High-intensity exercise — think HIIT and CrossFit — has been the darling of the fitness world for the past several years, says Jonathan Jordan, a personal trainer and founder of Jonathan Jordan Fitness. But lately there's been a growing movement to embrace exactly the opposite kind of workout — dubbed "slow fitness."
It is by no means a new concept, but it's seen a resurgence, thanks to masses of tired, sweaty bodies looking for a break from their Orangetheory and SoulCycle classes.
Rather than pounding out a set of sprints, maybe you go for a hike. Or you might literally slow down each weight-lifting rep to fatigue the muscle in a different way. "It's sort of like 'The Tortoise and the Hare' that we read in kindergarten," says Jacqueline Kelly, a sports psychology consultant and personal trainer with Kelly Performance & Wellness in Colorado.
Going slow and steady just might help you win the fitness race.
Where High-Intensity Workouts Fall Short
There's nothing wrong with having jumped on the high-intensity bandwagon. These types of workouts have been shown to burn fat, boost endurance and improve your overall athletic performance in a fraction of the time of a regular gym session.
But the problem is that working out that hard every single time can lead to injury and burnout. "Exercise is stress. There are good stresses and bad stresses, but if you push yourself too far, exercise becomes a bad stress," Kelly says.
"Once it becomes a bad stress, it's all of those other things we hear about: You're not recovering fast enough, you're not sleeping well enough, your cortisol levels get too high and you're not seeing the results you want."
If you're overtraining, HIIT can backfire and lead to things like body-fat retention, fatigue, a less-efficient immune system and injury, Jordan says. So killing it every time you work out not only isn't safe, but it may not get you any closer to your goals.
The Benefits of Slowing It Down
Slow fitness is easier to start, easier to maintain and easier to pick back up after you've fallen off the wagon, Kelly says. After all, you don't have to psych yourself up nearly as much to go for a 30-minute walk around the neighborhood as you do to blast through a set of burpees.
And depending on where you are in your fitness journey, lighter activities may be more doable. A 2016 study published in the journal Diabetologia found that walking about 11 miles a week improved blood glucose levels among people with prediabetes nearly as much as an intense exercise, diet and weight-loss regimen.
In some cases, working out more slowly has an edge, since exercising at a lower intensity puts you in an aerobic state, which burns fat at a higher percentage than anaerobic exercise. A 2012 study published in the American Journal of Physiology found overweight, sedentary men who burned about 300 calories a day through exercise lost about the same amount of weight after 13 weeks as the group that burned 600 calories through exercise each day.
The researchers suspect the latter group ended up eating and sitting more, likely because they were worn out. Those who worked out for half the time and burned half the calories, on the other hand, stayed more active throughout the day.
Jordan has seen the benefits of slow fitness firsthand. He'd been doing hill sprints a few times a week in an effort to get rid of stubborn belly fat. "I fell into the HIIT trap," he says. "My body became accustomed to the stress, and I plateaued."
Only after he switched to walking at a slight incline on the treadmill two to three times a week for eight weeks did he find success. Initially, he worried the less-challenging workouts would be a waste of time, but he ended up losing three pounds of body fat.
The slow approach can be applied to strength training too. Kelly recommends taking a full four seconds to lift each biceps curl, and then lower at the same pace. "You're not only able to contract the muscle more, you reduce the chances of injury and you're more mindful of what you're doing," she says.
That more mindful state (especially if you're outside) could reduce stress and put you in a better mood. A 2017 study published in the journal PLOS ONE found going for a hike outside significantly boosted study participants' spirits and decreased fatigue and anxiety when compared to people who spent the time sitting or on a treadmill indoors.
How to Make Slow Fitness Work for You
Jordan says the problem many people run into is getting stuck in a routine — for instance, hitting the same elliptical machine and giving it the same effort for the same number of minutes for months on end.
You're better off switching things up. Try hopping on the rowing machine or lifting weights at a steady effort to keep things exciting while increasing your heart rate, Jordan says.
A good rule of thumb is to get uncomfortable during the workout and increase the time and the distance for a few workouts a week so it remains challenging, Kelly says.
The Downside of Slow Fitness
Here's the catch: Exercising at a lower intensity means it'll likely take longer for you to see results. "Will you lose the weight as fast? Probably not as fast as if you did something that was high intensity," Kelly says. But, Kelly expects you'd see the same results eventually and predicts you'll be able to maintain them longer (there's that tortoise-and-hare analogy again).
As with many things in health and fitness, balance is key. "There are certainly still days and times when you can go and do something more intense," Kelly says, like if you're training for a race.
But at the end of the day, "the people who [exercise at a] lower intensity have fewer injuries and more longevity," Kelly says.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you prefer short, high-intensity workouts or longer, more mindful workouts? Or do you mix it up? Are you a fan of this slower approach to fitness? Is it something you'd try? Or are you committed to high-intensity workouts? Let us know in the comments below!
- Effects of exercise training alone vs a combined exercise and nutritional lifestyle intervention on glucose homeostasis in prediabetic individuals: a randomised controlled trial
- Body fat loss and compensatory mechanisms in response to different doses of aerobic exercise—a randomized controlled trial in overweight sedentary males
- Affective responses in mountain hiking—A randomized crossover trial focusing on differences between indoor and outdoor activity