How to Build a High-Intensity Weight Loss Cardio Workout Program

Setting up an effective cardio program for weight loss can be confusing. The guidelines of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) suggest moderate-intensity exercise for 30 minutes of five days a week or 20 minutes of vigorous cardio exercise three days a week to reap the health benefits. In order to lose weight, the ACSM recommends working up to 60 to 90 minutes of activity several days a week.

What the guidelines don’t explain in detail is how to set up a routine that incorporates a variety of workout intensities, activities, and durations. If you only do slow workouts, you not only risk boredom, you may experience slower weight loss. Working harder forces your body to adapt by building more stamina while also burning more calories.

But too many high-intensity workouts can lead to burnout, overtraining, or even injuries. The key to a well-rounded cardio program is to include all levels of intensity each week so that your workouts don’t get stale and your body isn’t always doing the same thing all the time.

Benefits of Cardio

Incorporating cardio workouts into your exercise regime can have many benefits and can lead to improved health and wellbeing.

Lowers Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

Cardio exercise is, as the name suggests, a way to benefit your cardiovascular system. Studies have proven that increased levels of exercise can benefit your heart and lower your risk of cardiovascular diseases. A 2021 study even found that the benefits of physical activity on cardiovascular health are limitless. Study authors found that there is no threshold at which physical activity does not benefit the heart.

Enhances Sleep

Sleep and exercise are intricately tied together. You need good sleep to support exercise, and regular exercise leads to better sleep. A 2021 study found that a 60-minute cardio session can reduce the amount of time it takes a person to fall asleep and overall improves sleep quality.

Boosts Mood

A 2019 scientific study explored the effect of physical activity and mood, and found that adding 15 minutes of vigorous activity (such as running) or 60 minutes of lower-impact activity (such as walking) can reduce the risk of depression.

Improves Brain Health

Alongside physical benefits, studies have found that cardiovascular workouts also aid in brain health. A 2020 study reported that cardiorespiratory workouts — ranging from walking to running and biking — slow the reduction of brain gray matter volume, which happens naturally when we age. By increasing cardio workouts, researchers concluded, study participants decelerated brain aging.

Set Up a Weekly Cardio Program

When mapping out your weekly cardio workouts, you’ll want to include three different intensity zones so you hit all your energy systems without overdoing it or spending too much time at an uncomfortable intensity (which may turn you off of exercise). You’ll want low-moderate intensity workouts, moderate workouts, and high-intensity workouts.

Low to Moderate Intensity Workouts

This is between 60% to 70% of your maximum heart rate, or a level 4 or 5 on the perceived exertion chart. You should be able to talk easily. This type of workout could be:

  • A slow bike ride
  • A leisurely walk
  • A leisurely swim
  • Light strength training

Low-intensity exercises should be done at a casual or leisurely pace. These can be great exercises for those with joint issues, as they generally do not put as much stress on your joints as high-intensity workouts.

Moderate Intensity Workouts 

This is between 70% to 80% of your maximum heart rate, or a level 5 to 7 on the perceived exertion chart. You should still be able to talk, with some effort. Examples of this type of workout:

  • Brisk walking
  • Step aerobics, Zumba, or other types of aerobics
  • Light jogging

By picking up the pace, you’re able to level up the intensity. When performing moderate intensity workouts, you should work up a sweat. Moderate intensity workouts can also be sports. Tennis, for example, can be a moderate intensity exercise which requires brief periods of quick movements or sprints.

High Intensity or Vigorous Workouts

This is between 80% to 90% of your maximum heart rate or a level 8 or 9 on the perceived exertion chart. You should have difficulty talking. Examples:

High-intensity workouts pack quick movement into short bursts and are generally followed by periods of brief rest. While higher in intensity, HIIT workouts tend to feature shorter moments of movement, but at increased power. You should be breathing hard when finishing a high-intensity workout session.

To monitor your intensity, make sure you keep track of your target heart rate or use a perceived exertion chart.

Build a Cardio Routine for Weight Loss

Below is a chart detailing a sample week of cardio workouts for a person who exercises six days a week. This is simply an example of how to incorporate different types of cardio workouts into a typical week. Modify the workouts according to your own fitness level, time constraints, and preferences.

Day Intensity Length Sample Workouts
Mon High intensity 20-30 min Sprint interval HIIT workout
Tues Moderate intensity 45-60 min Brisk walking or jogging
Wed Low to moderate intensity All day Use a pedometer and try to get 10,000 steps
Thurs Moderate to high intensity 30-60 min Treadmill workout
Fri Moderate intensity 30-45 min Cardio endurance intervals
Sat Low to moderate intensity 30-60 min Walking or a long bike ride
Sun Rest All day None

Start slowly, if you’re a beginner, and work your way up to this level of exercise. How much you need is based on a number of factors, including your fitness level, age, gender, and your goals. Be sure to warm up before each workout and cool down after. Stay hydrated, and stretch after your workouts.

Cardiovascular exercise has many benefits beyond weight loss, such as improved heart health and decreased risk of chronic disease. If weight loss is not your primary goal, you can still garner the effects of these workouts.

Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Paige Waehner, CPT

Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the “Guide to Become a Personal Trainer,” and co-author of “The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness.”

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