Slow Your Roll
When many of us think of the ultimate workout, we often will picture a boot camp instructor screaming at us, sweat pouring down our face, muscles burning, lungs begging for oxygen, and a mix of accomplishment and relief on the faces of all our comrades-in-arms as the class comes to an end. What if the notion of this as an ideal workout has been more a bit of savvy fitness marketing, constructed more purposely to open your wallet than to improve your health?
P90X, CrossFit, Insanity, and any of the multitude of gyms touting their latest High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workout program all emphasize the fitness highs that come from successfully finishing their routines. High fives will be given, a feeling of accomplishment will swell up inside of you, and your muscles will pop more than ever before, all while excess calories and the “old” you are slayed.
Slow your roll, people!
While the above can be a fun treat, a diet rich in HIIT leads to statistically higher injury rates; 75% of HIIT participants have injured themselves while exercising according to research in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning. You can’t really continue to burn calories if you’re stuck on the couch with an ice pack. There will come a time when everything old is new again; we certainly see this in the fitness industry, as kettlebell training re-emerged from old-timey strongmen photos to become the functional strength training workout du jour. Rather than taking a greater risk with HIIT, try something you can do consistently and stick to for the long-term. Slow fitness might be the best way for you to get lighter and leaner without punishing your body by taking it further than it is ready to go.
What does slow fitness even mean? Lower-Intensity Steady State cardio (LISS) is the polar opposite of HIIT. It is defined as exercise that elevates your heart rate to roughly 50% of your estimated max. Or to further simplify, exercise at a level you can talk or sing comfortably. You may wonder how going slow can be more beneficial than working yourself to a sweaty heap. It becomes a question of how you define “more beneficial.” We’re going to assume the following in making that statement:
- That you are just starting out;
- That you need to improve your stamina;
- That you experience a fair amount of stress in your life; and
- That you want to take it easy on your joints (either due to previous injury or fear of future injury). When we look at these four points, the pendulum swings into the slow category.
First, nothing could be more intimidating for a novice exerciser than stepping into a group of experienced HIIT adherents and trying to get started. Beyond the intimidation factor, your physician would also tell you that it’s important to let your body adjust to a new exercise regimen. With HIIT, there’s a greater risk of injury if your form is poor due to the speed and the intensity. Walking, jogging, cycling, using the rower, etc. generally have lower risk due to their movements’ familiarity and low-impact nature.
Secondly, most of us are carrying around more fat than we would like, which is why we feel the need to diet and exercise in the first place. If you haven’t been working out regularly, your stamina is probably in a pretty poor place. While it might seem sensible that doing sprint intervals on the treadmill will burn off calories, how long can you keep that up? Try a more moderate, continuous pace with a slight incline instead. You will be able to go longer since it more closely mirrors the types of movement you might engage in everyday (or at least some days!). Exercising for this longer period of time will burn off a similar amount of calories as the condensed sprint workout, but it will also encourage you that you have the stamina to work out for longer periods of time and offers less opportunity for serious injury.
Third, stress is literally a killer. There are two types of stress that the body can experience, physical and mental. Intense exercise causes the body to release the hormones that contribute to inflammation (primarily cortisol) which, over time, damages your immune system and can contribute to chronic health problems. We all experience mental stress throughout our lives and it can come at us from many different sources. Engaging in mind-body forms of exercise or simply going for a nice hike will boost your mood, health, and energy levels, all while lowering cortisol levels in your body. We’re not saying that you should never do another spin class or bootcamp, but know that skewing your workouts towards low and slow can produce more sustainable results.
Fourth, we’re not all young enough to be training like Navy Seals. Our joints simply are not designed for that level of impact, year after year. According to research in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, nearly 3 out of 4 people who do a popular form of high-intensity strength training have injured themselves.
Slower, more deliberate forms of strength training have been studied for the past three decades and have tons of research to back up its effectiveness and safety; a 2001 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness in particular demonstrates the remarkable results to be garnered from super-slow strength training. The study compared two groups who did the same exercises for 10 weeks. The first group lifted at normal speed, while the second group engaged in the 5-5-5 technique (up for 5 seconds, down for 5 seconds, with a weight that you can lift no
more than 5 times). At the end of the study, the super-slow lifters had improvement in strength 50% greater than the improvements the traditional weightlifters. Why the discrepancy? The longer process increases the amount of time the muscle is under tension. Form is paramount, as there is no momentum to carry you through.
At the end of the day, what does this all mean? Certainly do not stop going to your favorite HIIT class if you are already doing one! But if you’re a devotee of a singular form of exercise, force yourself out of your comfort zone and mix things up. Fitness, like life, is not black and white. If you are just starting out in a fitness regimen, a slow-and-steady approach will help keep your muscles and joints healthy.
The near infinite options available are what makes moving more and eating better a wonderful lifetime pursuit. For no matter your age, physical fitness, joint limitations, etc. you can discover what fits your needs at the moment the mood strikes you.