We are approaching the end of another year and many of us are thinking about adopting a healthier lifestyle as we approach the new year. Are you in this group looking to improve your health as we approach 2023?
Perhaps you feel somewhat intimidated and simply want to increase physical activity more moderately. Perhaps you want to feel less winded when climbing stairs or are looking for overall endurance to enjoy family activities. Perhaps you just want to spend more time outdoors.
In this case, beginning an exercise program with steady-state cardio-based activities may help you adhere to and achieve your goals.
What is Steady-State Cardio?
Steady-state cardio (SSC) is a cardiorespiratory-based exercise that is of low to moderate intensity that can be sustained for an extended period. Physiologically speaking, the steady state is achieved when the exerciser can provide enough oxygen to keep the aerobic energy system providing for most of the body’s energy needs, allowing them to continue exercising at that pace. More specifically, this occurs when the exerciser maintains a heart rate of around 45 to 65 percent of their maximum heart rate though this can be lower in beginners and higher in experienced endurance athletes (Powers & Howley, 2018).
The picture that most often comes to mind when one thinks about steady-state cardio is spending 30 to 60 minutes walking or running on a treadmill, yet there are many choices of activities that can be used for this type of training.
Yet, steady-state training can be achieved with many types of activities not just limited to cardio equipment in a traditional gym. Some fun alternatives are hiking/rucking, outdoor cycling, spinning to your favorite playlist (indoor cycling), dance fitness classes (i.e., Zumba), brisk walking with friends or family members, swimming, or trail running. Many of these activities have the added benefits of increasing time spent outdoors or socializing- both of which can lead to lowered cortisol levels and improved overall health (Pressman et al., 2009).
What are the Benefits?
Although H.I.I.T. may get all the glory on social media these days, SSC is still a very viable option to promote fat loss. According to a recent meta-analysis comparing H.I.I.T. and SSC for fat loss benefits, both fared equally well in research studies examining the efficacy of each for fat loss.
Though H.I.I.T. may be more efficient, it was not significantly more effective than SSC at inducing overall fat loss. Similarly, the researchers point out that adherence scores are better when exercisers are given a choice of intensity and duration with SSC faring more favorable for many study participants. Consistency over time will lead to greater fat loss (Steele et al., 2021).
Improved Muscle Endurance and Aerobic Capacity
Muscle endurance and aerobic capacity are important for daily life. Playing with your kids, carrying groceries, pushing a stroller, gardening, and completing house chores (especially when they involve scaling the stairs) all require our cardiorespiratory and muscular systems to work hard. SSC can help to improve markers of both muscle endurance and at moderate intensities (at least 45% of the VO2 max) aerobic capacity.
SSC stimulates increases in the number of mitochondria of muscle cells to help them keep up with increased energy demands. This helps to improve muscle endurance. Likewise, the heart will adapt to increases in oxygen demands by increasing cardiac output so oxygen can be more easily delivered to the working muscle cells. This increases aerobic capacity- allowing you to avoid getting winded going up and down stairs or playing a game of basketball with your children (Powers & Howley, 2018).
Heavy resistance training sessions and high-intensity cardio workouts cause stress on the muscles, connective tissue, and nervous system. This is a good thing as from this kind of stress comes adaptations in these systems to improve them, however, repeated bouts of high-intensity exercise sessions must be followed by periods of recovery.
SSC, especially when done for periods of less than 60 minutes does not often require extended recovery time. Furthermore, if you happen to engage in higher-intensity training, low-intensity SSC can be used to aid in recovery when completed at the end of an exercise session.
Wiewelhove et al. (2018) conducted a study with twenty-six trained athletes to examine the effects of adding SSC (low intensity) after a bout of H.I.I.T. against passive recovery to measure time to recovery. The authors determined that adding 15 minutes of SSC at the end of a H.I.I.T. bout did not further stress the nervous system, and in fact, improved recovery time when compared to the passive recovery group. The researchers speculate that the bout of SSC triggered adaptive mechanisms beginning the recovery process earlier.
Consistency May be Easier for Beginners
The most important part of succeeding with a health improvement goal of any type is consistency. This means that whatever exercise program you plan to engage in, especially if it is a New Year’s resolution, must be highly sustainable.
SSC may be a great option for beginners or individuals with significant obesity, older adults, and individuals with cardiac problems. Similarly, SSC can be achieved by so many methods that can be safe, effective, fun, and social, making it a good choice for apprehensive new exercisers (Tanaka & Shindo, 1992).
How to Develop a Routine: Start Small and Build
“A little bit of something is better than a whole lot of nothing,” says Rick Richey, NASM Master Instructor (Richey, 2021). This concept holds when beginning a new exercise program and trying to build a sustainable routine.
Find SSC activities you find appealing. Do you prefer to exercise outdoors or indoors? Do you enjoy walking, cycling, dancing, swimming, or hiking? It helps to make a list of activities that you find fun and interesting. Having more than one choice can be very helpful in keeping you engaged with more variety.
Perhaps you want to join a rucking club that meets weekly, plan a bike ride to a favorite place in town on another day, and attend a Zumba class with your best friends on the weekends. It may also be helpful to use your favorite playlists, podcasts, or audiobooks to help keep you motivated during your movement bouts.
Set a realistic frequency, duration, and intensity for these activities. Remember that consistency trumps intensity. Engaging in lower-intensity activities that you can sustain week after week is much better than moderate or higher-intensity activities that you burn out of quickly. Make sure that these activities can realistically fit into your daily life. Adding a 20-minute walk at lunch three times per week or attending a weekly cycling class is achievable even on a busy schedule.
Find friends and family members to join you or hold you accountable for these new activities. It is much harder to cancel a walking date with a friend or neighbor than to decide you would prefer a tv show over your evening or morning walk. Engaging in SSC with a friend or family member can also have the added benefit of socialization with treasured friends or spending time together as a family.
Once you can sustain your routine, consider adding more frequency, intensity, or duration to your SSC bouts to gain further improvements in muscle endurance, fat loss, and aerobic capacity. Always remember that consistency trumps any of these so it is important to check in with yourself to make sure you can continue to sustain your SSC routine.
Although there may be some evidence that higher-intensity exercise is more efficient for weight loss, consistency matters more than any calorie burn achieved in a single exercise bout. SSC may be a less intimidating alternative for beginning exercisers, older adults, and/or individuals with certain health conditions or limitations.
Steady-state cardio may be an excellent addition to the program already in place, or a fun and sustainable way to improve your overall health.
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Powers, S. K., & Howley, E. T. (2018). Exercise physiology : theory and application to fitness and performance. Mcgraw-Hill Education.
Pressman, S. D., Matthews, K. A., Cohen, S., Martire, L. M., Scheier, M., Baum, A., & Schulz, R. (2009). Association of Enjoyable Leisure Activities With Psychological and Physical Well-Being. Psychosomatic Medicine, 71(7), 725–732. https://doi.org/10.1097/psy.0b013e3181ad7978
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Steele, J., Plotkin, D., Van Every, D., Rosa, A., Zambrano, H., Mendelovits, B., Carrasquillo-Mercado, M., Grgic, J., & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2021). Slow and Steady, or Hard and Fast? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Studies Comparing Body Composition Changes between Interval Training and Moderate Intensity Continuous Training. Sports, 9(11), 155. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports9110155
Tanaka, H., & Shindo, M. (1992). The benefits of the low intensity training. The Annals of Physiological Anthropology = Seiri Jinruigaku Kenkyukai Kaishi, 11(3), 365–368. https://doi.org/10.2114/ahs1983.11.365
Wiewelhove, T., Schneider, C., Schmidt, A., Döweling, A., Meyer, T., Kellmann, M., Pfeiffer, M., & Ferrauti, A. (2018). Active Recovery After High-Intensity Interval-Training Does Not Attenuate Training Adaptation. Frontiers in Physiology, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00415