HIIT vs Cardio - Which is TRULY Better

Losing weight often entails lots of time doing a specific type of exercise: cardio. Sure, some can lose weight just fine through dieting, but cardio is most commonly suggested if food itself doesn’t get the job done. And cardio is chosen for good reason. It’s simple to do and burns a relatively solid amount of calories.

But, as many of us can attest to, cardio does get boring rather quickly. Thus, in the past decade or so, a less tedious alternative has sprouted with great success: High intensity interval training, or HIIT for short. If you fancy a detailed breakdown of HIIT, feel free to check out my other videos on HIIT first.

For those of you watching now, consider this video as kind of an update. Now, in the past, I’ve touted the use of high intensity interval training over that of low-intensity steady state cardio like jogging. The main reason, by far, is that HIIT supposedly elicits greater weight and fat loss while using only a fraction of the time. In today’s world, where most certainly time is of the essence, this would be huge.

And in short, this claim does seem to hold some weight, particularly when looking at a metric like fat burned per minute of training. A meta-analysis in 2019 measured just that, finding that steady-state cardio achieved roughly a 0.0026% “fat loss per minute” compared to HIIT’s 0.005%.

So, in a way, HIIT does have a time advantage. Speaking of advantages, though, it doesn’t stop there. HIIT has also shown to be better than regular cardio in improving many measures of cardiorespiratory fitness, including VO2max, overall time to exhaustion, peak power, and improved time trials. In specific clinical conditions, such as individuals with diabetes or hypertension, HIIT was able to better improve factors like glycemic control and diastolic blood pressure.

So, in an overall health and athletic fitness standpoint, HIIT seems to carry quite some edge over standard cardio. But, if we take a closer look at fat and weight loss, the benefits aren’t as clear-cut as we might think. Sure, when looking at fat loss per minute of exercise, HIIT takes the lead. But we have to acknowledge that we can more easily perform steady-state cardio for much longer periods, which, over time, can quickly make up the difference in fat loss and calorie burn.

Now, HIIT advocates, including myself, would say that wouldn’t matter much because HIIT also increases something known as EPOC, excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. The belief is that, since HIIT is so intense, it will require more oxygen and energy AFTER the workout, aka EPOC, in order to recover from it. This additional energy burn supposedly would compensate for its shorter duration. Although it is true that HIIT does increase EPOC more, the research shows that it doesn’t really mean much.

A 2016 study found that, yes, HIIT did indeed elicit a greater EPOC, 110 calories, versus steady state cardio’s 64 calories within 3 hours post-workout. However, EPOC rates leveled out during the third hour. But more importantly, when you include the calories burned from the workout itself, HIIT then falls short. With exercise plus EPOC, HIIT burned on average 271 calories versus steady-state’s 348. Now, to circle back to fat loss, the previously mentioned 2019 meta-analysis did in fact find, in terms of absolute fat loss, HIIT did perform better than steady state cardio across 15 studies. However, when we look at total body fat PERCENTAGE across 36 studies, both of them achieved relatively the same percent fat loss.

Now the reason why absolute fat loss is higher is not entirely clear. But the fact is, in relative terms, which some would say carries more meaning, both seem to get the job done. And finally, let’s dive into one more crucial point:

The matter of adherence, of enjoyment, is often glossed over when deciding the best option in fitness, even though many quit their goals due to the lack of adherence. We can touch base on this a little more through a 2018 meta-analysis that highlighted measures of enjoyment through three different enjoyment scales.

Out of the three scales, only one, the Exercise Enjoyment Scale, found that subjects moderately favored HIIT over standard cardio. The other two, however, which was used by many more and a more diverse collection of studies, found subjects to favor HIIT by a much smaller degree, almost even for both. And it’s these near-equal feelings of enjoyment that needs to be considered. In short, in terms of adherence, steady-state cardio is not for everyone nor is high intensity interval training.

Now, let’s revisit: Is HIIT actually better than steady-state cardio? Like before, I would still say yes. When considering every aspect of the two, good and bad, HIIT does seem to stand slightly above standard cardio. That being said, steady-state cardio is still a great option. It’s less intense, which can bode favorably for those that do not respond well to high intensity cardio. In fact, studies do show that HIIT can cause more episodes of nausea, vomiting, and lightheadedness.

Regular cardio is also great for beginners that need to work on their coordination and overall fitness first before going balls to the wall. And, do note that HIIT might require more recovery time due to its intensity. Other than these factors, though, HIIT has the edge. Athletes most definitely should consider HIIT. Also, those that are strapped on time would benefit from 10 to 20-minute HIIT sessions versus hour-long jogs. 

If you’re looking to improve certain cardiometabolic health factors, like blood pressure and heart rate, then HIIT can do that too. Keep in mind, though, that much of the success of HIIT found in studies hinged heavily on subjects being supervised. So, if you’re fairly new to HIIT, you probably will benefit from professional support like a personal trainer guiding you through it. But, once again, to close, what matters most is choosing the one that YOU prefer and YOU can stick to the best.

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