High-Intensity vs. Low-Intensity Cardio

For a stronger heart, smaller waistline and better mental health, everybody needs a little cardio training in their life, Chirs Carra’s tips on a cardio workout.

Whether that’s running, cycling, rowing, swimming or skipping, the possibilities are endless.

But how you do your cardio matters. In other words, the intensity at which you perform these activities is important in determining the outcome. In this article we take a look at the differences between high-intensity cardio and low-intensity cardio, and which style is better as you strive to reach your goals.

High vs. Low: The Difference

As the name suggests, low-intensity cardio – also known as low-intensity steady-state cardio (LISS) – is a form of aerobic cardio performed at a low to moderate intensity.

In LISS, you target a constant heart rate of around 60% to 70%, making it easier to sustain for longer periods of time. Typically, LISS could look like a Sunday morning cycle, a brisk walk, or a long run.

In practice, you should be exerting yourself, but not so hard that you are out of breath. You should still be able to hold a conversation with a friend.

High-intensity cardio, on the other hand, is completely different. In other words, forget holding any conversations – and definitely bring a towel!

Also known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), this style of cardio is about pushing yourself hard – to a heart rate of 70% to 90%.

Due to the energy systems of the body, high-intensity work like this is not sustainable for long periods of time. This is why HIIT is performed in intervals – such as 30 seconds of hard activity followed by 30 seconds of rest/recovery; a pattern that is repeated for around 20 minutes.


The Benefits of Both

Now we know what high- and low-intensity cardio are, it’s time to unravel the advantages of each and decide which is better for you.

With such intensity, HIIT is a huge calorie burner. Performed correctly, you will burn more calories with HIIT in a shorter space of time when compared to a lower-intensity cardio. Although, interestingly, the calories you burn include those you burn after the activity is over – the so-called ‘afterburn’, where your metabolic rate remains high.

For example, you may only burn 200 calories while performing 30 minutes of HIIT. But while you eat, shower and sleep afterwards, you end up burning more calories as your body attempts to restore itself to its resting state – so your overall calorie expenditure may end up being 700 to 800 in total.

High-intensity cardio is also seen as more effective for maintaining muscle mass while you lose fat, while it can also support and strengthen your cardiovascular system. The fact that all these benefits can be obtained within around 20 minutes a few times a week makes HIIT very appealing indeed.

But don’t brush aside low-intensity cardio, as it still has its benefits. For example, low-intensity cardio can offer a great exercise outlet for people of any ability. You could be a complete beginner starting out on a short jog every day, or a professional ultramarathon runner, running hundreds of miles a day. Both are forms of LISS.

This style of cardio can burn significant calories, although you have to do it for longer. In other words, at least 30 minutes multiple times a week to really see the benefits.

Perhaps most appealing, LISS can improve your body’s ability to use fat as fuel, which is a big plus for people wanting to lose weight, while maintaining muscle. Low-intensity cardio can also boost your heart health and endurance.

Finally, low-intensity cardio is easier to recover from. In fact, most people can work out in this way every day of the year, while HIIT requires more recovery time between sessions.

Which is Better for You?

As you may have guessed by now, there is no one winner when it comes the intensity level. Both high- and low-intensity cardio has a place in the fitness world.

If your goal is to lose weight, retain muscle and build your oxygen consumption all within a short 20-to-30-minute window, then go for high-intensity cardio.

If you are a beginner, or enjoy exercising with friends for pleasure, then low-intensity training is a great idea. The same is true if you are training for a specific event, such as a marathon or triathlon.

Which is better for you? It completely depends on your ability and goals, although you can enjoy both as part of a well-balanced exercise programme.


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