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High Intensity Cardio vs Low Intensity

The controversy among fitness professionals about the benefits of high-intensity versus low-intensity cardiovascular exercise causes more confusion than it should.

Both types of cardio workouts have benefits and drawbacks, and if you combine them correctly, you can maximize the benefits and minimize the drawbacks.

HIGH: (between 75% and 90% of the maximum heart rate)

Some people work out with trainers who kick their butts. Their clients scream, sweat, hobble around the gym and then can’t move the next week. 6 weeks later, they look great. They’ve lost weight quickly.

The only problem is that many of them hate exercise now. For them, it's more like torture at a high price. The main drawback is the injuries that can be sustained from the unnatural forces put on joints and muscles.

These kinds of workouts are common for actors and models who have to get in shape temporarily for filming, but for an average person who wants a permanent change in lifestyle, a program of high-intensity sessions can be discouraging.

LOW: (between 50% and 75% of the maximum heart rate)

For weight loss and general conditioning, lower intensity workouts are the best way to get results. Fat is your primary source of energy when your heart rate is between 50% and 75% of your maximum heart rate.

You are able to spend more time with your heart rate elevated because the low intensity doesn't wear you out as quickly as high-intensity cardio.

The comfortable pace will foster consistency by leaving you looking forward to your next workout.

The most effective and cost-efficient mode of this type of exercise is walking. With a good pair of shoes (running shoes are more comfortable even for walking), injuries are rare.

If you have more time to spend, you can get similar fat-burning benefits of higher intensity cardio. It just takes longer. An hour of walking burns close to the same amount of calories as a 30-minute run.



Cardiovascular strength is increased.

Your anaerobic threshold is pushed higher (pumping up the natural fat-burning capability).

Insulin levels are reduced.

Calories are burned at a very high rate – about twice as much as low-intensity activities.

Results are fast.

Endurance is gradually increased.

A high percentage of fat vs. carbohydrates is burned.

You’re more likely to continue working out.

Exercise is more enjoyable and sociable.

Injuries are avoided.

You can exercise for longer periods of time.


Exercise sessions can only last until you poop out.

Knee, ankle and hip injuries are common.

Burnout happens quickly.

The quick weight loss tends to come back when normal life resumes.

Endurance is difficult to build.

Happiness in exercise is harder to find.

Results will come slower (Remember the general rule: the slower the fat comes off, the longer it stays off).

Anaerobic threshold isn’t challenged adequately enough to build cardiovascular strength very much.

A good cardio plan should include both low- and high-intensity segments. Low-to-moderate intensity exercise should be the base of your routine. Enjoy the benefits of low-intensity exercise for a majority of your workouts. Then throw in occasional surges of higher intensity levels a couple of days per week.

Here’s one way to combine the two:

During your hour of walking, spend 2 minutes walking faster (or jogging) for every 5 minutes of walking at your usual rate. As your fitness level increases, you can increase the time you spend in the higher intensity. Your lower intensity will gradually increase because your heart and muscles will be stronger. This will push your cardiovascular fitness to higher levels.

Benefits of a low/high intensity program

More calories are burned than in a low-intensity-only program.

The anaerobic threshold increases, building cardiovascular strength.

Easy workouts allow for rest and endurance-building.

Workouts are varied and interesting.

Rest between surges allows you to work out for longer.

Injury is avoided.

Results are fast.

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