Get the skinny on high-intensity v. steady-state cardio workouts
Walk the dog, drop off the kids, drive to work, and cook dinner for the family: a typical day is non-stop action — but did you squeeze in exercise? If your free time is tight, high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, is the most efficient training that you can choose for your weekly health routine. Yet, not everyone is able to or should go all in out of the gate. Here, local experts talk about the pros and cons of high and steady cardio workouts.
Why the Hoopla Over High-Intensity?
HIIT is any workout that alternates between bursts of activity at a maximum effort and brief periods of less-intense activity or rest. To point, a Tabata — one type of HIIT workout — features eight 20-second intervals of intense work, such as sprints, pushups, pull-ups, etc., followed by 10 seconds of rest.
“From an efficiency standpoint,” says Dr. Sam Rougas, a cardiologist with Aurora Denver Cardiology Associates at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center, “you can get as much bang for your buck doing a 10-minute interval session (20 seconds on, 10 seconds off) as in a 1.5-hour run.”
HIIT increases VO2 thresholds (the maximum rate of oxygen consumption) at a greater level and more quickly than standard moderate-intensity exercise, or longer duration training sessions. HIIT also stimulates hormonal changes, reports the Journal of Sports Medicine & Doping Studies.
“Human growth hormone also increases, which is responsible for burning fat, so HIIT is a phenomenal way to lose weight,” Rougas says.
Furthermore, HIIT increases cardiovascular strength faster than steady-state cardio, improves insulin sensitivity (which causes the body to utilize sugar more efficiently), decreases blood pressure and cholesterol, creates afterburn (the continued burning of calories after exercise), and reduces abdominal fat.
The downside: HIIT is painful. “You pay for efficiency in terms of discomfort,” Rougas says. HIIT can also be risky for de-conditioned athletes. Inaugural HIIT trainees should consider gradually increasing the exercise intensity, working with a physical trainer, and having a heart evaluation before a full HIIT workout.
For some folks, HIIT isn’t an option or the best exercise choice due to safety or comfort.
Enter: Steady-state cardio workouts, which require moderate efforts for 45 minutes or longer and meet the recommendation of the American Heart Association (AHA), as well as the Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
Steady-state training improves cardiovascular endurance sans stress on the cardiovascular system, and improves health by decreasing blood pressure, stress and anxiety.
For those with a heart health history, diseases, or injuries, experts also recommend you consult a physician to determine safe exercise guidelines.
“Neither HIIT or steady-state is the best way to work out,” says Vivian Griggs, personal training coordinator at Greenwood Athletic and Tennis Club. “A comprehensive workout plan should include both and be individualized. Someone’s pace during a steady-state long run might be the maximum pace during another person’s high-level intensity workout.”
The best routine is one that sticks.
“The key is to make any activity fun, like softball or ballroom dancing,” Rougas says. “Then, you’re much more likely to do it.”
For overall cardiovascular health, the American Heart Association recommends adults perform:
- 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity 5 days per week
- 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity 3 days per week (+)
- Moderate to high-intensity strength activity 2 days per week
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