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Last Updated: July 16, 2023
A common misconception to exercise, especially cardio, is that you must be tired and out of breath at the end of it. Some folks even think that exercise doesn’t “count” unless you’re pushing yourself to the max and burning a ton of calories. I know this because I used to believe that, myself.
Exercise, specifically cardio, doesn’t have to be torturous. Low-intensity cardio has proven health benefits that might make you reconsider all your HIIT workouts, or at the very least entice you to add some low-intensity exercise into your fitness routine (which is what you should do, in my opinion).
Low-intensity cardio is also referred to as low-intensity steady-state cardio or LISS. If you’ve heard of programs like 12-3-30 that are making the rounds on social media, then you’re probably familiar with LISS training.
What is Low-Intensity Cardio or LISS?
You might have heard of HIIT, aka high-intensity interval training. This is where you get your heart rate up high for a period of time, and then you rest to let your heart rate lower. In HIIT you raise and lower your heart rate over a period of time. Exercising at a high intensity means you’re increasing your heart rate to the point that it is hard to talk.
LISS, on the other hand, is when you move your body in a way that elevates your heart rate slightly and then you maintain that intensity and heart rate over a period of time. When doing low-intensity cardio you’ll be able to hold a conversation and even sing.
If you like to stay plugged in with fitness trackers, as I do with my Apple Watch, I’ll break this down a bit more in terms of heart rate training and targets. During HIIT your heart rate will be at around 80%-100% of your max heart rate when you’re doing high-intensity work. So, for heart rate training your goal is to be in zones 4 or 5, during the intense bursts. Alternatively, during low-intensity cardio, your heart rate will be around 50-70% of your max heart rate. This means you’ll be in heart rate training zones 1 and 2. You can learn more about heart rate training, here.
Benefits of Low-Intensity Cardio Training
Now, here are some reasons why you should incorporate low-intensity cardio workouts into your training.
It has similar benefits to HIIT
There’s no “one-way” to work out. Whether you love getting your heart pumping or prefer taking long walks as a form of movement, LISS and HIIT offer similar health benefits. Like HIIT, low-intensity exercise can help in fat loss, increase muscle strength and endurance, and improve your fitness overall. Reduced stress levels and better sleep have been proven with low-intensity cardio, too.
The big difference between the two types of intensities is that low-intensity cardio takes a longer amount of time to perform in order to burn the same amount of calories that can be burned in a shorter HIIT session. However, LISS puts less stress on your body, including your heart and lungs, than high-intensity training. In general, low-intensity training can be gentler and safer.
It’s accessible to a large range of people
Due to the nature of low-intensity cardio, and the fact that it’s typically easier on the body, more people can do it. When it comes to HIIT, not everyone can or should work out at their maximum heart rate. High-intensity training might not be best if you’re recovering from an injury or have certain health conditions, for instance.
Exercise as simple as going for a walk outside is more doable and accessible to most people than doing bursts of running or sprinting, or taking a spin class. Low-intensity steady-state exercise, like walking, is great no matter your fitness level. And if you’re brand new to exercise, lower-intensity workouts can be an excellent way to get your body moving in order to improve your overall health and fitness.
It is versatile
Walking is just one example of LISS. Walking can be done outside or on a treadmill inside. By the way, if you’re looking for a treadmill, check out these best treadmills. Cycling, indoors or outdoors, hiking outside, or again on a treadmill, swimming, yoga, and using a rowing machine, elliptical, or stair-stepper are all excellent ways to get in some lower-intensity cardio. For some, jogging is also a lower-intensity activity, too.
Of course, these activities and equipment can certainly be used for higher-intensity training. The key to determining if your performing LISS cardio or more moderate or high-intensity training is to either track your heart rate or RPE (rate of perceived exertion). Simply testing if you can talk in complete sentences and that you’re not out of breath, is a good indication that you’re performing low-intensity cardio. So, if you love your indoor cycling bike or rower but can’t or simply don’t want to go “all out” every time you use it, you can adjust your intensity and still reap the benefits.
Low-intensity cardio isn’t only versatile in the different activities and equipment that can be used for it, but the ways in which it can be incorporated into your fitness routine. Getting on a piece of cardio equipment before and/or after higher-intensity workouts is a great way to warm up and cool down. LISS can also help you recover after harder workouts. Or it can be performed as its own form of exercise. At the end of the day, exercise can and should be tailored to work for you.
Could help you stick with your routine
Working out at a lower intensity can help you stick to your routine, too. Whether you’re tired or just had a long day, exercise can feel daunting sometimes, or even like a chore. I know, I’ve been there. If you’re struggling with sticking to a routine or can’t find the motivation to go to the gym (even if it’s in your home), doing something like going for a walk can be way more achievable.
Here’s another approach to help combat these feelings. Let’s say you have a treadmill (or any other type of equipment) that starts to become a clothing rack because you can’t seem to find the energy to run on it. Again, I’ve been there. The next time you start talking yourself out of running, try a walk or an indoor hike at an incline. You might enjoy it more than a run, or the walk could turn into a run. Either way, at the end of the day, you put in the work and moved your body, which is the ultimate goal.
Other amazing health benefits
I know I mentioned some health benefits above, but those just scratch the surface with all that low-intensity cardio has to offer. Health benefits like improved insulin sensitivity – no seriously, check out this study, and a lower risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and obesity are all possible with LISS. You can also see improvements in your mood and cognitive function, too.
If you are sore or stiff, low-intensity exercise can lubricate your joints and loosen up tight muscles by increasing blood flow. It can help increase your balance, especially in older adults as well.
Might be more enjoyable
Pushing yourself to the max might not be for you, and that’s ok. Maybe you incorporate HIIT and LISS training in your workout routine, but you like LISS more. Again, totally ok. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what type of physical activity you do, it just matters that you do it. It also helps if you enjoy it. So, if you’re not enjoying your current fitness routine or can’t stick with it, then try adding in walking or another form of low-intensity exercise. And if you only associate exercise with a fast heart rate and clothing drenched in sweat, or think it won’t “count” unless you end your session this way, then I implore you to fit some low-intensity cardio into your routine. It absolutely counts and has amazing benefits.
Let us know in the comments, what is your favorite type of low-intensity cardio?