The Promise of Low-Intensity Cardio (Goodbye, HIIT?)


If you’ve noticed a shift toward lower intensity workouts, you’re not alone. Suddenly, people are opting to walk on the treadmill or take a restorative yoga class over participating in a hardcore bootcamp or HIIT workouts.

Fitness experts are noticing the trend toward low-intensity cardio (sometimes also called low-intensity steady state, or LISS), too. “I feel the current trend of LISS has a lot to do with the increase in stress that we as people are experiencing more and more over the years,” says Jeffrey Duarte, MA, a certified strength and conditioning specialist at New York Sports Science Lab. “People are realizing that they can feel good, lose weight and manage stress through LISS rather than feel exhausted, stressed and out of breath for a long period of time through HIIT.”

People are also learning they can’t meet all their goals through high-intensity exercise.

“If we look at the science behind HIIT and low-intensity cardio, we see that they elicit very different adaptations,” notes Ryan Fairman, an exercise physiologist and owner of Continued Performance.

In other words, HIIT and low-intensity cardio have different effects on the body. “People are starting to realize that both need to be done in order to have a more wholesome and complete training regimen.”


So what’s so great about taking things slow? Well, first, there’s the convenience factor. “I’ve long been a believer that walking is a great addition to any fitness regime,” says Rob Jackson, a certified personal trainer and founder of Minimal Fit. In fact, walking is probably the best example of low-intensity cardio. “It’s very easy to do without having to go to the gym or break a sweat, so it can be included in the daily commute or with friends and family on the weekend.” Plus, it helps people struggling to fit working out into their lives find a middle ground. “All too often, we live at the extremes,” Jackson points out. “Extremely stationary (office chair) or extremely active (HIIT at lunch). Our bodies have spent thousands of years being somewhere more in the middle, so walking is a great way to address that imbalance.”

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”HEX 0073bb” class=”” size=””] More people are realizing that little and often is the key, which means that regular short walks can easily be included and counted as exercise. [/perfectpullquote]

What’s more, lower-intensity exercise is incredibly accessible, Jackson says. “Although HIIT is very effective, it’s also not always possible for some people who are not as active. HIIT is very intensive, and those new to exercise can find it intimidating and embarrassing in the beginning. More people are realizing that little and often is the key, which means that regular short walks can easily be included and counted as exercise.”

Most important, low-intensity cardio keeps your heart healthy. “A strong aerobic system increases your heart’s efficiency by increasing stroke volume and lowering the heart rate,” says Julian Sisman, a certified strength and conditioning coach. “This helps you maintain a higher level of cardiac output for longer periods of time.”

Low-intensity exercise may also help improve your quality of life overall. “Low-intensity cardio can help decrease the sympathetic drive (fight or flight, anxious, on edge) and promote more of a parasympathetic (rest and digest, relaxed) response,” Fairman explains. “This means that, over time, individuals tend to notice better sleep, recovery and less stress because they tend to be more relaxed.”

Lastly, LISS makes it possible to stay active and recover safely at the same time. “Low-intensity cardio workouts allow you to get in more days of training rather than go hard one day and then spend two or three days immobile from so much soreness and fatigue,” Duarte says. This goes a long way toward preventing injuries, too.

“If someone gets tired but continues to train, their body needs to adjust its efficiency to simply get through the workout. This is not ideal, because form will always falter, which means specific muscles will take over to help support muscles that are weaker. In doing this, you could eventually cause pain and injury,” Duarte explains. If you have a solid aerobic base thanks to low-intensity cardio, though, it will be harder to make yourself fatigued, which means you can work out at a higher intensity safely.


How hard should you work when you’re doing low-intensity cardio? Ideally, you want to keep your heart rate between 120–140 BPM, Fairman says, depending on your fitness level.

As for which activities to try, he suggests a leisurely bike ride, brisk walk or light swim. “Any piece of cardio equipment (elliptical, treadmill, arc trainer, bike, rower, etc.) can also be used, but you must ensure that the intensity stays low. For most of my clients, I recommend something that they enjoy doing, which ranges from cardio at the gym to basketball.”

If you’re wondering how often to do low-intensity workouts, that depends on your current fitness level. “If you are a high-level athlete, it is safe to assume that you are most likely training 4–6 days a week,” Duarte says. In that case, he recommends one or two days of lower-intensity cardio.

“If you are someone starting out, completing two or three days of lower-intensity workouts for the first two weeks along with some other workouts would be ideal,” Duarte explains. Then, you could slowly add in higher-intensity work while keeping one or two of your workouts each week low intensity.


Unfortunately for LISS lovers, experts don’t recommend skipping high-intensity workouts altogether. “Incorporating fluctuations in intensity is the smartest thing to do,” Duarte says. Plus, he points out, doing a mix of the two also makes things less boring and therefore, you’re less likely to fall off the bandwagon.


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