Exercising at a Moderate Intensity More Often May Be More Beneficial Than High Intensity Less Often

a man standing next to a tree: No need to give up your HIIT sessions, but consider creating a more well-rounded workout routine.

© David Jaewon Oh
No need to give up your HIIT sessions, but consider creating a more well-rounded workout routine.

  • Recent research in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that exercising at a moderate intensity more times per week may be more beneficial in terms of losing fat and lowering blood pressure than exercising at high intensity fewer times per week.
  • However, that’s not to say one intensity is necessarily better than the other—there’s room for both HIIT and steady-state workouts in your routine to keep it well-rounded.

What’s better for your metabolic health and performance: the kind of short-intense bursts seen with high-intensity interval training (HIIT), or more moderate exercise like a steady-state run?

A recent study comparing the two suggests that’s a trick question.

Published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the study looks at 23 sedentary, overweight men who contributed health information like blood pressure and body composition before drinking fat-laden shakes to determine metabolic response. Half of the participants did interval training three times per week on stationary bikes, which comprised of four to six rounds of 30 seconds of hard effort with two minutes of recovery in between rounds. The other half did a moderate-intensity exercise program, riding the bikes at a comfortable pace for about 40 minutes total, five times per week.

After six weeks, all participants showed fitness gains, but only the group who rode steady-state for 40 minutes saw a decline in body fat, as well as improved glycemic response to the shake and lower blood pressure.

Although at first glance this might seem similar to many other HIIT studies (like this one>>>P, for example) that have been done, the breadth and depth of the measures used was unique, study co-author Jamie Burr, Ph.D.>>>P, exercise science researcher at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, told Runner’s World. He credits lead author Heather Petrick, Ph.D.(c)>>>P, of the University of Guelph, for creating a distinctive method for assessing exercise frequency.

“What was novel about this study was that we looked at exercise prescription in a different way, such that the frequency of exercise differed between the two exercise exposures,” he said.

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For example, most research would have had the two groups exercise on the same schedule, but researchers here opted for having them follow recommended guidelines, to allow for more recovery from HIIT sessions.

“Interestingly, it appeared that some key markers of health were improved to a greater extent in the group that exercised more frequently, suggesting that regular exposure to training stress of exercise is likely important,” he said.

The research has prompted enough controversy that Burr tweeted a clarification stating that they are not supporting one type of exercise over the other, which is the conclusion some readers had when the study was published.

“We were afraid that the headlines would be,‘do this and not that,’ which is not the message we wish to convey,” he said.“All exercise is good. With this study, I’ve seen comments that we, as exercise scientists, keep changing our minds. That’s not true. This study doesn’t take away from the value of HIIT at all. It suggests that we shouldn’t choose one training style exclusively to the detriment of the other.”

There is value to both interval and long-distance, slower days, he added, especially for runners who want to push themselves to race faster but not burn out or risk injury>>>P.

“There is no reason your training has to be done in such a regimented way that you choose only one way to work out,” said Burr.“Not when you can get the benefits of both.”

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Anna C. Knight

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