a traditional workout—especially in the two hours following exercise, during which your body uses a lot of energy (i.e., burns a bunch of calories) to restore itself. HIIT recovery adds up to 15 percent more calories to your overall burn during the workout.

Some common HIIT methods include:

The 1:1 method: the work and recovery periods have the same time duration—for example, work for three minutes, recover for three minutes.

The 1:2 method: the recovery period is twice as long as the work period—for example, work for 30 seconds, recover for 60. 

The spring interval training method: the work period is 30 seconds at the highest possible intensity you can safely manage, and the recovery period is 4 to 4.5 minutes.

Pyramids: the recovery period remains the same for each set, but the work period increases and then decreases. For example: 

  • 20 seconds work, 20 seconds recovery
  • 30 seconds work, 20 seconds recovery
  • 40 seconds work, 20 seconds recovery
  • 30 seconds work, 20 seconds recovery
  • 20 seconds work, 20 seconds recovery

The best exercise for weight loss: Putting it all together

The most important thing is to create a workout plan that sets you up for success, and that means:

It’s appropriate for your fitness level: Check with your doctor before you start a new exercise program, especially if you’re overweight or obese or have a medical condition like diabetes, cancer, or heart disease.

It’s enjoyable: Choose activities that you enjoy enough that you’ll keep doing it—even if exercising isn’t really your cup of tea. Once it becomes a habit, and you start feeling and looking better, your motivation will likely skyrocket, and you’ll end up with a habit for life that will not only extend your life but also improve its quality.

It’s flexible: Keep an open mind. If you miss a workout, don’t all-or-nothing yourself out of exercising for the next two weeks. If you’re ten minutes into your workout and you’re just not feeling it today, be gentle with yourself—give the mirror a big high-five for moving your body more than you would have a month ago or a year ago. Go with the flow—some days, you’ll feel like doing more than what you’d planned on, and other days, you may decide to go for a walk instead of your scheduled run.

Here, we’ve listed some exercises that count as high-, medium-, and low-intensity. Choose your favorites from each list, and keep those in your arsenal of activities you can fill your exercise chart with. That way, you can mix it up a bit and have choices for high-intensity, low-intensity, and HIIT workouts. Hot tip: You ramp up or dial down the intensity of any exercise

Low-intensity activities (40 to 50 percent of your MHR)

  • A leisurely walk
  • Stretching
  • Beginner’s yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Riding a bike on flat terrain
  • Tidying up around the house
  • Puttering in the garden—weeding, watering, planting
  • Mowing the lawn with a self-propelled mower
  • Shopping
  • Wading in the pool

Moderate-intensity activities (64 to 76 percent of your MHR)

  • Brisk walking or walking uphill
  • Roller skating or rollerblading on flat terrain
  • Intermediate or advanced yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Ballroom dancing
  • Biking at moderate speed on flat terrain
  • Vigorously cleaning the house
  • Working in the yard—raking, digging, shoveling mulch
  • Mowing the lawn with a lightweight manual push mower

High-intensity activities (77 to 93 percent of your MHR)

  • Running
  • Fast dancing
  • Speed walking
  • Jumping rope
  • Climbing stairs or hills
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Cycling on hilly terrain
  • Swimming laps
  • Circuit training
  • Swimming laps

How Forward can help you lose weight for good

Our 12-week, doctor-led Weight Management Program can help you lose weight for better health and disease prevention. Our comprehensive program includes tests and assessments, education, support and monitoring, and a personalized diet and exercise program based on your goals, lifestyle, culture, and health goals. As your primary care provider, Forward is focused on your overall health and wellbeing—and that includes helping you reach your target weight—and maintain it for the long-term.

No long waits. No surprise bills. No copays — ever.

Fed up with a soul-sucking healthcare system? Same. With unlimited visits, personalized insights and real, actionable results, find out what it’s like to actually enjoy seeing your doctor.