There’s a reason cardio has been a longtime staple in fat loss programs. Regular cardio exercise can help you burn fat — and it may also benefit your heart health, mood, sleep habits, and more.
From walking to steady-state bike rides to lung-busting high-intensity interval training workouts, you can find an intensity level that works for you.
But is cardio the best option for fat loss? What type of workout burns the most fat? Here’s how cardio fits into the fat-burning equation.
How Does Cardio Burn Fat?
Cardio exercise will raise your heart rate and body temperature as your body works to supply your muscles with blood and oxygen.
All of this extra work requires adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy currency that powers your every move.
In order to generate enough ATP to meet the demands of exercise, your body has to make it out of nutrients digested from food.
The result: More calories burned in the process.
The calories you burn during cardio will come from two primary fuel sources: fats and carbs.
Your body will typically use up carbs first during exercise and dip into fat reserves if needed, says performance recovery coach Jennifer Novak, M.S., C.S.C.S.
Which Cardio Routine Helps Burn Fat?
There are two types of cardio workouts: steady-state and high-intensity. These types of cardio burn fat in different ways, Novak explains. So if you’re looking to burn as many calories from fat as possible, which type of cardio exercise should you choose?
Ultimately, both HIIT and steady-state cardio are tried-and-true methods for burning calories and fat.
In fact, a 2019 review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found no significant differences in the percentage of body fat burned between people who performed HIIT and those who performed moderate-intensity training.
Here are the basics and benefits of each type of cardio workout:
Steady-state cardio will likely burn a higher percentage of calories from fat during your workout as compared to high-intensity intervals.
As a general rule, expect to burn roughly 60 percent of your calories from fat during a steady-state workout, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
Minute for minute, a HIIT workout will burn more calories than steady-state cardio — but you’ll likely be able to do steady-state cardio for longer periods of time, so depending on the length of your workout, your total calorie burn may be higher.
HIIT favors carbs as fuel. (Expect to burn only 35 percent of your calories from fat.) But because your body utilizes more ATP at higher intensities, HIIT burns more calories per minute than exercising at a lower intensity.
Another important benefit of HIIT: You’ll continue burning more calories once your workout is over through a phenomenon known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC).
It takes more time and energy (a.k.a. calories) for your body to cool down, replenish energy, and repair damaged tissue after a HIIT session than after a steady-state cardio workout.
“Many people think HIIT gives more ‘bang for the buck‘ because of this post-exercise benefit,” Novak says — but it’s hard to say exactly how many calories you’ll burn through EPOC.
However, because HIIT is so intense, you may not be able to do it long enough to match the totals from a steady-state cardio workout.
Still, you’ll be able to burn a decent number of calories in a relatively short amount of time.
Is Cardio the Best Way to Lose Fat?
Cardio burns fat, but it’s not the only way to burn fat — strength training and healthier eating can also help you reach your fat-loss goals.
For best results, incorporate both types of cardio into your weekly workout schedule, along with resistance training. Keep in mind HIIT is more challenging, so you may need to build up to it if you’re new to exercise, Novak says.
And you’ll have a hard time seeing the results of your hard work if your nutrition is off, so be sure to pair your cardio with a solid nutrition program.
Not sure where to start? Try #mbf Muscle Burns Fat and #mbfa Muscle Burns Fat Advanced — these three-week programs incorporate strength training and cardio to help you build muscle and burn fat.