The health benefits of low-intensity workouts

The pressure to have a “good workout” can be intense thanks to fitness trackers and social media influencers. For this reason, many people define a good workout as exercise that involves lots of sweat and a super-high heart rate — not a more moderate fitness routine like walking or yoga. But this is wrong.

Studies show that walking for just 21 minutes a day can reduce your risk of heart disease by 30%, while exercises like yoga can relieve chronic back pain and have tremendous benefits for your mental health.

In other words, that HIIT workout or slightly painful run might not be right for you — or even necessary, at least not for every workout. Experts shared what you should know about low-intensity exercise and why it’s just as effective as high-intensity activity.

It’s not necessary to reach your maximum heart rate for every single workout.

When it comes to your heart rate, which most fitness trackers measure, “tThere’s no need to train at your maximum heart rate,” said Andrew Jagim, director of sports medicine research at the Mayo Clinic Health System in Onalaska, Wisconsin.

To calculate yours maximally healthy Heart rate, you can subtract your age from 220, Jagim said. So if you are 45 years old you would subtract 45 from 220 to get a maximum heart rate of 175 beats per minute.

Most people’s heart rates (including athletes) stay between 60% and 80% of their maximum during cardio exercise — and that’s totally fine, Jagim said. He added that people who train at or just below their maximum heart rate (between 80% and 100%) shouldn’t burden themselves with a long, grueling workout. Instead, training at this intensity should last 15 to 20 minutes and include interval training.

Jagim said this might look like 30 seconds of maximum effort followed by a minute or two of light recovery, with your heart rate at 50% to 60% of your maximum for 15 to 20 minutes.

In this case, you don’t have to do hours of super-intensive training: a shorter period of time is even recommended.

There are clear benefits to slower workouts.

While many high-intensity workouts depend on timed interval training — like the 30-second-on, one-minute-off method mentioned above — lower-intensity workouts generally don’t, said RaGina McKissick, a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor at Lumos Yoga & Barre in Philly.

Lower-intensity workouts include walking, barre, Pilates, and certain dance classes, McKissick said. These activities can be done at your own pace to ensure you get all the benefits of the exercise.

“You can take as long as you want, which means you can focus on the other things that are so important like maximizing movement, full range of motion, mobility, flexibility, depth and strength,” she said.

Another benefit of low-intensity workouts is the ability to focus on and control your breathing, McKissick said. “Often during high-intensity workouts, people don’t know how to breathe properly and either tire very quickly or get dizzy or nauseous,” she added.

In slower, lower-intensity workouts, you can focus on your breath and even use that breathwork to manage specific movements, she said.

It's important to get moving every week, but it's not necessary to do a hard, heart-pounding workout every time.

LumiNola via Getty Images

It’s important to get moving every week, but it’s not necessary to do a hard, heart-pounding workout every time.

Incorporating different types of movement makes cross-training possible.

Adding low-intensity exercise to your fitness routine allows you to do cross-training, which is common among professional and collegiate athletes, McKissick said.

“You give yourself an opportunity to challenge yourself in a different way,” she said.

Some people who don’t do low-intensity exercise wonder why they’re not getting the results they’re hoping for from a high-intensity cardio-only program, McKissick said.

She explained that it’s “because if you’re always trying to walk so fast and just focus on cardio, you’re not allowing your muscles to get the benefit of the exercises you’re doing.”

It’s important to prioritize a workout that you can maintain and enjoy.

It’s easy to obsess over your heart rate when it’s showing up in big numbers on your fitness tracker, but unless you’re doing a very specific type of workout, there’s no need.

Reaching your maximum heart rate is only necessary for those trying to work at their maximum output. according to the American College of Sports Medicine. For aerobic fitness, basic endurance, and fat burning, you can stay within this 60% to 80% window.

“Don’t feel pressured to exercise at such a high intensity that the exercise is painful or not comfortable, as it’s not an indicator of long-term success,” Jagim said.

It’s important to listen to your body and do fitness programs that you enjoy and that include different types of fitness: strength training, cardio, and low-intensity exercise, McKissick said. And if a particular trend workout doesn’t work for you, that’s okay, she said. It’s more important to find a regime that you like and stick to it.

“There’s a difference between challenging yourself and pushing yourself too far in terms of fitness,” McKissick said.

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