Do You Need Intense Exercise to Lose Weight?
The answer may surprise you.
If you find the mere idea of a killer CrossFit class or cardio boot camp sweatathon exhausting, we hear you. At some point, people started thinking they had to train like Navy SEALs for their workouts to be worthwhile. But sometimes what we really need to do is catch our breath and slow down already.
“There’s a perception that if your workout doesn’t make you feel like you’re going to die, it’s somehow lame—or ‘beginner.’ That’s not the case,” says Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist and personal trainer in San Diego. “Less-intense cardio and strength workouts can actually be more effective in some ways than very difficult ones.” Consider this your first class in slow fitness—a way to get lighter and leaner without pushing your body further than it wants to go.
Imagine two women working out on treadmills: One is red-faced, doing sprint intervals, and the other is simply walking on a slight incline. Which one is burning more calories? The sprinter, of course. But there’s more to it. “High-intensity cardio causes you to work anaerobically, which means that most of the calories you burn will be in the form of carbohydrates. Your body needs fuel—fast—and carbs are its go-to energy source,” explains McCall. With less-intense workouts, in which you keep your heart rate in a lower, more comfortable zone, you may be burning fewer carbohydrates, but the duration of workouts tends to be longer. This means more total calories will be burned—which is key to losing weight.
And the health benefits extend beyond weight loss. A 2014 study led by researchers at Iowa State University found that just 5 to 10 minutes of slow jogging a day was enough to significantly reduce the odds of dying from any cause, including cardiovascular disease—even if the participants had risk factors like smoking or being overweight. Of course, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other major health organizations recommend a tad more exercise than that. But the researchers found that even an hour a week—total—was enough to get the benefits. Working out longer than that didn’t make a notable difference. In other words, more intense—or more, period—isn’t necessarily better.
In fact, a 2015 study published in The Journal of the American College of Cardiology suggests that slow may even be healthier than hard-core. The researchers followed people who did similar amounts of slow, moderate, and strenuous running over the course of 12 years and found that the light exercisers had a much lower mortality risk than the intense group. The moderate exercisers fell somewhere in between. Experts aren’t sure why slow may be superior, but some believe the stress that super-hard workouts place on your system may be a factor. “Intense exercise causes a cascade of hormones that create a lot of free radicals and inflammation in the body—which, over time, can damage your immune system and lead to chronic health issues,” says McCall. “I’m not saying you should never do another spinning class, but what we now know is that slow and steady is often better than hard and fast.”
McCall recommends low-intensity interval workouts that alternate between a fairly easy pace and one that’s slightly more challenging—a training style that burns more calories than working at one steady pace for the same amount of time. In fact, research shows that interval walking can expend up to 20 percent more energy than walking at a single, moderate pace—because your body expends extra energy to speed itself up and slow itself down. And you can do it with any type of cardio. Here’s the how-to: Start out at a difficulty level of 4 on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the hardest you could possibly manage) and stick with that pace for a certain amount of time—it could be two minutes, the length of one block…you decide what works. Then pick up the pace to an effort of 6 for the same amount of time. “Use the talk test to make sure your heart rate doesn’t get too high,” says McCall. “You want to walk fast enough that it feels challenging but you can still chat comfortably. If you’re too out of breath to have a conversation, slow it down—you’re working too hard.” Repeat these intervals for the duration of your workout, aiming for 20 to 30 minutes.
Yes, there is also such a thing as slow strength training, and it’s not some newfangled concept. It’s been around—and researched—for more than three decades. But it’s been gaining buzz, thanks in part to the legions of ex–boot campers and CrossFitters looking for a gentler-on-the-body alternative. (Fact: Nearly three out of four people who do a popular form of high-intensity strength training have injured themselves, according to research in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.)
The benefits of super-slow toning are pretty remarkable, too. A 2001 study in Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, for example, compared a group of people who lifted weights at a regular speed with another that went slo-mo. The two groups did the same exercises for 10 weeks. At the end of the trial, the super-slow lifters had improvements in strength that were 50 percent greater than the improvements the traditional lifters had. “The initial results were so incredible that I did a second study to retest them—because I didn’t believe it!” says lead study author Wayne Westcott, PhD, professor of exercise science at Quincy College in Quincy, Massachusetts.
What makes this training style work so well? “Most people do one second up and one down when they lift weights,” explains Westcott. “By slowing that process, you increase the amount of time there is tension on the muscle, and you don’t use any momentum to help you lift and lower, both of which make the exercise more effective.”
In Westcott’s studies, participants lifted for 10 seconds and lowered for four—which can feel like a toning eternity. But, he says, you can get similar results by using an easier-to-remember method, 5-5-5: Go up for five seconds and down for five seconds using a weight with which you can do only five reps. You can do several sets of the same move (with other moves interspersed), or you can mix it up and do just five reps of lots of moves. A 30-minute session twice a week should do the trick. “Research shows it takes your body three days to recover between strength sessions,” says Westcott. It’s during that time that your muscles get stronger and more defined, so adding more workouts will only break you down, not tone you up.
Foam rolling can increase flexibility and reduce muscle soreness. But many of us aren’t getting the full benefits. “People get on and roll out as fast as they can, especially the areas that are tight or sore. I see it all the time,” says Justin Norris, cofounder of LIT Method, a fitness studio in Los Angeles that offers Roll & Recovery classes. “You need to go at a nice, slow tempo to allow the muscle to really relax into the roller and release.”
Norris recommends taking 10 full seconds to roll up and down whatever muscle you’re working on—and pausing for three counts on any spots that feel uncomfortable (the kind of uncomfortable that makes you wince a little; we’re not talking searing pain here). “That’s actually the area you need to target most,” says Norris. “Taking those few extra seconds will really get into the muscle. You’ll feel so much better afterward.” In other words, it’s worth the wince.