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Exercise: High or Low Intensity?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Over the years, I've experimented with intense exercise for short periods and low intensity for long periods for weight loss. 30 minutes 'jogging' on the elliptical versus 1 or 2 hours cycling, for example. Which one was better?

In the beginning when I first started, it was either. Just getting up and doing anything seemed to work. But I eventually reached diminishing returns.

These days, a mix of both is ideal. From my observation, though, I'm going to say low intensity exercise for longer time works better for losing fat.

There's a lot of controversy about the so called 'fat burning zone'. Exercising at low intensity burns a higher percentage of fat than high intensity. But high intensity burns more calories.

From my perspective, HI helps more in maintenance as the calories burned will be less likely to persist as stored fat. But when weight loss is the goal, LI is ideal for trimming off stored fat.

However, LI exercise requires more time invested, which is prohibitive for many people with jobs and families to juggle. Higher intensity exercise can reap benefit in 30 minutes. Studies consistently show that the true fat burning efficiency from low intensity exercise doesn't kick in until at least a hour. This seems to explain why my 4 hour day hikes on the weekends used to shred fat at a superior rate to my weekday gym rat schedule.

Spark and most dietary opinions believe that short but high intensity exercise is just as good as long and low intensity. There are countless articles about the 'fat burning zone' myth. If you are short on time, definitely some exercise is better than none, and I am certainly a fan of HIIT. However, my personal opinion is to not completely dismiss the low intensity exercises. Just make sure to do them for a longer period of time. A two hour walk on the beach or at the park with the dog or kids may just be the trick to boost a weight loss stall.

But as I've repeatedly stressed, the best exercise still won't reap reward without a good diet to go with it.
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    I definitely agree that HI is better for maintenance. This is especially important to remember as folks grow older -- less muscle means a slower metabolism. But if we can keep our bodies strong, our metabolisms won't slow down as much.

    And, of course, it's also important to think about what each kind of cardio does for your body. Long, moderate workouts help build stamina and endurance, in addition to burning a higher proportion of calories from fat. High intensity training helps build strength and speed, in addition to providing a quick calorie burn. I know you already know that, but it's good to remember!
    1975 days ago
    I usually find that I end up at about an hour or so total time, with 20 minutes on the treadmill and the rest with strength training. Mine is usually a slow long workout because I do not run on the treadmill, but I put the incline up to at least 2.5% and am slowly working up from there... It all depends on how my body is feeling for that day.
    1979 days ago
    I like both, if I have the time long, steady state workouts are great (and I love to hike....) but for efficiency when time is limited and good HIIT workout does wonders too.

    And a healthy diet is key...
    1980 days ago
    double-post bummer!
    1981 days ago

    Comment edited on: 10/17/2012 2:29:17 AM
    I think both are important, but time constraints drive me towards short/hi-intensity workouts.

    The other benefit of getting your heart rate up higher though is increased cardio-vascular stamina, better known as "wind". When I work hard at hi-intensity levels, I can tell that many other things (e.g. climbing stairs, carrying groceries, etc) are much easier too, so it does have an added fitness benefit
    1981 days ago
    I try to balance both too! i think they both have different things to offer.
    1981 days ago
    Thanks for the reminder that, yes, I can out eat any amount of exercise! I find a variety of styles and intensities is better for my ADD addled brain!

    But if I don't sweat, I find it hard to count as helping me to lose weight or gain muscle.
    1981 days ago

    Comment edited on: 10/16/2012 9:16:04 PM
    I haven't tried it lately, but what seemed to work really well for me when I was not overweight at all but looking to shed body fat was doing two workouts a day. I did a longer workout in the early morning, the bulk of which was strength training, but in the evenings I would do something a bit less intense--a 45 minute jog, a nice bike ride, something of that nature. Of course I was in my mid twenties then, in great shape, and not married (had more time on my hands and nobody to cook dinner for/entertain). I don't think I could get back to the same volume of activity I was doing then, but as I whittle down, I may try to incorporate split workouts again and see if they still do the trick for me.

    Right now I'm doing HIIT style workouts 3-4 times per week made up of a variety of bodyweight and kettlebell exercises. On the other days, I either do more of a strength-focused kettlebell workout that is a bit slower/longer, or a high volume cardio type kettlebell workout (also longer). I'm also lifting weights, but am having to take a little break at the moment as I'm in the process of quitting one gym and joining another. I'm still managing to walk to and from places a whole lot more than I was before, which has been great.
    1981 days ago
  • BILL60
    I schedule both during the week. Hill repeats and speed intervals for the short and long rides for the long.
    1981 days ago
    I feel you. When I have extra time I love doing a long walk at a brisk pace. But, as a single mom, working, I also love it HIIT stuff too! In the morning when I know it is going to be a crazy day I love my Turbofire 15 HIIT DVD Bam! I'm in I'm out I'm done. Sometimes I even find time later in the day for low intensity stuff.
    1982 days ago
    I like spending a lengthy amount of time doing my exercise. Simply because it gives me time to myself to spend in my own thoughts. It's a bit harder to philosophise when you're working hard out doing high intensity and it's even harder to do when you're zombified in front of the TV or computer.
    1982 days ago
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