How To Use Cardio For Fat Loss

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There are many ways to skin a cat and there are just as many ways to exercise for fat loss. And we’d recommend the latter much more than the former. Underpinning all those exercise methods is the concept of creating a calorie deficit, where you burn more calories than you consume.

For advice on how to use cardio exercise to help you burn fat effectively, and how it compares with other forms of exercise, we spoke to Rachael Penrose, personal trainer with interactive home fitness mirror VAHA.

What kind of cardio is best for burning fat?

In general, burning fat is about calories in, calories out. A lot of people tend towards HIIT [high-intensity interval training] because it spikes your heart rate more drastically than, say, a long, low-intensity workout. You can get more out of a shorter amount of time, which I think is what everyone’s looking for these days.

Is it better to work at a high heart rate?

You’re going to see more effect if your heart rate spikes at a higher level, which is what a HIIT workout is designed to do. You work at 70% and above of your max heart rate. If you’re at 50% to 65% of your heart rate max, it’s going to take longer to burn the same amount of calories.

Is there an advantage of steady cardio at a lower heart rate?

You can last for longer because you’re not going to be able to keep up a higher heart rate for a longer period of time.

I think HIIT is the go-to for fat burning because it’s getting the job done quicker – most people don’t want to spend over an hour in the gym or doing a workout. But if you have the time and you don’t want to train at such a high intensity, then drop the heart rate and extend the time. It balances itself out and you still burn the same amount of calories.

Can you do any kind of HIIT?

Yes, you can use free weights or your bodyweight. It’s more about starting and stopping. That means 45 seconds on, 15 seconds off; or 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. It’s about going hard in that moment of work, briefly resting, and going hard again.

Can anyone do HIIT?

Everyone can do a HIIT workout. If you’re a beginner you might be better off with a low-impact HIIT workout, so you’re not putting too much stress on your joints, and maybe start with lighter weights and a longer resting period. I would definitely say get a trainer or go to a class, so you’ve got someone there that can tell you what to do and correct your technique as you do it. They can also help with the right level of intensity. You don’t want to go hard, then struggle and not be able to finish the workout.

How often should you train?

It depends on the person. If you’re a complete beginner, I’d say three times a week to start, but if you’re quite active and trying a different form of workout, maybe four to five workouts a week.

You can also change your HIIT workouts to be more strength-based or more cardio-based, and it’s good to alternate between different styles. Some can be bodyweight – so jump lungessquatsburpees, that kind of thing – but the same high-impact, jumping moves five days a week is a lot on your muscles and your joints. With weights, try weighted squats, chest presses, biceps curls – just go a little slower.

How long should the workouts be?

Anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour. A lot of people find 30 to 45 minutes is a great duration because then you can push yourself. As soon as you get over an hour you start to slow down and you probably need more rest periods.

Is a heart rate monitor useful if you’re looking to burn fat with HIIT?

Yes – not to judge yourself against other people, but to understand your own body and to understand how hard to push yourself. [See our recommendations for the best heart rate monitors and best budget heart rate monitors, or use a fitness tracker with a heart rate sensor.]

How important is your diet when trying to burn fat?

You can never out-train a bad diet. When you try to lose fat, it’s calories in vs calories out. Exercising helps you burn calories, but if you’re going to put crap, high-calorie food into your body, you’re going to find that you’re still eating too many calories overall, while a healthier diet means that you can eat more. A packet of crisps is a lot of calories compared with some cucumber and hummus.

Find out more about interactive fitness mirror VAHA and its range of on-demand and live classes, as well as PT sessions, at

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.