If you're like me, you have limited time to work out or, really, do most things. Efficiency is the name of the game, so why not add more efficiency to your workouts?
No matter what type of cardio you do, you can burn more calories in the same amount of time with just a few modifications to your current workout.
10 Ways to Get More Out of Your Cardio
1. Do cardio first. In order to push your calorie burn, research shows that you should do cardio first. Published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, one study examined how many calories exercisers burned doing one of four workout combinations: running only, strength training only, running followed by strength training, and strength training followed by running. Researchers found that even though all exercisers experienced a strong "after burn" (a higher rate of calories burned when in a resting state after exercise) for the two hours after working out, the strength-training and run-strength training groups experienced the highest exercise after burn of all. What does this mean? Although it's just one study, the idea is that we might burn more calories after working out if we do our cardio before strength training.
2. Try plyometrics. If you'd consider yourself an intermediate or advanced exerciser searching for ways to burn more calories, plyometrics can be the way to go. These high-intensity, explosive exercises include jumping and hopping, get your heart rate up quickly, and that can equal a higher calories-burned rate. Additionally, these athletic moments really target your fast-twitch muscles, coordination and agility, so you're training your body in an entirely new and challenging way. Challenging workouts almost always equal results -- and more calories burned. Because using proper form is essential when doing these advanced high-impact moves, consider working with a personal trainer at first to learn the ropes!
3. Use your whole body. Most cardio exercises focus on the lower body (biking, walking, elliptical, stair climbing, etc.), but if you want to burn more calories, one easy way to do that is to incorporate your upper body. Pump those arms hard and high when running and walking, make sure to grab the elliptical with moving handles, and even consider adding a more full-body exercise to your cardio mix such as the rowing machine. The more muscles you move, the more you will burn. I often see people at the gym on an elliptical who ignore the moving handles. Don't.
4. Add intensity. If you're serious about wanting to burn more calories, then up the intensity. Increase your incline and resistance if you're on a piece of gym equipment, or walk a hillier route than usual if you usually exercise outdoors. To increase the burn, you will need to get out of your cardio comfort zone. And when you do, the benefits can be big. In a study published in the Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports Medicine in 2002, researchers found that intense exercise resulted in the greatest fat burn (compared to light intensity exercise and no exercise at all) during the hours following a workout—and that fat burn continued for 11 hours.
5. Listen to faster music. If you seem to have trouble pumping yourself up for a workout, try music with faster beats. In a small study by the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences, scientists found that when male college students pedaled stationary bicycles while listening to fast popular music, the subjects pedaled faster and elevated their heart rates more. The students even perceived their workouts to be less intense than they actually were. And when the music slowed down? The opposite happened. So find some fast music you love and listen to it while doing your cardio workout. Want some inspiration? Here's one possible source: http://runningmusicmix.com/ .
6. Use proper form. Do you hold on to the handles when you run on the treadmill? Maybe you lean on the handlebars during spinning class or hunch over while walking on the Stairmaster. If you use these machines, you must use proper form in order to burn more calories (and to keep from getting injured, which could keep you from working out in the first place). As a general rule, keep your arms moving freely and naturally, keep your abs in, your weight centered over your hips, and your shoulders down and back. Not only does proper form keep you from getting injured, it also ups your calorie burn since your core is engaged.
7. Speed things up. The simplest advice of all for upping your calorie burn? Increase your pace even if it's just a little bit. The tortoise may have won the race, but the hare burned more calories. So shake a leg.
8. Add intervals. By varying the intensity through different intervals (think one minute running then two minutes walking), you can actually improve your fitness more quickly than by steady state cardio, and you can burn more calories. The bonus? Time seems to fly when you add interval training. I have found this to be true when running 5Ks -- usually one song for jogging and then the next one for fast walking is not only faster, it's a lot more interesting.
9. Focus on what you are doing. We often talk about the importance of the mind-body connection and fitness. Although cardio isn't as Zen-like as yoga, cardio can still benefit from a strong sense of awareness. The next time you do cardio, focus on your movements and breathing while squeezing those muscles. By engaging your mind, you can actually better engage your muscles which allows you to complete the exercise more easily and still burn more calories!
10. Do not work too hard. This might sound counter-intuitive but there is actually some science behind it. We all know how important rest and recovery is to any workout plan, but also think about how your workout affects the remainder of your day. If you spend an hour at the gym sprinting and doing lunges, you might burn 600 calories in a short amount of time, but if that intense workout completely wipes you out for the rest of the day, the extra calorie burn might not be worth it. Be honest with yourself and definitely push yourself, but not so hard that it gets in the way of other daily activities. After all, the goal is to improve your quality of life. For me, this does mean an hour -- and no more, even if I have the time and energy. Discretion on Monday means I can exercise more (or again) on Tuesday.