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Get more from your cardio workout with less effort.
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Get more from your cardio workout with less effort

You log mile after mile on the treadmill, or climb endless numbers of floors on the stair machine, yet for some reason you just aren’t getting the results you want from your cardio workout.

What most casual exercisers don’t know is that there are ways to work out more efficiently. Experts have tips and tricks that can help you get the most from your cardio routine without necessarily devoting more time to it.

How much time you spend exercising depends on your goals. The Surgeon General’s office contends that 30 minutes daily of accumulated activity—walking, climbing stairs, gardening—will produce certain key benefits (better stamina, stronger immune system and slower aging) of an “active” lifestyle. The next level of physical fitness, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), requires 20 to 30 minutes of sustained moderate exercise at least three times a week. This improves overall fitness. And if your goal is weight loss, ACSM recommends 30 to 45 minutes of moderate to strenuous exercise four times per week or more.

Even if your schedule doesn’t allow you to meet these guidelines, remember that any time you exercise is better than no exercise at all. Moreover, if you follow the tips below, you’ll learn how to make your workouts work harder for you.

Exercise Your Options
“It may seem obvious, but you should pick an activity you like to do,” says Jeff Bowman, a certified trainer and spokesperson for the National Federation of Physical Trainers in New York City. “If you dislike a certain type of exercise, training becomes drudgery and it’s harder to keep at it.”

If you don’t have a strong exercise preference, consider activities that involve more of the body rather than less. “The act of standing burns more calories than sitting, so right off the bat a treadmill is going to burn more calories than a stationary bicycle,” says Bowman. Likewise, a rowing machine, an elliptical machine with arm handles and a stairclimber all work both the upper and lower body, which means they help you burn more calories in the same amount of time.

Change Is Good
“Variety is the spice of exercise,” says Richard Cotton, a trainer and representative of the American Council of Exercise in San Diego, Calif. An exercise that’s repetitive can get boring, causing you to stray from your routine. In addition, “When you perform different types of exercise, you stress different muscles and joints, which strengthens more of them,” he says. “There’s a definite benefit to your overall fitness.” This doesn’t mean you have to jump from machine to machine every time you work out. It simply suggests that it’s good for both your body and soul to try something new from time to time.

More Is More
This truth is hard to ignore: The more time you spend exercising, the more calories you burn and the more muscle you build. It’s important to understand that it doesn’t require lots of time, simply duration in sustained activity. “The first thing you should increase in an exercise regimen is duration,” says Cotton. “And adding just a few minutes at a time can make a big difference.” If you exercise three times a week for 20 minutes each session, try bumping that up to 25 minutes. That extra 15 minutes spread out over seven days isn’t going to throw your schedule off, but it will have a beneficial effect on your training. If that’s not convenient, try this: Instead of exercising 30 minutes three times a week, try 30 minutes twice a week and 40 or 45 minutes on the third day.

“During the longer session you can exercise less strenuously,” says Shannon Entin, a certified training instructor and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Online Health and Fitness (Macmillan, 1999). “Mixing up the amount of time you spend working out makes a good cardio-building program,” because your body doesn’t have a chance to grow accustomed to your routine and start to run on autopilot.

Burn Baby Burn
“The biggest mistake I see people make in a training program is just getting on a machine and exercising at a leisurely pace while they read or watch TV,” says Entin. “If you want to see some improvement, you’ve got to push.” There are generally two ways to do that. The first is to increase resistance. If you work out on a machine that has varying intensity levels, try cranking it up a notch for a few minutes.

“Work up to the next level slowly,” says Cotton. “Each time you exercise spend a few more minutes at the higher level until you can maintain it for the entire workout.” Some of the preset programs on exercise equipment—like the incline on a treadmill—can help you gradually increase intensity throughout your session.

The second option is to increase your pace. Whether you run, ride or use the stair machine, try speeding up a bit. Use a portable heart-rate monitor, a built-in meter on a cardio machine, or simply time yourself to measure and maintain your increased pace. Just as with resistance levels, build up slowly until you can complete an entire workout at the new speed, then restart the process.

On Again, Off Again
“The single most effective means of exercise is interval training—changing levels of intensity throughout the session,” says Cotton. “It really stimulates your aerobic system.” Interval training involves repeatedly alternating one to two minute bursts of high intensity activity with three to four minutes of moderate activity. Many cardio machines—such as the treadmill, elliptical trainer and stair machine—have built-in interval programs. These are great for helping you maintain a well-balanced interval session. Otherwise, you have to do it by keeping one eye on the clock and varying the intensity on your own.

“You want to feel like you’re working at 80 to 90 percent of capacity during the high-intensity part of your interval training and 60 percent during the slower, or recovery, period,” says Entin. According to her, studies show that interval training increases heart rate so successfully that you continue burning calories for hours after you stop, whereas with more moderate formats, it’s only 20 minutes to an hour.

Get Pumped
The most effective training program doesn’t just include cardio work; it also includes resistance training, such as lifting weights. Studies show that in just eight weeks, the average person who does weight work two to three times a week gains 1.75 pounds of lean weight or muscle, and loses 3.5 pounds of fat, according to Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Mass. “Muscle also uses more energy just to maintain itself,” says Entin. “So having more muscle means you burn more calories consistently, even when you’re sleeping.”

None of this means you need to spend your time pumping iron and getting “ripped.” But 20 to 40 minutes of twice-weekly strength training that includes push-ups, pull ups, sit ups and deep knee bends will make a difference. “Everything works together to make you fitter,” says Entin.