Getting on a treadmill and trudging away at a mildly uncomfortable pace for 30 to 45 minutes isn’t most people’s idea of a great time. Still, this type of steady-state cardio has been a mainstay in the fitness community for decades. With HIIT and other forms of interval training promising better results in less time, though, you’ve got to wonder: Is it time to kiss the treadmill trudge goodbye?
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), the short answer is nope. That’s right, steady-state cardio definitely has its place. Here’s why it’s still worthwhile (at least for some people).
Why cardio, as a whole, is important
First things first, it’s important to recognize that cardiovascular exercise is important for all populations in every age, sex, gender, and disease or injury status, regardless of fitness-related goals. Cardio improves heart health and reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases and related risk factors including heart attacks, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and strokes. Given that heart disease remains the leading cause of death and disability in the United States, carving out time to fit in your cardio (regardless of what type of cardio you do), is one of the best decisions you can make for your long-term health.
Beyond heart health, cardio is also beneficial for just about every other system in your body. It promotes brain health, improves sleep, bolsters mental health and mood, boosts immunity, can improve your skin and digestive health, makes it easier to maintain or improve body composition, and can reduce or limit the risk of many chronic diseases, including some cancers, diabetes, and arthritis. So, regardless of whether you elect steady-state cardio or high-intensity interval training (more on that in a bit), some form of cardio should definitely be part of your workout routine.
The full rundown on steady-state cardio
Steady-state cardio is a “back to basics” style of cardio (think: the power walks your mom used to take in the ‘80s). “Steady-state cardio is a form of cardiovascular exercise that’s done for a prolonged duration—30 minutes or more—at a moderate pace. This means you should be able to have a conversation, but your heart rate should be up.
“If it’s a walk, it’s a power walk,” explains renowned bodybuilder and transformation coach Kris Gethin, co-founder of Kaged supplements. “It has to be at a consistent pace. Your heart rate has to be elevated and stay elevated at roughly 65 to 70 percent of your estimated maximal heart rate.”
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The need to get your heart rate up (and keep it there steadily) is why steady-state cardio is so frequently performed on cardio machines at the gym. Machine workouts make it easier to control and monitor your pace and heart rate, and provide fewer external distractions that could slow you down (like stoplights or running into your neighbor). Of course, you can also perform steady-state cardio while outside walking, biking, swimming, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or inline skating, just to name a few options.
A few benefits of steady-state cardio, specifically, include:
- It’s unintimidating. Almost anyone, at any age or stage of life, can safely and easily start a steady-state cardio program.
- It’s easy on the joints. Steady-state cardio is typically lower-impact, which means it’s less likely to cause pain or lead to injury.
- It requires little to no equipment. A fast-paced walk outside requires nothing more than a solid pair of walking shoes. While other forms of steady-state cardio may require a little more equipment or resources (like a bicycle or access to a swimming pool), it tends have a low barrier to entry.
- It requires little knowledge or know-how. Some forms of exercise can feel intimidating due to the equipment, form, or baseline fitness level required for success. With steady-state cardio, if you know how to walk, bike, or swim, you can find success with your routine.
- It’s good for your health. Again, steady-state cardio is a great choice when it comes to boosting all-around health and fitness.
That said, it does come with some drawbacks:
- It requires more time than HIIT. To reap the benefits of steady-state cardio, you really do have to carve out at least 30 minutes, most days of the week. (Although evidence does show that any cardio is better than none, so it’s completely okay to start with what you can do.)
- It doesn’t carry significant sports-related benefits. The health-related benefits of steady-state cardio are significant, but if you have sports-related goals, you may need to incorporate some form of HIIT (high-intensity interval training).
Why HIIT Has Become So Popular
Whereas steady-state cardio aims to keep your heart rate at a steady level for the duration of the workout, a HIIT workout aims to do the opposite. It alternates between vigorous, almost all-out bursts of effort that take your heart rate soaring, and follows them up with periods of lower-intensity exercise to help you recover before the next all-out burst.
“Your heart rate gets up toward your maximum, which is great—but it’s a little bit more anaerobic as opposed to just aerobic,” Gethin explains. This means that HIIT uses different energy systems to help fuel the movement, which makes it beneficial for other, sport-specific goals but can also make it less accessible (or desirable) for some individuals.
The major benefits of HIIT include:
- Health-related benefits accrue quickly. For individuals who are short on time, the heart- and health-related benefits of HIIT can be enjoyed quickly. Rather than trudging away for 30 to 45 minutes, a 15-minute (or sometimes less) HIIT workout can achieve the same benefits. This is because you’re working your heart and lungs more vigorously, which keeps your heart rate high during and following exercise.
- Calorie burn remains high post-exercise. When you place your body under stress during a workout, you’re not only amping up your metabolism as you exercise, but your metabolism remains high post-exercise as your cells work to recover and repair from the exercise-related damage. This excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) keeps your body burning calories at an increased rate for up to 24 hours after a HIIT session. For those who have weight loss or body composition goals, this can be beneficial.
- There are sports-related fitness benefits as well. In addition to health-related benefits, HIIT workouts can be designed to improve aspects of sports-related performance, like speed, agility, power, balance, coordination, and reaction time. If these benefits are important to your long-term goals (for instance, you want to be able to compete in a CrossFit competition or want to improve your PR in a 5k race), HIIT workouts are likely going to be an important part of your training protocol.
- You can “hit two birds with one stone” when it comes to training. HIIT workouts can be designed as solely cardiovascular workouts (for instance, alternating between bouts of all-out sprinting and walking), or they can combine strength training with cardio. If you elect to combine strength training with cardio in a circuit-like or superset format, you can fit in your strength workout at the same time as your cardio routine.
The drawbacks of HIIT:
- It can be uncomfortable. Many people, especially those new to fitness or who haven’t worked out in a while, find high-intensity exercise extremely uncomfortable. The heavy breathing, sweating, pounding heart, and burning muscles are enough to turn some people off to the idea completely.
- It’s not appropriate for all fitness levels or health statuses. While HIIT can be adjusted based on goals and starting fitness levels, for some people HIIT may not be advisable at all. If you haven’t exercised in years, have nagging injuries that cause pain, or have any health issue that your doctor is monitoring, it’s important to get clearance from a medical professional before starting a HIIT program.
Who should do steady-state cardio, then?
Really, there are few populations that steady-state cardio isn’t appropriate or beneficial for. It’s considered a classic for a reason—it will never go out of style! After all, steady-state cardio promotes all areas of health, is accessible and requires almost nothing to get started, and is safe for almost everyone.
Read More: Why You May Want To Skip HIIT When You’re Feeling Extra Stressed
“If someone has problems with their knees, for instance, and they don’t want to jog, then walking is going to be less impact; it’s a good way for beginners, individuals who are obese, and those who have been inactive for a long time and may not be able to do HIIT to get into cardiovascular exercise,” Gethin explains. Steady-state is also great for individuals going through any type of rehab. “It helps with the assistance of injury recovery,” Gethin says. “I’ve torn so many muscles outside of the gym, but the blood flow that’s carrying the amino acids to the localized areas of injury during steady-state cardio really helps with the healing process.”
The other population that should stick to steady-state cardio: bodybuilders. According to Gethin, this is due to the very specific goals that bodybuilders have; they want to maximize muscle mass and growth while minimizing any form of exercise that could have catabolic (muscle-wasting) effects, especially in the days and weeks leading up to a competition, when cutting body fat without risking muscle loss is so important. Steady-state cardio is a safe bet for this.
“What bodybuilders are trying to do is keep their cortisol (a stress hormone) levels as low as possible. They don’t want to be catabolic,” Gethin explains. “If you do HIIT or high-intensity exercise, then your cortisol levels are going to increase—and since cortisol is high during normal bodybuilding workouts, we don’t want to double or triple spike it by adding HIIT, too. Steady-state cardio is perfect for maintaining muscle while shedding the excess calories stored in body fat.” It’s no wonder bodybuilders don’t quit on their steady-state routines despite loving to hate them.
Who is HIIT best for, then?
On the other hand, HIIT training certainly has its place and carries many benefits that are worth considering. “People who are trying to increase their cardiovascular fitness may benefit from HIIT. When I’ve done ultramarathons, Ironman triathlons, or Spartan races, I’ve done a lot of HIIT work,” says Gethin. “However, I make sure I’m in a calorie surplus when doing so because I want to make sure I’m reaping the benefits of HIIT without burning muscle. HIIT work like sprints helps improve your lactate threshold and your FTP (functional threshold power) levels to increase your cardiovascular fitness so you can be faster.”
Basically, if you’re healthy and active and feel ready to push yourself toward greater sports or fitness goals that require speed, power, and agility, HIIT is for you. Those who are short on time and who want to reap the health-related benefits of cardio (and maybe combine cardio with strength training into a single workout) should also consider this form of exercise.
That said, because it’s more intense and can be more intimidating and harder on the body, it’s a good idea to talk to a trainer about how to get started in a way that will help rather than harm.
The Bottom Line
There’s no denying that steady-state cardio offers plenty of benefits—and without some of the potential hurdles and drawbacks of HIIT. Sure, those extended bouts on the stair-stepper may be easy to dread, but they have their place!
At the end of the day, though, the type of cardio you choose doesn’t really matter from a health standpoint, as long as it’s done consistently and properly. Whether steady-state cardio is your jam depends on a slew of factors related to your personal health and fitness goals and your current fitness level.