By Gabriela De Almeida
Nowadays, there seems like there’s an overabundance of information online about the best ways to lose fat and get in shape. A majority of that information can be confusing and contradictory, making you feel overwhelmed. Are abs really “made in the kitchen”? Will cardio actually make you lose muscle? Will you “bulk up” if you lift weights? It can often feel like finding the perfect workout routine is nearly impossible. Experts say a mixture of cardiovascular exercises, resistance training, and a healthy diet is the best way to lose weight and get in shape.
Darcie Burde, assistant director of fitness for University of Florida’s Department of Recreational Sports, says that when it comes to choosing the right cardio workout, “the first questions I would ask any person is, ‘what type of movement do you enjoy doing?’”
As human beings, we have an innate tendency to be in motion, so more often than not, each person has a certain type of movement they prefer doing, she says. Enjoyment is key, and enjoying your workout is the first step to sticking with a routine and achieving your fitness goals.
An essential step to achieving any fitness or weight loss goals is learning about the benefits and disadvantages of exercises you enjoy, and then figuring out if it’s a right fit for your fitness or weight loss goals. Everyone has a different goal, body, and preference.
Cardio should be a top priority for overall wellness because it helps prevent chronic disease and improve health and quality of life, says certified personal trainer Jennifer Nields. Poor cardiorespiratory fitness is related to an increase in risk of premature death particularly from cardiovascular disease, she says.
When it comes to cardio exercises, the right fit for you will depend on your age, current activity level and caloric intake, among other factors. In general, there are two types of cardio workouts: endurance training and high intensity interval training.
Endurance training, also known as steady state cardio or low intensity steady state (LISS), is done by exercising for a long, continuous period of time with a low level of exertion. During LISS cardio, you maintain your heart rate in the aerobic zones, which is around 60 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate, for the entire duration of your workout. Each steady state workout should range from 30 to 45 minutes.
LISS is the opposite of high intensity interval training (HIIT), which is described as training at full exertion for short bursts of time with rest periods in between. Since you maintain a low heart rate during LISS workouts, your body will be primarily burning body fat for fuel. When your heart goes into anaerobic levels, like in HIIT, you primarily burn glucose, according to a 2014 study published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition & Metabolism. Although you are burning calories in both types of cardio, maintaining your heart rate in the aerobic zone ensures that your body primarily burns fat as its source for fuel.
Anaerobic exercise like HIIT occurs with higher intensity, so it typically cannot be sustained for very long. Aerobic exercise like LISS occurs at a lower intensity and can be sustained for longer periods, says Nields, who is also a weight loss expert.
Aside from burning fat efficiently, LISS cardio provides a wide range of benefits:
Endurance training increases stroke volume, or the amount of blood pumped per heartbeat, and heart contractility, which is the forcefulness of each heart contraction, Burde says. This increases oxygen supply and blood flow, which increases heart performance during exercise, and over time, improves cardiovascular health.
It’s easy to stick with
Not only is LISS cardio extremely beneficial to your health, it’s easy to do–so it’s great for beginners. Since LISS cardio doesn’t put very much strain on your body because you’re exercising at a low intensity, it can be done multiple times per week. Steady state cardio is effective for weight loss as long as you are reaching a high enough intensity and are including other forms of exercise throughout the week. If your goal is weight loss and you are exercising at moderate-to-vigorous intensity, Nields recommends exercising three to five times a week.
LISS cardio can be done while taking your dog for a brisk walk in the park, or watching an episode of “Friends” while climbing the stair stepper. There aren’t many types of exercises that can be described as relaxing, but the low intensity of LISS (compared to HIIT) makes it quite enjoyable–that is, unless you’re choosing to study for midterms while you walk on the treadmill.
It can be done during recovery
Because LISS is so low impact, it’s a great way to still fit in some exercise when you’re sore from weight training or HIIT. LISS increases blood flow, which speeds up damaged-muscle recovery. Similarly, it reduces post-workout stiffness and soreness because the increased blood flow helps remove chemical irritants responsible for pain.
It’s easy on joints and preexisting injuries
LISS cardio is especially effective for people with preexisting injuries or joint pain because it’s low impact. LISS is done at a cruising pace and does not require you to put too much strain on your muscles. People with preexisting injuries who are unable to perform high intensity exercises can still maintain cardiovascular health doing lower intensity cardio.
The disadvantages of LISS cardio are the same for any singular type of exercise, Burde says. Eventually, a person can plateau in a single modality and feel bored if there isn’t enough variety in his or her routine. That’s why it’s important to vary your routine, she says. LISS, particularly, can become monotonous because it takes longer than most other workouts. However, LISS cardio can be done in a variety of ways so it’s very easy to switch things up.
“As an individual progresses and improves their cardiorespiratory fitness, the most effective training programs include variety,” Nields says. “It is important to do steady-state cardio as well as interval training throughout the week.”
LISS cardio workouts can include: slow jogging, power walking, incline walking, cycling, rowing, moderate hiking, moderate swimming, stair stepper machines and elliptical machines. As long as you’re exercising at 60 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate continuously for at least 30 to 45 minutes, you are getting a great LISS cardio workout.
Cardio is a crucial part to reaching weight loss and overall fitness goals. Rachel Mennis, a 23-year-old preschool teacher and soon-to-be nursing student, has been doing a rigorous workout routine for about nine months. She started with mostly resistance training but says she didn’t see major results until six weeks later when she began supplementing her workouts with cardio exercises.
“Once I started adding LISS and HIIT, my results got real and so did my confidence,” she says.
For her LISS workouts, Mennis walks on the treadmill at a 3.5 speed setting and a 15 percent incline for 35 to 40 minutes.
“I sweat like crazy!” she says. “It’s a nice way of working out, especially when you want to clear your head.”
She also spent some time jogging as part of her LISS workouts, and says it helped her train for her first half marathon.
Low intensity steady state cardio not only helps you see real results from working out, but it can prevent diseases and improve your cardiovascular health and quality of life. The key to exercising efficiently is finding what works best for your fitness goals, and varying your routines to avoid boredom and enjoy your workouts.
“Keep trying and pushing,” Mennis says. “Once you see results, it’s addicting and it doesn’t get easier–you get stronger.”