Most people like to use cardio strictly for losing weight. They see it as a way to expend energy and that’s that. The reality is that should be the LAST reason anyone does cardio.
Why Do Cardio At All?
You’re going to want to incorporate some form of cardio for health and longevity. Having a good aerobic capacity is a sign of good health. It increases your lung capacity, strengthens your heart, and helps optimize blood flow. You also don’t need any equipment. Just some shoes and the open road.
Don’t limit cardio to just a treadmill in the gym. You can play basketball, surf, play with your kids, you name it. It also explains why people gravitate so quickly towards it as opposed to weight training. It requires no experience and no cost. Also entering a gym for the first time can be intimidating.
You also have different forms of cardio. HIIT cardio is great when you are short on time or want to burn a ton of calories in a shorter time frame. Steady state cardio is great if you want an easier time preserving muscle mass, and not taxing the heart as much.
Overall, cardio is a great way to increase your energy expenditure each day, with minimal effort, and can help you get more food in. There are different approaches you can take as to how you get that energy expenditure that aren’t just limited to running.
Forms Of Cardio
Steady State - this is the most common form people think of. This can be a light jog, or speed walking. It’s the type of cardio bodybuilders use when they are cutting for the show. The biggest benefit to this is it is a great option if you are trying to preserve muscle especially when in a deficit. You don’t want to be doing anything too intense when you are dieting down and want to keep your hard earned muscle. Weight lifting should be the priority, with steady state cardio or increasing your NEAT (more later) being used as tools towards the end of the diet.
NEAT - increasing your NEAT, or daily activity is probably the most sustainable way to include cardio. Not everyone has the time in the day to dedicate solely to going to the gym or for a run. But we may have small blocks of time. Finding moments throughout your day to increase your movement would be considered NEAT. This could mean going for 10 minute walks after your meals, or running around with your kids. You are basically looking for ways to get more movement than you normally would to get your overall expenditure up.
HIIT - Definitely the most intense form of cardio, HIIT involves short bursts of sprinting followed by more steady state recovery in between. It by far burns the most calories in the least amount of time than any of the above methods. However, it can also carry the biggest risk for burning out and under recovering. This is good to use if you are tight on time but do use it sparingly. I would suggest not doing any more than 2-3 sessions a week of 15-20 minutes.
Putting It All Together
You don’t have to exclusively do any single one of these. Ideally you’d do a mix of all of it if you wanted to.
If your goal is to build muscle - I wouldn’t do more than 2-3 days of steady state or HIIT cardio. You want the primary signal you are sending to the body to be muscle growth and longer duration cardio competes with that signal.
If your goal is fat loss - focus mostly on increasing your NEAT throughout the bulk of your diet (by focusing on increasing your step count each week), and use steady state and HIIT sparingly towards the end once it gets too hard to hit the step count throughout your day.