I'm sure you've heard that the new buzz word, HIIT, which is High Intensity Interval Training, is better than cardio exercise. This depends on a few things. First, what do you consider cardio? If you are one of the people who walk at 3.0 mph on a 0% incline (pretty easy, fairly slow) for an hour, then yes, HIIT is much better. If thoughts of running and huffing and puffing come to mind during your cardio session, HIIT won't hurt your workouts.
The idea behind HIIT being better is that it ramps up your heart rate quickly, keeps it there, and doesn't take as much time to burn the same amount of calories as cardio. Unfortunately, I'm a sucker for research, especially because the fitness and health world are constantly evolving but that doesn't always mean in the right direction. Helping people get healthy is my passion, so I always want to give you the best and most truthful information, as well as make sure you don't get yourselves injured. There are millions of research papers and studies done on the effects of cardiovascular exercise where there are on a only handful of a couple hundred studies done on HIIT. HIIT is still so relatively new that there are many variations on how you can do it, what you can do, etc. while "cardio" is slightly more defined as walking, running, biking, swimming, rowing, or aerobics. HIIT seems to be able to incorporate a little bit of everything and goes with a sort of Tabata set up in style. Tabata is a HIIT variation where you go full out for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, and then do the next exercise for 20 seconds and so on for 20 minutes. What I do like about HIIT and tabata is the opportunity to work the entire body and the muscles while traditional cardio offers little to add to strength training... yes you can ramp up the resistance and I suggest you do every now and then, but HIIT and tabata keep you moving so you are also less likely to get bored or distracted. As always, variety is key!
I have used all styles in my own training and while training others and here's how I feel about them all;
1. Cardio: Get your heart rate up! Yes walking at a comfortable pace is better than sitting on the couch but it's also not providing you all of the benefits it could be. You may go slow for the first 5-10 minutes to warm up, and last 5-10 minutes to cool down but otherwise challenge yourself! Increase your speed or grade and try new things. Swimming is an excellent form of cardio that is easier on your joints, but will still have you huffing and puffing. Bicycling, whether outside or on the stationary bike is a good non weight bearing form if you have restrictions. The elliptical and arc trainers are more similar to a running motion but decrease the impact on your joints. The rower integrates arm and upper body muscles so that they aren't left out. The stair stepper just kills! Think all cardio is boring, try a class... a step class, Zumba, or a dance class will all get your heart rate up and may be more fun to you than just logging the miles and minutes on a machine.
2. HIIT: This is great if you don't have a lot of time but you still want to torch some calories, and can be done in your own house or even hotel room. So the idea is that you pick x amount of high intensity exercises and do them for a set amount of time before taking a small break and switching.
An example HIIT workout:
Squat jumps for 1 minute
Jumping jacks for 30 seconds
RECOVER 30 seconds
Split lunges for 1 minute
High knees for 30 seconds
That is just a very small example, you would usually do around 15-20 different exercises. The great thing about HIIT is you can customize it. I take advantage of this so that my recovery can include something like calf raises, where my heart can calm down but I'm still working. The downside of HIIT is if you are not conditioned or just starting out, you may not know proper form and you may hurt yourself. It is HIGH INTENSITY after all so I don't recommend it for beginners or those who are a little older. You want to have steady balance and coordination before you start jumping all over the place, and some aerobic training definitely wouldn't hurt.
3. Tabata: I love tabata because I can customize it to fit anyone young or old, new or experienced. Like I said before, you do an exercise for 20 seconds, take a 10 second break, and continue in that 20/10 fashion throughout a 20 minute workout. You can do all cardio style tabata or you can incorporate strength training into it too. You can do all body weight exercises or you can have equipment involved. You can create a complete mix also... the possibilities are endless.
An example of a Tabata workout:
Squats 20 seconds
10 second rest
Inchworms 20 seconds
10 second rest
Push ups 20 seconds
10 second rest
Star jumps 20 seconds
10 second rest
Calf raises 20 seconds
10 second rest
bicep curls 20 seconds
Don't let it fool you, this becomes hard quickly if you are doing it right. I usually try to group body parts together so that by the time that set is done and the body part is failing, we move onto the next one. This allows you to hit failure and recover while getting a total body workout in a matter of a half hour. Of course you can customize an only upper body or lower body tabata sequence too, it doesn't always have to be full body.
4. The number method. This can be fun, and also a quick way to kill your entire body. Pick a number between 10 and 50, usually in increments of 5. Now for each number, assign an exercise. Do everything, and repeat another set.
An example: 5 exercises
4 push ups
2 sit ups
1 minute plank
Now think on a much larger scale than 5... think 20, 30, or even 50. Try to keep recovery breaks in between under 20 seconds so that you keep the heart rate up, and try to vary the workouts. Suck at push ups? Challenge yourself and assign them to a higher number. Creating this workout is harder than it seems but can be fun... keep the lower numbers to easier tasks or in a minute form (like the plank), you are only cheating yourself if you chose to do 50 of something you find easy and 1 of something you find hard. This is also another way to mix it up and customize it; you can do all body weight activities in a confined space with no equipment, or you can integrate things like a jump rope, hand weights, ankle weights, machines, a step, and a medicine ball.
Get creative! Don't be afraid to try new things... some will work, some may not. I also always say give something a few chances before giving up, you may come to like it. Things like Zumba take time to learn all the steps and you may get blisters from rowing at first (get gloves!) but rather than beating yourself up for not doing it well, reward yourself for simply doing it. You may end up enjoying it. Exercise doesn't have to be torture, you can enjoy it and still burn the calories. Find what works for you and don't be afraid to try new things! Now get out there and kill it!!
Love the Burn!