If you do a Google search for “high intensity vs. low intensity cardio”, the first thing that pops up is a blip from an article written eight years ago that doesn’t exactly get its science right.
There’s been a lot of research and a lot of debate surrounding these two forms of exercise. Certain camps may swear by one or the other, others may say it doesn’t matter, many rarely or never perform any cardio at all. And according to what you’ll find searching the internet, you may find yourself even more uninformed than ever before.
But if you truly pit the two against each other, which one comes out on top? Is there a king of cardio?
The LEEP community wants answers! (I assume).
So I set out to highlight the pros and cons in the debate of high intensity vs. low intensity cardio. Is one better than the other? Can I achieve what I want to achieve using either one? Will I abide by the rule of three in this series of questions?
One answer you already have. For the others, keep reading.
High Intensity Cardio:
- Whether you’re tracking time or distance, high intensity cardio burns more calories than low intensity cardio. I used the example of walking vs. running in this video to explain this and why high intensity cardio is almost always better for burning calories.
- If you’re short on time, high intensity is the way to go. National guidelines recommend every adult get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (low intensity cardio) OR 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (high intensity cardio) every single week. So even if you’ve only got 15 minutes to spare 5 days a week, you can theoretically still meet those guidelines.
- High intensity cardio is typically more varied than lower intensity activities. Low intensity cardio usually involves a steady, consistent activity (walking, biking, etc.) that can start to feel monotonous after a while. In contrast, high intensity workouts are usually either a combination of fast, energetic movements, or the same movement performed at full tilt with short breaks in between. Either one of these methods helps to break up the monotony usually associated with cardio.
- It can be really, really hard. The goal of a high intensity cardio workout is to get your heart rate up to near maximal levels, which is quite uncomfortable for most people. As such, many people tend to avoid high intensity cardio altogether. You do get used to it, but it should never really get to the point where it becomes easy.
- It probably shouldn’t be performed every day. Highly vigorous work can be very taxing on your body. Unless you’re a high level athlete, most professionals won’t recommend true high intensity workouts on more than a couple days a week and will likely program at least one day off between sessions. That means you’ll have to find a less taxing mode of working out on those off days.
- High intensity cardio is not recommended for certain populations. People with heart or breathing conditions like asthma, older populations who are at risk of falling and breaking bones, and people with injuries that may be reaggravated should at the very least consult their physician before implementing high intensity cardio into their workouts.
Low Intensity Cardio:
- Low intensity cardio is easier, which isn’t normally what we look for in a workout, but that does come with certain benefits. First, it can be performed for a longer period of time. Most people won’t have any physical issues going for a brisk walk for 30 minutes or more. Being easier to perform also may make you more likely to actually do it consistently, which should be your main priority. Lastly, the overall impact on the body is much lower than that of most high intensity cardio activities, making for a faster recovery.
- There are some relaxing properties to lower intensity exercise. Yes, doing the same constant activity for a long period of time can get boring, but there are benefits to that too. Low intensity forms of cardio like walking (particularly walking outside) can be a great opportunity for you to clear your head, de-stress, or take time to appreciate things you may normally be too busy for.
- It’s a much better choice for beginners or those who can’t seem to stick to a routine. Almost anyone can find a form of low intensity cardio that they can do well without much practice. There’s no learning curve, so you can get right into it. Additionally, if you have trouble sticking to a workout program, there’s no sense in trying to jump into difficult and taxing high intensity workouts. They may be more effective, but if you can’t motivate yourself to do them, what’s the point?
- You’re going to have to put in a lot more time to see equivalent results. In the fitness world, you get out what you put in. So if your workouts always consist of unchallenging low intensity activities, you’re going to have to do a lot more of them to see the results you want. From the perspective of the national guidelines, for every one minute of high intensity cardio you do, you’d have to do two minutes of lower intensity cardio to match it. Do you want to work out twice as long every time?
- Did I mention it can be kind of boring? See above.
- Low intensity cardio has the tendency to make people get complacent. You may be on a consistent schedule of jumping on the elliptical for an easy 30 minutes five days a week… and you’ll be on that same schedule six months from now. How did you improve in those six months? What have you done to challenge yourself? If your goals are strictly health related, there’s nothing wrong with this, but if you have ANY sort of performance or aesthetic goals, you need to be consistently challenging yourself.
This your first time here? If you know me at all you know I’m never going to blindly state that one form of exercise is better than another for YOU and YOUR goals.
If you’re looking for aesthetic or performance-related results AND you can commit to it without hating it, high intensity exercise is going to be a better option for most people. Realistically though, there are many of you who may never be able to work up to or stay consistent with such a challenging form of exercise, and that’s fine.
If a lower intensity form of cardio is the type that you’re able to stay most consistent with, then roll with that. Performing moderate work on a regular schedule is worlds better than performing vigorous work every once in a while. Be careful though – don’t get complacent with your workouts if you expect to see real results. This is also not a free pass to never at least try higher intensity work to see if you’re capable of it.
Ideally your workout program will combine both high intensity and low intensity cardio until you find the right balance that works for you. Just don’t forget to add some strength training sessions into that program too.
So when it comes to high intensity vs. low intensity cardio, which is better? IT DEPENDS.
Welcome to the LEEP Fitness blog, where you won’t find easy answers, but you will find honest ones.