You know you need to do cardio to stay healthy and manage your weight, but you can never seem to find enough time between work, family and social obligations. The good news is you don't need to spend hours plodding away on the treadmill — you just need to choose the right workout.
Activities that use more muscle mass and that involve some sort of resistance will be more taxing and burn a greater amount of calories. In addition, the harder you push yourself, the more you'll burn. Take a look at our top 10 picks for cardiovascular exercises that give you the most bang for your buck.
1. Sprint Intervals
Running, biking or swimming at a steady state are among the best calorie-burning exercises, especially if you're just starting out. But upping your pace during your workout will increase the burn even more. A 155-pound person will expend roughly 465 calories per half hour of running at 7.5 miles per hour, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Increasing your pace in intervals is one of the best ways to torch calories. "Sprinting burns a massive amount of calories, but it can only be kept up for a certain amount of time," explains Jim White, American College of Sports Medicine spokesperson. Try alternating between two minutes at an all-out pace (or the fastest you can sustain for that long), and then recover with one minute of jogging, White recommends.
2. Tabata Training
Tabata training is a high-intensity exercise modality that burns a lot of calories in a short period of time. The protocol consists of doing 20 seconds of work at an all-out pace, followed by 10 seconds of recovery. You repeat this eight times. Almost any activity can be performed in a Tabata-training style.
A typical Tabata workout might include four exercises — for example, push-ups, squats, jumping rope and crunches. Although the first round might seem easy, just wait. By round eight, your muscles will be screaming! A typical Tabata workout (usually 20 to 30 minutes) can burn an average of 15 calories per minute, or 450 calories per half hour, according to the American Council on Exercise.
3. Rock Climbing
Every muscle in your body, from the tips of your fingers to the ends of your toes, is working when you're climbing a rock wall — whether you're in a climbing gym or the great outdoors. The large muscles of the back and legs are the primary movers, requiring energy in the form of calories to get you from bottom to top.
A 155-pound person climbing for 30 minutes cuts approximately 409 calories, according to Harvard Health. Climbing at a good pace or on a really challenging route makes this one of the best calorie-burning exercises — and muscle-strengthening, too!
Swimming is not only a total-body workout but also a calorie-torcher. Your legs, arms and core work together to keep your body afloat for a serious level of muscle recruitment.
But your stroke choice can make a difference. A 155-pound person burns 372 calories in 30 minutes doing the breast stroke, according to Harvard Health. But that same person doing the butterfly stroke for 30 minutes will shed 409 calories.
Where you swim makes a difference too. "Swimming in the ocean where you're going against the current — that would be a really, really intense workout," White says.
5. Hill Workouts
Whether you're biking or running, throw some incline in the mix to significantly boost your workout. "Running up a steep hill recruits more muscle fibers," White says. "It's going to be taxing, and it's going to definitely burn more calories."
In fact, you'll shed about 10 percent more calories for each degree of incline versus running on a flat surface, according to Harvard Health. That means a 155-pound person running at a five-miles-per-hour pace will burn 373 calories every half hour at a 5-percent grade versus 298 calories at the same speed on a flat surface.
Get those glute muscles firing even more and up your calorie burn at the same time by incorporating more hills into your workout. Think about consciously using your butt to help you climb higher; you'll strengthen your mind-muscle connection, too.
You already know running is hard, which might be why you've been avoiding it. But barring any physical limitations like illness or injury, consider incorporating this form of cardio, as its a quickie calorie-burner.
"Because you're moving your body over the ground, running typically has higher rate of caloric expenditure than a lot of other exercises," says Andy Doyle, PhD, associate professor of exercise science at Georgia State University. Running at a steady pace of six miles per hour, a 155-pound person can burn 372 calories in 30 minutes. The faster you run, the more calories you'll lose.
7. Jumping Rope
Although it may have seemed effortless as a kid, jumping rope is a highly taxing activity that most people can't sustain for more than a few minutes at a time. It's one of White's top picks for big-time calorie-burning workouts. "When you're jumping like that, it's almost like full sprinting," he says.
A 155-pound person can burn 372 calories in 30 minutes, according to Harvard Health. But, because it's hard to perform for an extended period of time, White recommends jumping in intervals, where you jump rope vigorously for a few minutes and then recover by jogging in place for a minute or two.
"Rowing is one of the biggest calorie-burners," says White. "You're using your legs, your shoulders, your back. It's continuous; it's one of the chart-toppers." In fact, rowing uses nine major muscle groups, including the hamstrings, quads, glutes, core, lats, shoulders, back, triceps and biceps.
Of course, it all depends on the intensity at which you row and where you're sweating it out. Rowing inside on an ergometer, where conditions are controlled, may be less challenging than rowing on a lake on a windy day. A 155-pound person rowing on an ergometer at a vigorous pace can burn about 316 calories per 30 minutes, according to Harvard Health.
9. Cross-Country Skiing
Cross-country skiing is a winner on Doyle's list of best calorie-burning exercises. He explains that like running, you're moving your body over the ground when you're cross-country skiing, which automatically ups the intensity.
"But now you're using your arms — poling — as well as your legs with the skis," he adds. "If you look at doing that going uphill versus on a flat, then that increases the rate of energy expenditure even further." A person who weighs 155 pounds can drop 298 calories cross-country skiing for 30 minutes.
If you don't know what burpees are, first, be thankful. For the uninitiated: A burpee is a full-body exercise that entails squatting down, kicking your feet out into a push-up position, doing a push-up, jumping your feet back to your hands, then jumping up into the air and reaching your hands over head. Whew.
Just doing one or two is no big deal, but doing them continuously for a period of time gives you a serious workout. Although difficult to quantify in terms of calorie burn because of all the variables, burpees involve all the key ingredients: full-body muscle recruitment, resistance and intensity.
A 155-pound person can burn 298 calories doing vigorous calisthenics, similar to burpees, for 30 minutes. If 30 minutes of burpees sounds like your personal hell, break them up into intervals interspersed with another activity such as jogging or jumping rope.
What Exercise Burns The Most Calories?
Regardless of the exercise, your calorie burn depends on your intensity. "If you're short on time, your best bang for the buck is to go at as hard an intensity as you can for whatever time period you have," Doyle says. For best results, use a heart-rate monitor, fitness tracker or an app like LIVESTRONG.com's MyPlate to get a more accurate estimate of your workout.
While these exercises will help you torch calories fast, don't push past your limits. Especially if you're trying a new form of exercise, ease into the workout and listen to your body before you increase the intensity. Burning calories is a good start, but you won't do yourself any favors if you end up injured!