Cardio, Yoga, or Pilates: Which is Best for Toning Up?

pilates class

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Think you need to leave drenched in sweat for a workout to be worthwhile? Crawling out of the gym gasping for air is the only way to see results, right? Turns out working out harder is not the only—or even the most effective—way to become the fittest, leanest, physically strongest version of yourself.

Some research suggests that people who lead busy, stressful lives should actually consider avoiding equally stressful cardio training. Intense exercise on top of an already hectic lifestyle can result in overproducing stress hormones like cortisol. An overload of this hormone can actually reduce the body’s ability to use fat as an energy source. So if you’re stressed all day and then stress your body some more at spin class, your efforts could be for nothing.

At the same time, these “less stressful” workouts still use up plenty of energy, and they are surprisingly effective at torching fat. While high-intensity exercise like sprinting on a treadmill can increase your metabolism, it could also prompt you to eat even more calories than you burned at the gym, whereas a more relaxed Pilates or yoga class won’t leave you starving. Who here has ever binged on carbs after a huge workout? Yep, same.

Pilates, cardio, and yoga all have a place in any fitness routine. Intense cardio has often been considered the sure path to quick results, but there's more to the story. We spoke to Shelley Dawson, a NASM-Certified personal trainer to find out how each type of exercise contributes to a healthy weight and active lifestyle.

Meet the Expert

Shelley Dawson is a National Academy of Sports Medicine certified personal trainer and director of the STOTT Pilates program at Sports Academy and Racquet Club in Logan, UT. She's also an E-RYT 500 Yoga Alliance teacher and has over a decade of experience teaching group fitness.


Although too much intense cardio can be detrimental to weight loss, it still plays a crucial role in our fitness regime. "Cardio will get the heart rate up, which depending on the type of cardio that you are doing, will use the energy in the body to burn calories," says Dawson. Why is this important? Because a healthy weight is all about balance. Calories are our fuel, but if we over fuel, weight loss will stall, or we can gain weight. If this isn't your goal, cardio can help tip the balance to your favor.

Cardio is also extremely versatile, helping stave off boredom in your workout routine. "There is something for everyone," says Dawson, adding that "science shows us cardio is good for our overall physical and emotional health. That doesn't mean we all need to do boot-camp style workouts or kickboxing. The variety of cardio is endless, so finding something you enjoy that you can be consistent with is the important part!"

For toning up, cardio can strengthen your whole body, depending on what you choose to do. "For the most part, cardio is going to work the whole body. All muscles, even if you're not doing major movements, will still be activated," says Dawson.

But don't neglect strength training. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends full-body muscle-strengthening activities at least twice per week. Luckily, you can easily combine cardio with muscle strengthening by performing bodyweight exercises or circuit workouts with weights. Anything that gets your heart rate up is considered cardio, so get creative.

While cardio can strengthen your heart and lungs, performing muscle strengthening exercises can help you tone up, increase your bone density, and prevent injuries. Try combining cardio and strength in one workout with circuit training using dumbbells, kettlebells, or bodyweight.


While the slow and controlled nature of Pilates does not lend itself to a high-calorie burn, this exercise method still contributes to weight loss and is one of the best ways to tone and strengthen your core muscles. "Pilates classes work the deep stabilizers, which a lot of times get overlooked in other workouts," says Dawson.

The focus of Pilates is on strengthening the core muscles as well as creating a balance of flexibility and strength. "This type of workout is for every body type and can bring attention to how we move in space not only in a class but in our everyday living. We learn to move with better balance, better posture, and can fix muscular imbalances with Pilates," Dawson adds.

However, Pilates doesn't just tone the core. You'll get a full-body strength sesh from a good Pilates class. "Pilates is going to make sure all core muscles are working. We are talking, abdominals, glutes, and inner/outer thighs. Tiny stabilizers in the shoulder, ankle joint movement, and spinal mobility will usually always be addressed in a Pilates class too," Dawson explains.

An additional benefit of Pilates is that it helps us perform better and more effectively in the rest of our activities, which could lead to easier weight loss and muscle building. "When the body moves efficiently, our other activities become better. So to run, bike, walk, or dance more efficiently is a great way to burn calories with the help of Pilates. It's like getting a better bang for your buck," says Dawson.


Yoga comes in many forms and can contribute to a healthy weight and toned physique in unique ways. For instance, hot yoga, due to the exposure to infrared heat, could burn up to 500 calories per class—and that’s without upping your cortisol levels in the same way a high-intensity circuit class might.

Certain types of yoga, like Ashtanga, focus on building strength, which will help you get that toned yoga-body and a lot of functional fitness to boost your performance in any daily task, from carrying groceries to climbing stairs. "Usually, a yoga class will work core muscles not just with physical postures but also with breathwork," says Dawson. The spine gets a lot of movement with a yoga class too, which isn't typical of a regular cardio workout. "The ability to work the legs and arm muscles is very prevalent in a yoga class, so don't underestimate it as a place to build strength," Dawson adds. So, if traditional weight lifting doesn't appeal to you, the controlled flow of Ashtanga or more modern Power Yoga could be the answer—you'll understand after dozens of chaturangas.

Yoga goes deeper than a regular cardio workout in a few ways. The emphasis on breathing techniques can lead to reduced stress and better focus. Dawson explains: "Breathwork in yoga is pretty much like collecting tools in a tool kit for real-life anxiety, stress, and depression. Yes, the body moves better and feels great after a yoga session, but the mindfulness is where the real results of yoga come in to play."

And with mindfulness comes a whole other slew of personal benefits for your healthy body goals that go beyond calorie burn. "Yoga is a mind-body format that depending on the style, can burn calories like cardio, but there is an element of mindfulness that can assist in weight loss far past the physical movement of the body," says Dawson.

Yoga can help people focus more on the present moment, bringing awareness to what you eat and how you move. "This mindfulness can also allow for more awareness of fullness levels and how much we choose to eat. A yoga class's benefits for overall health can become more of a lifestyle than a workout class one attends," Dawson explains.

Which Is the Best Type of Exercise?

In the end, whatever type of exercise you enjoy the most and you can stay consistent with is the best type for you. Getting cardio and muscle-strengthening exercise into your week are both essential for a balanced and healthy lifestyle. Building muscle is key to tone your body, which is attainable through cardio, Pilates, or yoga.

When it comes to fitting it all in, yoga offers the benefit of having so many varieties; you can do a different type several times per week to focus more on calorie burn, strengthening, destressing, and improving mobility and flexibility. "Finding a style that fits your personality is key, and the physical movement is a great counterbalance to many cardio classes that include sagittal dominant movements like spin or treadmills," recommends Dawson. This advice holds for any form of exercise you choose; as long as you enjoy it and it keeps you active, it's fair game.

Whether you choose cardio, Pilates, or yoga, or better yet—all three, whatever keeps you coming back for more sweaty, muscle-burning adventures is the best type of exercise for you.

Article Sources
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  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition. September 2019.

  4. Colorado State University. Researcher: ‘hot’ yoga yields fitness benefits. Updated July 15, 2014.

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