Why Low-intensity Exercise is Important for Building Your Foundation

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The need for low-intensity aerobic exercise (or low-intensity cardio) is often overlooked. Exercising too hard, too often is surprisingly easy.  Maybe you are short on time, so a hard 30-minute workout is your go-to. You want to feel the burn and sweat, because those are signs of a good workout, right?

The past decades have seen any number of training programs and trendy workouts, completely centered on high-intensity activities. However, low-intensity steady-state (LISS) exercise, aka going easy, is as important to your overall fitness and well-being as any other kind of exercise.

While there is no doubt that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) burns a lot of calories, going hard all the time can do more harm than good. Low-intensity aerobic exercise is needed to complete the picture.

Mastering Low-intensity, Steady-state Activities

It is important to recognize there are two facets of LISS training: low and steady. A brisk walk, Nordic walking, jogging, cycling, rowing – these are all great LISS activities. The key is to keep the pace slow enough to stimulate the health benefits of an active lifestyle without putting a huge strain on your body.

LISS, however, is more than just low-intensity aerobic exercise. You really need to keep it steady and not overexert. This means minimizing big and sudden changes in intensity, where your anaerobic energy system kicks in to make up the difference. If you head out for an easy bike ride but climb a couple of hills on the way home, make sure you climb at a reasonable pace. If you are not paying attention, you may find your heart rate is too high.

Also bear in mind that your “low” intensity varies. A stressful day at work, illness, spring-time allergies – anything that adds stress may require you to drop your LISS activity down a notch. On the other hand, a great day (and better fitness) may mean your typical LISS session is too easy, and you need to pick up the pace.

The general recommendation for LISS activities is to keep your heartrate at no more than 70% of your maximum heartrate. Duration can be anything from 30 minutes two hours or more depending on your overall fitness level.

Short of spending all your time staring at your heart rate monitor, a good rule of thumb for LISS exercise is keep it conversational. Socializing while exercising is not only good for the mind and soul, it is a really good indicator that you are keeping things easy. You can talk because you are not breathing hard. If you can’t get more than a couple of words out to answer your friend, slow it down.

What are the Benefits of Low-intensity Exercise?

For everyone, beginners and athletes alike, LISS exercise provides essential time for the body to build a strong foundation. This is the source of your good health, your endurance and your ability to improve your fitness, including using your body’s energy resources effectively.

Hard exercise demands quick energy, and the quickest (aerobic) source is carbohydrates which can be quickly broken down into sugars for consumption. During high intensity workouts, your body uses carbohydrates which are easy to break down. It takes too much time to convert fat into sugars for your body to burn fat during heavy exercise.

With a strong foundation, however, your body learns to better tap into all sources of energy, including fat, while exercising. If you have trained hard recently, a LISS session also helps you recover while still contributing to your foundation.

If you are just starting exercising or getting back into the routine after an extended break, LISS training is your best entry point. Injury is less likely, and you don’t run the risk of overtraining which can wipe out your energy and motivation. Low-intensity training can be done daily, helping you build up a routine and develop good habits.

Studies also indicate there is a link between physical activity and mood. All forms of exercise help you generate endorphins which contribute to positive feelings like the “runner’s high.” There are differences, though, in other respects. High-intensity exercise stimulates emotional processing. Low-intensity activities, on the other hand, seem to support cognitive processing, as this recent study shows.

Getting the Right Balance Between Low- and High-intensity Activities

So, how do you know if you are getting in enough LISS time? This is where the science and number crunching come into play. There are no hard rules about how much time you should be putting in exercising at different intensities. That is because the rules are entirely personal and depend your current fitness, age, where you are in your training program, your fitness goals, etc.

Firstbeat developed Training Load and Training Load Balance to help you stay balanced and ensure you are getting enough training time at different intensities. Using advanced heartbeat analysis, these features extrapolate the physiological impact your training has on your body and guide you towards optimal training regimes.

The target is to balance three types of exercise: low-intensity aerobic (LISS), high-intensity aerobic and anaerobic.  Across the board, no matter how fit you are, you should spend the least amount of time doing anerobic exercise. Generally, most of your training will be spent in the other two: low and high-intensity aerobic.

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