Getting the Most from Your Cardio Workout

lisa-snow-2When it comes to low-impact cardio exercise there are at least three widely available options.  All three will help you burn calories while working your heart and lungs, and all are great for people recovering from hip, knee, or ankle injuries.  But with limited time at the gym, how can you choose between the recumbent bike, elliptical, and rower?

The recumbent bike is a good way to strengthen and tone your legs as well as get cardio.  The bike is a great choice for people who do a lot of upper body lifting and tend to neglect their legs.  And for runners it’s an excellent form of cross-training.  If you’re trying to burn the most calories possible during and after your workout, skip the steady pace rides and try a speed interval or hill interval program.  Or you can create intervals manually by setting a moderately challenging resistance level and pedaling slowly for the first 45 seconds of each minute, and going all-out for the last 15 seconds of each minute.  Just be sure to spend a few minutes of slow pedaling at a low resistance to cool down at the end!

The rower is another great cross-training option for runners and cyclists alike.  Because you’re seated with no chair back, the rower forces you to be extremely aware of your posture.  The optimal position is head over your shoulders, and shoulders over your hips, with a slight arch in your lower back, very similar to how you would stand in “neutral spine.”  In other words, no slouching!  Since you’re pulling the bar toward you with each stroke, you’re also strengthening the biceps and lats (the large muscle group that covers much of the back).

The elliptical gets your arms and legs working at the same time reinforcing the correct “diagonal” pattern of walking (you are always moving one hand and the opposite foot).  As we know from stroke survivors, the right brain controls the left side of the body, and the left brain controls the right side of the body.  Exercises like walking and running force you to use both sides of the brain simultaneously because the right arm and left leg swing forward together with each stride.  For those with lower body injuries, the elliptical can also be a good transition back into walking or jogging on the ground.  To burn the most calories in the least time, try increasing the incline.  From there, try interval programs if they’re available, or manually change your pace.  For example, you could do 30 seconds fast followed by 30 seconds slow, alternating your pace for 15 or 20 minutes.

While there are different benefits to the recumbent bike, elliptical, and rower, calories burned per hour shouldn’t be the deciding factor.  Calorie burn depends on your body weight and exercise intensity, not on the piece of equipment you’re using.  A taller or bigger person will burn more calories per hour running a mile than a shorter or smaller person, even if they run at the same exact speed.  Why?  Picture the engine size and amount of gas needed to power a small car versus a semi truck.  The taller person simply has a bigger skeleton so it takes more energy (calories) to move it.  (This is also the reason that as people lose weight, they actually burn fewer calories per hour doing the same exercises.  While this may seem frustrating at first, it’s actually one of the benefits of being fit: it will be less tiring to go the same distance.)

Calorie burn also depends on exercise intensity.  For example, most people would probably guess that cycling is easier than running, but does it actually burn a smaller number of calories?  It depends. Someone cycling with a lot of resistance through hill intervals might well be burning far more calories per hour than someone doing an easy jog.  Whichever form of cardio you choose, continue to challenge yourself and vary your program.


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