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Get more out of your cardio workouts

Janice McDuffee is a graduate of news-editorial journalism from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She now works in freelance writing and editing.

Smarter Cardio

It is a common scene at every gym, women spending many sweaty hours every week on cardio equipment in hopes of, on their own, reaching their fitness goals. Are you one of them?

Woman on Treadmill
Have you avoided getting a personal trainer because of financial reasons, time constraints, or fear of becoming a muscle-bound hulk? You'll be thrilled to know that you really can lose weight and tone up without being a cardio junkie, even without a personal trainer. Here are a few tips from fitness expert Raphael Calzadilla from eDiets.com.

DON'T TRUST THE CALORIE COUNT

It's tempting to monitor your workout by the number of calories the machine says you burn, but Calzadilla says that this is the least efficient reading of a successful workout.

There is a standard formula programmed into cardio machines that, depending on the type and brand of the machine, can overestimate the number of calories you burn by 15 to 30 percent.

Machines that are weight bearing, such as elliptical trainers and treadmills are more accurate than a stationary machine like the bikes. But, an accurate reading of calories burned depends on your body composition and fitness level, neither of which the machine can detect.

For instance, a fit woman at 120 pounds with 20 percent body fat can burn calories more effectively than a less fit woman at the same weight with 30 percent body fat.

The more fit you are, the harder you can work and, because you have more muscle mass (as opposed to fat) than a less lean same-weight woman, you will burn more calories.

However, less fit people often burn more calories than fit people doing the same activity because fit people don't have to work as hard to do the activity and end up expending less energy. This is where monitoring your heart rate becomes key.

WHAT YOU SHOULD BE MONITORING

If you are like most women, you may not know your body fat percentage. If that is the case, focus on the intensity of your workout, and the time spent in your target heart rate zone. Most machines have heart-rate sensors that can grab (your heart rate will appear on the machine console) or you can wear a heart-rate monitor.

Many machines also have a chart that shows target rate ranges based on age. For best results, it is usually recommended for you to stay in your target heart rate range for 30 to 45 minutes to get an optimally heart-healthy and fat- and calorie-burning workout.

Calzadilla says, however, to be cautious that you don't exceed an hour of cardio because this can negatively affect your body by burning lean muscle, which will actually slow down your metabolism.

Different Cardio Machines – Same Results

Running is one of the best cardio workouts. However, not everyone is made for running, even if it is on a more forgiving treadmill versus hard concrete. Fortunately, you can get equally intense and effective workouts on other pieces of cardio equipment.

If running on the treadmill is too arduous and you prefer an elliptical trainer, you can match the intensity of running by extending the time or increasing the strides per minute and resistance on the elliptical.

Calzadilla gives the example: If a women is 150 pounds running at 5.2 mph, she will burn around 300 calories. If a woman at the same weight wanted the same results on the elliptical trainer, she could work at 160 strides per minute at a resistance of 8 or 9 to match the intensity.

However, the big key is to make sure your heart rate stays in the same range when you do cardio, regardless of the machine, in order to get effective workouts across the board.

You can burn calories in shorter durations if you work harder or you can work less intensely and go longer. Calzadilla asks his clients, "What do you like doing? If you don't want to go at an increased speed, go 40 to 45 minutes instead of 30."

WHAT ABOUT THE FAT BURNING ZONE?

Ever noticed the "fat burn" setting on your favorite cardio machine? Unfortunately, this setting is also inaccurate according to Calzadilla, "It's a marketing hype...There's no such thing as a magical fat burning zone." Typically, the "fat burn" mode will give you a modest cardio workout, keeping your heart rate at the lower end of your range.

The popularity of the fat burning zone arose from the fact that your body indeed burns a higher percentage of fat during your workout but the caveat is that, because your aren't working that hard, you will burn less total fat than if you were to work out at a higher intensity.

Try Interval Training Instead

Intervals are much more effective in burning fat than low intensity exercise that barely gets your heart-rate up, even if you do like spending long periods of time on cardio machines.

If you want to optimally burn fat, Calzadilla suggests the interval setting, which is similar to the interval training he gives his own clients. Interval training can boost your metabolism, and, best yet, its effects can be seen 24 to 40 hours after an interval workout (low intensity cardio does not have the same long-lasting effects).

The training Calzadilla's clients undergo begins with a five minute warm-up, followed by continually varying the intensity by increasing the speed to maximum, moderate, and maximum again. For example, work hard for 1 minute then recover at a moderate intensity for 2 minutes and repeat, or some similar variation.

MIX IT UP WITH WEIGHT TRAINING

While cardio is a crucial component of an effective workout plan, Calzadilla emphasizes that his most successful clients also incorporate weight training, which accelerates fat loss.

His women clients frequently fret that they will become bulky, and he assures them that the possibility of their bodies getting huge like Arnold Schwarzenegger is slim. The reason is simple, he explains, "Women have much less testosterone than men."

For more information on effective work out programs, Calzadilla recommends online programs like eDiets.com, and he also highly recommends working with a personal trainer. Check with your local fitness facilities to find the right trainer for you or visit American Council on Exercise to find a certified trainer in your area.

Here are a few more links to check out:
Get fit quick with kettlebells

Five exercises for a sexy back

Three exercises for gloriously toned glutes

Five exercises for fabulous legs

Tighten your tummy with these three exercises

10 reasons to hire a personal trainer

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