If you’re anything like me, I used to think cardio was just cardio. I believed that any exercise that increased your heart rate was just as effective as another. However, over the past few years, we’ve seen the rise and domination of HIIT workouts— High-Intensity Interval Training. This highlighted the separation between workouts with quick bursts of high intensity against ‘regular’ cardio, like jogging. This then brought conversation to the difference between the two and we eventually started asking which is more effective?
Both HIIT and steady state cardio are versatile, convenient and popular ways of developing your cardiovascular system. They can both be done virtually anywhere with little to no equipment, which is why they are so popular. With that said though the two, in practice, are very different.
What is steady state cardio?
Steady state cardio is as simple as it comes, generally speaking, it involves carrying out your exercise at a challenging-but-manageable pace (around 60 to 70 percent of your capacity) aiming for a heart rate at or above 120 beats per minute.
What is HIIT cardio?
HIIT workouts are super simple too, but their purpose is to spike your heart rate. This usually involves performing your activity as hard or as fast as you can for a limited time period before backing off for an established rest period. For example, cycling at 90 to 100 percent of your capacity for 20 seconds before slowing down to around 50 percent of your capacity for a further 40 seconds, then repeating the cycle 10 times.
What’s the difference?
One of the main differences between the two styles of cardio is their use of oxygen. Steady state cardio is aerobic, this means it is powered predominantly by stored fat and requires oxygen. Whereas HIIT cardio is anaerobic, this is because the high-intensity intervals don’t depend entirely on oxygen and are fueled mostly by our stored carbohydrates.
So, which is better for you?
Well, that’s a hard question to answer as they both have great health benefits. Depending on your desired result, the decision is yours as to which is most effective.
Steady State Cardio:
the fact that it’s aerobic is the defining aspect of this style of cardiovascular training. Pretty much all of our physical functions like walking, standing, sleeping, digestion, and breathing are all driven by our aerobic system.
Even anaerobic activities (including HIIT), depend on our aerobic system to restore us to a neutral state after each interval.
Steady-state cardio is also fantastic for heart health. When exercising at a slightly lower intensity than HIIT, our hearts left ventricle (which stores oxygenated blood before pumping it out) fills completely before contracting. This is a good thing because it allows the ventricle to grow in capacity thus triggering our heart rates to drop both at rest and during exercise. Not only does a low heart rate indicate a healthy body, it also shows a high “parasympathetic tone” in the nervous system – this helps us relax, focus and recover from stress.
interval training, which is now mainstream, was historically a staple among athletes. It’s most defining quality is the effectiveness in helping us lose fat, this is probably due to the afterburn effect of a HIIT workout. This causes an elevated metabolism for hours, sometimes even a day or so, after exercise.
The muscle soreness we all experience after a hard sprint, for example, becomes more subdued over time with HIIT activity too. Also, our metabolic flexibility (the capacity to adapt from burning fat to burning carbohydrates and back again) improves immensely with this style of cardio. Together, these metabolic benefits strengthen health and athletic performance.
So, if your goal is weight loss and to increase in athleticism, then HIIT is the one for you. But, steady-state cardio is worth considering too as a means to improve heart health and our cardiovascular system as a whole. I think it’s definitely safe to say that a healthy balance between the two types of cardio is the best cocktail for overall health and wellness. The first step? Recognise that the best workout program for you is probably the one you’re not doing right now.