Giving it your all during every workout can backfire. Here’s why dialing down the intensity now and then delivers results.
Imagine a coach telling her players to back off the play. Or a chef switching to a slow cooker just before the dinner rush. Not gonna happen.
But there is a scenario where slowing down and backing off makes complete sense: to improve your health and meet your fitness goals.
People have been led to believe that workouts only “work” if they’re akin to an Olympic-level experience. But going all in every time can be counterproductive, says Bill Hartman, co-owner of Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training and author of All Gain, No Pain.
It leads to an overstressed system, which hurts your fitness gains and energy levels, and increases your likelihood of getting sick and experiencing pain.
The prescription, Hartman says, is to slow down some of your sessions. Periods of lower-intensity exercise are equally important for your fitness and can even give you a better return on your high-intensity sessions.
Check out these four reasons to take it easy once in a while.
Secret of Slow #1: It Acts as a Buffer Between Harder Workouts
Easy cardio workouts reduce the stress levels caused by hard workouts, says Hartman.
Just think about all the physical stress your body endures with five or six days in a row of tougher sessions. As your body gets tired, your workouts will become less productive—and you’ll hit the proverbial wall.
Instead, weave in two to three slower-paced, low- to no-impact cardio workouts to your weekly routine. That’s enough to change things up for your body and—the real prize—make your tougher sessions more effective.
Secret of Slow #2: It Can Truly Help Your Heart
If you’ve never exercised before, you might be discouraged because you “can’t do that much yet.” Or if you’ve recently had an injury, you may find yourself unable to go to your regular SilverSneakers class, which can leave you feeling down and out of shape.
Take heart. All physical activity—even light activity like strolling through a park or gardening—can help lower your risk of heart attack and stroke, according to a recent study of almost 6,000 women between ages 63 and 97. That’s a big deal, given that heart disease is the leading cause of death for American men and women.
The key is frequency. “The higher the amount of activity, the lower the risk,” said study author Andrea LaCroix, Ph.D., in a statement.
In fact, the latest fitness guidelines say that one of the best things you can do to lower your risk of early death is to replace sedentary behavior, such as sitting, with light physical activity. Check out these 10 simple ways to walk more each day.
Recovering from an injury? Start by asking your doctor what types of activity are safe for you and how you can gradually ramp back up. Plus, if you’re a SilverSneakers member, check out SilverSneakers On-Demand by creating or logging in to your account.
Secret of Slow #3: It Gives Your Brain an Assist
Aerobic exercise helps you learn better and improves your memory. In fact, for every hour of light-intensity physical activity you clock, you’re rewarded with higher brain volume and slower brain aging.
That was the big takeaway from a 2018 Boston University School of Medicine study. There, researchers found that each additional hour older adults spent walking was equivalent to 1.1 years less brain aging.
What’s more, in another new study examining the short- and long-term benefits that exercise brings to the aging brain, researchers at the University of Iowa found that light but frequent exercise boosts both working memory and cognitive functions in seniors.
Secret of Slow #4: It Brings You Closer to Your Health Goals
True, you’ll torch more calories during shorter, more intense workouts, but you’re still burning calories with easy cardio. That makes it an important part of the weight loss equation, Hartman says.
You’re also safeguarding your lean muscle mass, which is important for staying agile and steady on your feet. Plus, easy workouts are great at helping you build endurance, so you have more oomph when you’re traveling or simply going about your day.
Bottom line: Your body needs you to mix it up with your workouts, says Hartman. Different styles of training help you to be prepared for all types of activities.
How to Slow Things Down
If you’ve grown to love high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or other high-intensity workouts, it might be tricky for you to take your foot off the gas.
A walk can be a great workout. Or you can do your usual elliptical, bike, or circuit routine, and take it down a notch.
To keep tabs on your effort, try the talk test. “If you can still speak comfortably while exercising, then you are below the high-intensity cutoff,” says Hartman. “If you find you’re unable to speak comfortably, then you may be exercising too hard.”
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