Many of us believe that the more time you spend on a piece of cardio equipment, the greater the benefits. And while this may be true for those individuals training for an endurance event, it's not always the case for the rest of us who simply want to burn calories. Consider the following:
1. Think quality, not quantity. And apply it to every cardio session you plan. For example, spending 45 minutes on a treadmill walking at a pace that barely causes you to break a sweat does not equal 30 minutes on a treadmill that leave you huffing, puffing and reaching for the nearest towel. If you consistently walk 45 minutes at the same pace, your body adapts. And adaptation means less calories burned. That's why distance runners do so well. Their bodies have learned to accommodate longer amounts of time spent moving. In other words, their bodies have learned to reserve whatever fuel is necessary to reach the finish line.
2. Know your target heart rate. It defines the intensity at which you should be working out. Successfully reaching that intensity means you're reaping maximum heart, lung and muscle benefits.
3. Change your speed and do it frequently. This is called interval training. And if you try it, you'll realize that it's nothing more than repeated challenges in one workout. For example, walk at a pace of 3.5 on the treadmill. After one minute, kick it up to 4...and then another minute later try running at 6. Do this off an on for 30 minutes and you'll get more out of your workout than you would if you kept it at 3.5 the entire time. Think of it as strength training for your heart and lungs. You're conditioning them to support you in activities with increased levels of exertion. Which in turn makes it easier for you move through your daily life.
4. Change the incline. Though this may not be possible on the elliptical or the step machine, you can certainly do it on the treadmill. Even on your bike if you pick a route that incorporates a hill or two. Or if you stand up when you're on the stationary bike. Think about what it feels like to walk up a hill—different than walking in a straight line because your posture (and sometimes your pace) changes slightly because it gets harder, which means that your muscles are working differently. Stepping up at an angle puts more pressure on your glutes to push from behind. You can even approach it like speed intervals. Take the incline up for a bit, drop it down, then take it back up.
5. Change the intensity. Many elliptical machines and stationary bikes allow you to increase the intensity which basically means you can make it harder to pedal or...um, ellip? I made that up. Is there a word for "pedal" in terms of the elliptical? I don't know. And I digress. Changing the intensity obviously makes your muscles take it to the next level. But you want to choose an intensity that allows you to complete the action without serious, can't-breathe struggle. So rate your perceived exertion. See if you can talk (breath) (breath) to some (breath) one (breath) (breath) while you (breath) are working (breath) (breath) out. Make sense? If you can carry on a conversation, albeit a broken one filled with breathing, your exertion is probably spot on. If you can carry on a conversation without trouble, you need to kick it into gear. If you can't carry on a conversation at all, pull back the intensity to something that's only a bit of a struggle. (Unless, of course, you're doing sprints. Then it's perfectly acceptable, but do so in short...very short intervals. Sprints aren't for everyone.)
6. Break it up. Sometimes you just don't feel like spending 30 minutes on a piece of cardio equipment, but you know you want to get in 30 minutes of cardio that day. The easiest way to achieve that goal is to break up the cardio—do 10 minutes, stop and do some lifting, do another 10 minutes, etc. Just make sure those 10 minutes are filled with quality cardio so that you get your heart rate up. And if you move through the lifting at a decent pace (breaks no longer than 30 seconds in between sets), you'll be able to keep that heart rate up until it's time for your next 10 minutes of cardio.
7. Mix and match. At it's very basic, cardio is cardio. If you simply want to get your heart and lungs working but don't feel like spending all your time on one piece of equipment—don't! Choose two different pieces of equipment. That's perfectly acceptable. Start your workout with 10 minutes of walking, move to 15 minutes on the bike, then another 10 on the treadmill before cooling down for five minutes on the bike.
8. Now you tell me. What tricks do you employ to get the most out of your cardio sessions?