The fitness industry has created the narrative that high intensity exercise is the best way to exercise. The types of workouts that have you dripping in sweat, gasping for air, and wanting to puke by the end; think - spin, circuit training, sprinting, jumping. But are they really better for you?
In this article, we’re going to examine whether high intensity exercise is better than low intensity exercise. This will hopefully help give you an insight into how you can train for your goals, and any adjustments you can make like the right footwear to exercise safely and effectively.
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What is high intensity exercise?
High intensity exercise has become a popular way to exercise, commonly referred to as HIIT (high intensity interval training). This type of exercise includes: sprinting, jumping, circuit training, spin, rowing or other types of exercise that can be performed at your maximum energetic capacity.
HIIT involves exercising in rounds - periods of high energy output, working as hard as possible, with periods of rest. During max effort, you are exercising anaerobically - meaning without oxygen.
During anaerobic metabolism, the body uses glucose for fuel and adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is produced. Maxing out your energy output creates an excessive post exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), which means that your metabolic rate is elevated and you will be efficiently burning fat for up to 72 hours post-workout.
High intensity exercise fundamentally involves exercising at maximum capacity. If you try to work at this intensity for longer than a minute, it’s a clear sign that you are working aerobically and it’s not going to be building up ATP or creating EPOC.
What are the benefits of high intensity exercise?
- Time efficient
One of the key benefits of HIIT is how time efficient it is. As it’s only performed for 10-20 minutes, it’s easy to fit into your daily routine.
- Great for fat loss
Research has shown that HIIT is one of the most effective ways to drop fat. A study that examined the effects of a six-minute HIIT session found that the participants burnt up to 112 calories in the six-minute workout. But, due to the elevated metabolic rate, continued burning more calories over the next 24 hours, resulting in 457 calories burnt in total from this one six-minute workout.
- Improve oxygen consumption
HIIT has been shown to improve your muscles’ ability to use oxygen, known as your VO2 max. A randomized controlled trial published in 2016 found that after five weeks of HIIT, participants improved their VO2 max by 9 percent.
What is low intensity exercise?
Low intensity exercise may include: walking, cycling, yoga, pilates, golf, or some group sports like soccer. This type of exercise is performed at a lower intensity - approximately 60 to 79 percent of your heart rate max (HRM) - for longer periods of time, typically up to an hour or more.
This type of exercise doesn’t spike your heart rate, require efficient energy production, or create EPOC - and so has a different set of benefits and downsides when compared to high intensity exercise.
What are the benefits of low intensity exercise?
- Safe for your joints
Low intensity exercise is also low impact. Lower impact exercise is better for your joints, safe for all ages, experience levels and general health, and less likely to result in injury. This is a key benefit of low impact exercise as it is suitable for everyone.
- Promotes fat loss
Low intensity cardio is still exercise! During this type of exercise you are working in an aerobic heart zone known as the ‘fat burning zone’. You burn fat to use for energy during your exercise session, making it a great way to exercise to lose weight.
This was supported in a study published in 2009 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that tested for the maximal fat oxidation during exercise. The researchers found that 58.9 to 76.2 percent of HRM was the heart rate zone preferential for fat burning.
- Cardiovascular benefits
Low intensity exercise is one of the most effective ways to improve your general cardiovascular health. It helps lower blood pressure and clear the arteries by altering cholesterol levels. This reduces your risk of blood clots, stroke, high blood pressure and heart disease, according to research.
Those who perform low intensity exercise regularly have lower insulin levels, blood sugar and body weight, making them less at risk for cardiovascular diseases. In fact, studies show that even if you are currently overweight, aerobic exercise has a similar effect on your body to an individual at a healthy body weight.
Which is better for you: high intensity or low intensity exercise?
No one can deny the benefits of high intensity exercise, but it’s not suitable for all people. In nearly all cases, high intensity means high impact: commonly including sprinting or jumping. High impact exercise is bad for your joints, as it’s a type of repeated stress. The impact of a hard surface puts pressure and stress on your joints, which can increase your risk of injury, pain and inflammation.
While this is typically okay for younger, healthy people to do occasionally, it’s not suitable for:
- Older adults
- Pregnant women
- Those overcoming injuries particularly in the feet or ankles
- Those with preexisting health conditions like obesity, type II diabetes or asthma
- Those with foot conditions like metatargasia
- Wearing improper shoes - click here to learn how shoes should fit
Plus, the higher the impact of exercise, the more time needed to recover. During recovery, your appetite will likely spike as your body attempts to heal the muscle damage of the intense exercise session, and you will likely feel energetically drained.
That being said, high intensity exercise is a great way to lose fat and improve your VO2 max – a marker of heart and lung health. If you wear the right footwear, do not have known injuries, and practice it occasionally, high intensity exercise can be considered an extremely effective component in your workout routine.