Losing stubborn body fat and getting into one's best possible shape may require at least some aerobic activity. The range of aerobic methods available and the different ways in which to engage in cardio are many—enough to cause confusion for those wanting to shed excess weight to reveal their hard-won muscles.

Question is: what are the best methods of aerobic exercise? Is there a perfect way to lose fat through cardiovascular means, and if so, what is it? Aerobic activity by its very nature requires fat to be used as a primary fuel source, with carbohydrates and protein being used to a smaller extent. Therefore it is obvious that in order to lose weight, some degree of aerobic work will need to be done.

Aerobic activities constitute any form of exercise that is repetitive, long, and hard enough to challenge the heart and lungs.

However, the type of aerobic work needed for fat loss is a subject open to much debate. Aerobic activities (typically done at a moderate intensity, although higher intensity aerobics has been shown burn more calories) constitute any form of exercise that is repetitive, long, and hard enough to challenge the heart and lungs to use oxygen as a fuel source to sustain the body over a longer period (15 to 20 minutes or longer).

Aerobic activities can include:

  • Rowing
  • Running
  • Walking
  • Cycling

...and variations on these (the commonality these methods share is that they use the body's largest muscle groups). The aim of this article is to determine the best forms of aerobic exercise for fat burning, while explaining the reasons why these methods are effective.

With aerobic exercise, oxygen, fats and carbohydrates combine to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the basic fuel source for all cells.

However, given that fat is a more efficient fuel source for aerobic activity—as the body has greater fat stores (which are more easily mobilised in the presence of oxygen) compared to carbohydrates and proteins—it will be used preferentially during aerobic activity, which lasts longer than the short-burst glycogen-using anaerobic activity.

So, aerobic activity done at a moderate intensity (50-75 percent of Maximal Heart Rate [MHR], or within the mythological fat burning zone) appears to burn more actual fat, but does it help with greater fat losses over the longer term? Some researchers suggest not.[1]

It appears that exercising aerobically at a higher percentage of MHR (75% or more) burns more in the way of total calories, which adds up to greater fat total losses. (Max Heart Rate is easily calculated by subtracting your age from 220.)

As long as the exercise is performed within the aerobic zone (using oxygen), and does not become anaerobic in nature (instead drawing from carbohydrates for fuel), the higher the intensity the better.

If more total calories are used, as opposed to a comparatively small amount of fat—as is the case with low intensity aerobics—these calories are less likely to be stored and fat losses will be much greater. With higher intensity aerobics, the body ultimately burns a smaller percentage of fat calories from a much larger number of total calories, so in the end more fat calories will be used.

This is not to say that low-intensity aerobics are worthless. As explained later, they do have their place. However, if one is to burn the largest degree of body fat in the shortest amount of time, higher intensity aerobics seem to be the superior method. Let us turn now to the benefits of high intensity versus low intensity aerobics.

Which Cardio Methods Burn Fat the Fastest?

All forms of aerobic training will provide many similar benefits, while high intensity and low intensity methods (although both within the so-called fat burning aerobic zone) have benefits specific to their respective functions.

To determine the exact intensity needed to benefit from a specific aerobic method, first it is important to determine lower and higher end target heart rates (THR). The low end of the target zone is 55% of your MHR. The high end of the target zone is 80% of your MHR. Use the calculator above to determine these numbers (or just subtract your age from 220, then multiply the result by .55 and .80, respectively.)

Aerobic exercise (regardless of intensity) will help to strengthen the muscles.

Aerobic exercise (regardless of intensity) will help to:

  • Strengthen the muscles involved in respiration, to assist lung function.
  • Increase the total number of red blood cells in the body, to enable greater oxygen facilitation throughout the body.
  • Strengthen the heart muscle, which will improve resting heart and pumping efficiency.
  • Reduce stress and tension, and increase mental well-being.
  • Increase circulation throughout all areas of the body.
  • Increase self-esteem.

Lower-to-moderate intensity aerobic activity (50-75 percent of MHR) will:

  • Typically provide less impact on the joints, making it ideal for the obese and/or unfit.
  • Burn fat directly (as opposed to total calories) and can be done for a longer period.
  • Can be used as active recovery from more intensive training systems.

Higher intensity aerobic activity (70-85 percent of MHR) will:

  • Will burn more total calories and more total fat as a result.
  • Will increase the metabolic rate (during and after training) to a greater degree than will lower intensity aerobics.
  • Offer fitness benefits such as improved endurance, strength, and athletic performance.
  • Help with the prevention of osteoporosis.

Aerobic Training Methods & Their Advantages

Once the appropriate aerobic intensity has been decided upon (depending on one's training goals), the type of aerobic exercise to be used can be chosen. Some types are naturally of a higher intensity, while others are lower in intensity; some are suitable for specific sporting goals, while others are best for achieving low body fat for physical definition.

The keys to choosing a good aerobic activity include finding one that is enjoyable and effective to ensure it is used consistently to good effect.

1. Walking (Burns 300-400 Calories Per Hour)

Once thought of as a perfect aerobic exercise for fat burning and overall health, walking is now considered one of the least effective of the aerobic methods.

Although great for beginners or those with injury or who are obese, walking probably is not the best form of exercise for losing weight and achieving fitness, as it is of a much lower intensity compared to other methods.

It is thought that the lower the intensity of an activity, the smaller the number of calories burned per unit of time (it is also thought that 15 minutes of cycling will burn more calories than a 45 minute walk at moderate pace).

Furthermore, metabolism will increase on average for only one-two hours after walking, as opposed to higher intensity aerobic activity where it can be increased for up to 24 hours or longer.

Walking can be used for the following purposes:

  • Assisting with fat burning in the obese (who can't use other methods).
  • As a low impact activity for the injured.
  • As a moderate activity for recovery purposes (when higher intensity activities might result in overtraining).
  • As a build up to a higher intensity method of aerobics.

A good beginner's walking program could be as follows:

  • Frequency: three times a week.
  • Intensity: 50-70 percent of MHR.
  • Duration: 20-45 minutes per session.

2. Running (Burns Around 600 Calories Per Hour)

A higher intensity method compared to walking, running (not sprinting, which is anaerobic) is an efficient, although high impact way to lose body fat and improve cardiorespiratory fitness.

The main benefit to running for weight loss purposes is that it is sufficiently high intensity to burn a greater number of calories, while stimulating the metabolic rate for a longer period afterward.

The main benefit to running for weight loss purposes is that it is sufficiently high intensity to burn a greater number of calories.

For fat burning purposes, the variation on running that could be considered is jogging, as this method—although higher intensity aerobic—does not cross the anaerobic threshold to burn carbohydrates as a primary fuel source. Running, as does walking, involves all of the lower body, only on a much larger scale.

Specifically, it works the hip flexors, hamstrings, quadriceps, and gastrocnemius & soleus muscles (calves) to provide a great lower body workout. Running also recruits arms, therefore providing an additional calorie burning effect.

Running can be used for the following purposes:

  • To train aerobically at a higher intensity, and burn more fat as a result.
  • To recruit muscle fibers in the legs, which could add definition and enhance muscle shape.
  • As a sport specific means to improving fitness and athletic performance.
  • As a means to increasing metabolic rate for up to 24 hours.
  • Can help to prevent osteoporosis due to its high impact nature.

Beginners running program:

  • Frequency: three times a week.
  • Intensity: 65-85 percent of MHR.
  • Duration: 20-30 minutes per session.

3. Cycling (Burns Around 600 Calories Per Hour)

Cycling involves the same muscles as does running, but has the added advantage of being lower impact, therefore making it ideal for virtually anyone (with the exclusion of those with certain injuries).

It can be done on either a stationary bike (the preferred option for those wanting to specifically burn body fat, as there might be fewer distractions with this method), or on the road.

Either of these approaches will suit almost anyone (regardless of cardiovascular goals) as the resistance can be changed to accommodate preferences in intensity level. Cycling is also ideal for HIIT (as will be explained later) as the resistance can be changed from lower to higher in rapid fashion. For bodybuilders, cycling can also carve definition in the frontal quad muscles allowing for greater separation come competition time.

Cycling as an aerobic activity can be useful for the following reasons:

  • As a low impact, high intensity way to strip body fat.
  • As a sport specific means to improving fitness and athletic performance.
  • As a way to help carve detail into the quads.

A beginners cycling program:

  • Frequency: three times a week.
  • Intensity: 65-85 percent MHR.
  • Duration: 30-45 minutes per session.

4. Rowing (Burns Around 840 Calories Per Hour)

Rowing on a machine provides an excellent total body workout, in addition to being a great high intensity way to strip body fat. It could be considered the perfect exercise as it works all the main muscles of the body, is of higher intensity than walking and of lower impact than running, and burns more calories per hour than any other commonly used aerobic exercise (around 840 per hour).

Rowing on a machine provides an excellent total body workout.

Rowing as an aerobic activity can be useful for the following reasons:

  • Burn a higher number of calories than any of the other common aerobic methods.
  • A total body workout.
  • A low impact, high intensity way to keep fit and burn fat.
  • As a sport specific means to improving fitness and athletic performance.

5. Swimming (Burns Around 600 Calories Per Hour)

Like rowing, swimming provides a great total body workout, while burning a high number of calories. It is also very low impact as the body is working in a weightless environment (water), and, as a result, there is little risk of injury.

Using the common freestyle stroke will work well for most people, but if at all possible use a variety of strokes in order to place an emphasis on different muscle groups—this change in intensity will help to burn more calories.

Swimming is a great aerobic activity for:

  • Lessening the chance of injury as it is the lowest impact of all the aerobic methods.
  • Working all the body's main muscle groups.
  • Improving fitness and athletic performance.
  • Burning a large number of calories and helping with fat loss.

6. Jumping Rope (Burns Over 1000 Calories Per Hour)

Although a very high impact activity, jumping rope can provide a great aerobic workout if done correctly. It can also add definition to the calves and shoulders, as it works these muscle groups quite vigorously. Probably one of the harder aerobic methods, correctly jumping rope involves a tremendous amount of skill, strength, focus and patience.

Not commonly used as an aerobic method, jumping rope burns a higher number of calories per hour than rowing (over 1000) and is best used for shorter periods, as it might lead to impact injuries of the lower leg or hip if done continuously for too long.

Once mastered, jumping rope is an effective way to:

  • Burn a high number of calories.
  • Help to prevent osteoporosis due to its high impact nature.
  • Improve a wide range of skill components, including explosive strength, stamina and speed (boxer's jump rope as an integral part of their training).

Jumping rope burns a higher number of calories per hour than rowing (over 1000) and is best used for shorter periods.


HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) is one of the newer and more effective ways to burn body fat. As many have experienced, HIIT provides an intensive aerobic option, which takes a fraction of the time to complete compared to the more traditional cardio methods.

As the name suggests, HIIT incorporates both high intensity aerobic work with a very high intensity component to provide a maximal fat burning effect, and an increased metabolic rate that can last for over 24 hours after training.

Regular aerobic training (although beneficial for fat burning) can place the body into a steady state in that the same pace is maintained throughout. This means the body has adjusted itself to the speed it is going and will try to conserve calories. With HIIT, the steady state problem can be avoided as the intensity is shifted every minute or so.

An example of a HIIT workout is as follows:

Using cycling as an aerobic method, work at a moderate to high intensity pace (75-80 percent of MHR) for two minutes. Quickly change the intensity so that work rate is increased significantly (over 90 percent of MHR) for 30 seconds to one minute. Repeat this process for up to 30 minutes. Running, rowing or swimming are also methods that can be used in a similar context with HIIT.

HIIT is perfect for:

  • Raising fat burning hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine.
  • Suppressing insulin levels.
  • Raising the metabolic rate more so than other methods of cardio.

Aerobic Training Guidelines

Start Gradually

As with any from of training, aerobic exercise should be taken slowly during the initial stages of training, especially if one is overweight or in an otherwise untrained state. Walking would be a perfect activity for the novice trainee as it is much less demanding than many of the other methods, and is relatively low impact.

Training too hard too soon might result in injury or burnout. It is also important to start out gradually at the beginning of a workout (if the activity is of a higher intensity) to warm the muscles and lubricate the joints for the work ahead.

Work Within The Target Heart Rate Range

Although the concept of a fat burning zone has been discredited, it is still important to stay within a specified target heart rate range to ensure the body is working at its full capacity. Using the formula given earlier, one could determine the lower and upper limits of the target heart rate range and plan the session accordingly.

Try to work at the upper end if possible to gain greater benefits. Working below the target heart rate range will produce very little effect, while training beyond it could lead to injury.

Training too hard too soon might result in injury or burnout.

Do Not Overdo It

Cardio should be done safely at all times. Trying to do too much will probably have an opposite effect to what is trying to be achieved. Fat burning and other health benefits will occur, so long as the session is no longer than 45 minutes to one hour (this is usually accepted as the appropriate length of time for one who is in good health).

Going beyond this could lead to a repetitive strain injury (depending on the type of activity used), and burn a great of muscle, which will ultimately cause the metabolism to slow down, therefore restricting fat loss. In conjunction with a weight-training program (aerobics and weight training combined is the best way to achieve total fitness), cardio will need to be carefully monitored so that overtraining does not occur.

Do Enough To Produce An Effect (The Significance Of Intensity, Time, And Frequency)

To get the most from any aerobic training program, it is best to plan the intensity, time, and duration to ensure a sufficient training effect. These variables will change depending on what stage one is at and the specific goals they have.

For a general fitness aerobic program (for a moderately well conditioned trainee) working on a cycle, intensity would be between 70 and 85 percent of MHR, time would be between 45 minutes and one hour and frequency would be four times a week. For a less-advanced trainee, less would be required.

Drink Water Before, During, And After Training

Given aerobic training causes a great deal of fluid to be lost through sweat and body heat, it is important to drink water before, during (depending on the duration of training) and after exercising. Training aerobically without sufficient water intake (especially in the heat) may lead to dehydration and a reduction in performance so keep hydrated at all times.


To get into great shape, it is generally accepted that some aerobic training will be needed. However the type of training and the methods used will differ from person to person, and to achieve superior results it is important to select an activity that will work to ones best advantage.

It is hoped this article will have made clear the benefits aerobic training holds and the methods available.

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  1. Carerra, M & Vani, N. (2006). "The Best Exercise for Weight Loss."

About the Author

David Robson

As an active martial artist, bodybuilder and accredited personal trainer, David employs the latest cutting edge research to enhance his own progress.

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