While high-intensity intervals might be all the rage when it comes to exercise, there's still a place for low-intensity cardio in your life. In fact, if all you want to do is low-intensity cardio, then more power to you — there are plenty of benefits to be had from it.
What Is Low-Intensity Cardio?
Low-intensity cardio or light cardio refers to any physical activity that doesn't raise your heart rate very high. You should be able to talk or sing while exercising, Dr. Meagan Wafsy of Massachusetts General Hospital told the American Heart Association. As a comparison, moderate-intensity exercise refers to physical activity in which you can speak but not sing, and when doing high-intensity exercise, you can't speak in full sentences.
Potential low-intensity cardio options include walking, yoga, tai chi, riding a bike and swimming, provided that you don't go too fast or too hard, but you do it for a prolonged period of time. Keep in mind that low-intensity doesn't equal low-impact cardio, which refers to activities that don't put stress on your joints, no matter what the intensity level.
Low-Intensity Cardio Myth
Cardio equipment has long indicated when a person was in the "fat-burning zone," which was supposedly correlated with low-intensity exercise. However, low-intensity cardio doesn't necessarily lead to higher fat-burning potential, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
Although your body uses a higher percentage of fat as fuel when you're exercising at a low intensity, you burn more calories overall when exercising at a high intensity. More calories burned means more fat lost overall. However, just because you don't necessarily burn more fat when doing low-intensity exercise, that doesn't mean you can't reap other benefits.
Improved Insulin Sensitivity
Just one session of low-intensity exercise can improve a person's insulin sensitivity in people with diabetes, concluded a study published in September 2013 of Diabetes Care. Obese participants expended just 350 calories while exercising at 50 percent of their VO2 max. Insulin sensitivity refers to how effectively the cells in your muscles are able to use insulin to use glucose for energy.
Better Balance for Older Adults
Low-intensity exercise improved balance and low limb muscle strength in adults age 65 to 85, showed a review of studies published in October 2015 in Sports Medicine. Additionally, more than half of the studies reviewed supported the conclusion that low-intensity exercise decreases the risk and frequency of falls in older adults, which is a major cause of injuries, such as bone fractures, and mortality.
Decreased Waist Circumference
If you hate high-intensity exercise but want to lose inches, here's good news: Low-intensity exercise decreases waist circumference just as effectively as high-intensity exercise, concluded a study published in March 2015 in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Researchers assigned participants to four groups, one of which was 30 minutes of low-intensity exercise. All of the groups, except the control group that didn't do anything differently, lost an average of 4 centimeters from their waist.
Read more: Recommended Amount of Cardio Exercise
More Enjoyment While Exercising
High-intensity exercise gained popularity because it takes less time to complete. However, the best type of exercise is the one that a person sticks to — and that just might be lower-intensity options, according to research published in December 2015 in the Journal of Sports and Science in Medicine.
In the study, the researchers found that people who participated in lower-intensity, steady-state cardio enjoyed the time spent exercising compared with those who did a tabata workout, a type of high-intensity interval training. Therefore, the study authors concluded, HIIT might be more time-efficient, but it's not necessarily superior than low-intense cardio.
- ACE Fitness: "Boost Your Endurance With Low-Intensity Workouts"
- NASM: "Myths of Weight Management: You Have to Exercise at a Low Intensity to Burn Fat"
- Diabetes Care: "A Single Session of Low-Intensity Exercise Is Sufficient to Enhance Insulin Sensitivity Into the Next Day in Obese Adults"
- Sports Medicine: "Effect of Low-Intensity Exercise on Physical and Cognitive Health in Older Adults: A Systematic Review"
- American Heart Association: For the Best Health, Does the Intensity of Your Workout Matter?
- Hippocampus: "Low‐Intensity Daily Walking Activity is Associated with Hippocampal Volume in Older Adults"
- American Journal of Physiology: "Habitual Exercise Decreases Systolic Blood Pressure During Low-Intensity Resistance Exercise in Healthy Middle-Aged and Older Individuals"
- Plos One: "Minimal Intensity Physical Activity (Standing and Walking) of Longer Duration Improves Insulin Action and Plasma Lipids More than Shorter Periods of Moderate to Vigorous Exercise (Cycling) in Sedentary Subjects When Energy Expenditure Is Comparable"
- Journal of Sports and Science in Medicine: "The Effects of High Intensity Interval Training vs Steady State Training on Aerobic and Anaerobic Capacity"
- Annals of Internal Medicine: "Effects of Exercise Amount and Intensity on Abdominal Obesity and Glucose Tolerance in Obese Adults: A Randomized Trial"
- American Diabetes Association: "Blood Glucose and Exercise"