Cardio Intensity:  High, moderate, or low intensity cardio, which should you do?  All have benefits, so picking the one (or better yet, including a mix) that will help you reach your goals is key.

  • Cardio Intensity: How to Choose

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    High intensity is the most time efficient, and can really rev the fat burning (during and after the workout you burn cals).  BUT, if it causes you to move less all day long (less NEAT* = more common than you’d think), it cancels out the effect.  Common scenario: do a super intense workout, then flop in the closest chair and move less than you would’ve usually the rest of the day.  Totally not getting the full advantage of that afterburn.  Net effect: pointless, and no different than if you’d just done a lower intensity cardio, or even none at all.  Due to the intensity of a perfectly executed HIIT session (similar to a strength workout), you will also tend to experience water retention/swelling.  Some people allow this to bother them to the extent that they wonder if it’s worth it.

  • Moderate intensity may burn slightly less cals, but could be perfect for beginners or those not ready/able to jump right into high intensity.  It’s also good for endurance for those that need/want it, or for de-loading from higher intensity days.  Depending on ones definition of “moderate” some swelling/retention may still occur.
  • Lower-moderate intensity is best for relieving DOMS and water retention (especially in the lower body), and for relaxation.  It’s great for warming up, cooling down, beginner workouts, and mood boosting endorphins. 

So which method is best for you?  Why choose? Sometimes people get so caught up in looking for the perfect method, that they miss the point.  The variety/combo/goal application makes the changes happen.  Having purpose is crucial.  Mix and match according to your goals, limitations, and personal preferences.  At any time, it’s perfectly fine to choose only one, or a combo.  For instance:

  • If you want the fat burning effects of high intensity, but not the water retention that comes from it, you can start with 10-20 min of intense (ALL out) intervals, and end with 10-20 min of low-mod intensity.
  • If you’re doing mostly full body workouts, or multiple leg days and are experiencing leg swelling, you may want to ONLY do low-mod cardio on in between days, to aid in recovery and reduce swelling.  In addition, high intensity cardio is not to be overused, but rather to be treated as a (leg) workout, with only one to two days/week, max.
  • If you feel the need to include more than 2 days of cardio they can’t ALL be high intensity, especially if you’re lifting, there needs to be some downtime from the intensity, or massive water retention will occur.
  • If you hate cardio and want to do none at all…DON’T.  Cardio is not necessary for fat loss.  Focus on your eats, be vigorous with attacking the iron, and hitting your macros.  Changes will come.

Research for cardio is all over the place, and depending on the source it may heavily lean to one side or another.  Having the “research bug” can cause us to self sabotage.  I’m an avid researcher that has to force myself to ACT. We have to stop ourselves from always over analyzing everything.  Sometimes knowledge is power…other times, it’s crippling.  There is no, one, perfect way, so researching ourselves into a paralyzed stupor looking for it, is counterproductive.

Speaking from former, knowledge-paralyzed experience.

What about you?  What type of cardio do you prefer?  Have you found a mix that works best for you?  Have you ever gotten so tied up in trying to find the “perfect” method of something that you ended up not doing anything at all?



*NEAT = Non-exercise activity thermogenesis. AKA what your FitBit (pedometer of choice) measures during “awake” hours.  This is basically everything we do that is NOT sleeping, eating or exercise: walking around the house, going shopping, cleaning, fidgeting, etc…

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