- High intensity exercise is incredibly popular because it promises a highly efficient workout in a short amount of time.
- However, if you don’t balance out this type of training with low intensity exercise, you could be damaging both your mental and physical health.
- INSIDER spoke to an array of different trainers to find out how best to train to get the benefits of both high and low intensity exercise.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.
Life can often seem like one neverending rush. We go from high-pressure meetings to high-intensity gym classes to high-rise rooftop drinks, never stopping to slow down and breathe.
Many people feel the need to use every minute of their day to the utmost efficiency, and this means time allotted to exercise must deliver the most bang for your buck: ie. burning as many calories and sweating as much as possible in the shortest amount of time.
Enter, the HIIT class.
High intensity interval training has been incredibly popular for the past few years, with busy people being seduced by the promise of fast-tracked results in a short period of time.
HIIT involves short bursts of exercise with brief (30 to 45 seconds) intervals of rest in between. You should be working at maximum capacity and out of breath by the end of the workout, even though it can be as short as seven minutes.
But if you’re not balancing high intensity training with low intensity movement, you could be doing yourself more harm than good.
“With the rise of people wanting to keep fit by participating in high impact training, such as weight training, running, CrossFit, and many more similar forms, comes the rise in injury rates,” Hannah Bright, certified personal trainer at Fitness First, told INSIDER.
“Mobility is important to not just improve your training but also to improve basic daily activities such as posture and how we pick up objects from the ground or bring down from a height.”
Why doing too much HIIT can be harmful
The trouble with only doing high intensity exercise is that your body never relaxes.
Hannah Almond, Head of Yoga at UK boutique fitness chain BLOK, told INSIDER: “You’re stressed in your daily life and then you come to the gym and stress yourself more.
“Being in a place of high intensity, you’re also going to start triggering cortisol which is the stress hormone, which is released when you’re in ‘fight or flight’ mode. Cortisol is detrimental to the digestive system over time and so you have to balance things out.”
High intensity exercise leads to stress on the body, which has been shown to lead to the development of various gastrointestinal disorders including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), according to a 2011 study by the Teaching Hospital of the Unviersity Jena, Germany, and the Jagiellonian University Medical College Cracow, Poland, published in the Journal of Physiology and Phramacology.
Almond believes that our bodies simply haven’t been able to keep up with the rate at which our world has developed and how we’re constantly stimulated.
“We’re so overloaded with information daily and our bodies haven’t adapted and our nervous systems have never had to deal with this,” she said.
“We’re over-stimulating [and] over-adrenalizing our bodies and that’s why it’s so important that you can come for the adrenaline surges here and there, but you’ve also got to have the opposite and you need to balance it out.”
The importance of balancing high intensity with low intensity
Trainers maintain that low intensity exercise can aid and assist strength work and high intensity training.
“Most people who are doing high impact, high intensity training should be doing something low impact, low intensity to combat that,” BLOK’s Head of Fitness, Lotti Maddox, told INSIDER.
“Doing movement that is working through your parasympathetic nervous system [and] that is calming is super important.”
Your parasympathetic nervous system is what’s responsible for your body’s “rest and digest” function, in contrast to your sympathetic nervous system, which controls your “fight or flight” response, accordimg to Science Direct.
“Some people go to bootcamps five times a week, and your sympathetic nervous system is under so much stress by doing that, just as it is in your day to day life … it’s not sustainable and it’s not conducive to optimal health and fitness,” said Almond.
“I think we’re only starting in the last two years to understand that the circumference of fitness is multidiscipline.”
Focus on “prehab” instead of rehab
People will often only start doing low intensity training when it’s too late and they’re already injured. But instead of doing this rehab, they should be doing “prehab” to avoid getting injured in the first place.
“With modern day society rife with stimulants and high stress environments, we are seeing a rise in injuries, anxiety, adrenal fatigue, and people thinking that it’s normal to live in pain,” Gaby Noble, founder of classical pilates studio Exhale Pilates, told INSIDER.
“Intense workout regimes without the correct foundations and recovery periods are only adding stress to the body and mind and can have a negative effect on general wellbeing.”
But the problems arise when we don’t slow down until we’ve pushed ourselves too hard, and sometimes the impact is irreversible.
“Poor posture, back pain, and stomach conditions are a common complaint today due to our lifestyle choices and are driving us into an epidemic of constant pain that we are beginning to feel is normal to live with,” said Noble.
“With the use of computers, mobile phones, and a lot of forward dominant popular exercise regimes, it’s not surprising that this is happening. It is vital to do low impact and mindful movement to reverse your regular movement patterns to create balance in the body.”
If you’re proactive rather than reactive, you’ll be far more likely to be able to carry on doing all the types of movement you enjoy later in life without any injuries.
Low impact and low intensity aren’t the same
It’s more obvious when a workout is high intensity, but some confusion remains about what can be classed as low intensity or low impact — and the two things aren’t the same.
For example, walking on a treadmill on a steep incline and getting your heartrate going is an example of low intensity steady state cardio, but it isn’t low impact.
In contrast to this, barre and pilates would generally be considered low impact high intensity.
The type of things that could truly be considered low impact and low intensity are breathwork sessions and the most calming forms of yoga.
Low intensity workouts might aid fat loss and boost performance
The BLOK trainers believe that learning to harness your breathing can have a hugely positive impact on athletic performance.
“Our breath classes help release emotions that might be blocked or they help release trauma that’s been stored in different parts of the body,” said Almond. “If you’re an athlete and you’re not accessing the full capacity of your lungs, you’re never going to get better.”
One of the things that puts many people off doing breath, meditation, or gentle yoga classes is that they think it won’t have a positive effect on their fat loss efforts, but this may not be the case.
When the body is stressed, it wants to hold on to fat, so taking time to properly relax and de-stress might actually speed up the fat loss process.
A 2000 Yale study concluded that slim but stressed women were more likely to carry excess fat around their middles, and their cortisol levels were also found to be high.
Cortisol has also been linked to increased intake of food high in fat, sugar, or both, according to research.
“People will actually lose more weight if they come into their parasympathetic nervous system more,” said Almond. “When your digestive system is out of whack and your body is in panic mode all the time, it’s storing food because it thinks it’s going to have to hide in a cave for months.
“It seems so unfair but for most women, the place we will store weight is round our middles.”
Therefore, replacing some high intensity workouts with low intensity ones could actually help you slim down.
Don’t be reluctant to slow down
When time is money, it can be hard to justify taking an hour to, well, breathe.
“Most people working in a city are drawn to that fast-paced, high intensity way of life, so they’re drawn to workouts that will annihilate themselves,” explained Maddox.
Almond added: “We get a lot of CEOs, high-flyers with a lot of power and authority, and it’s all performance-based — they want to get the most out of the least amount of time, that’s why HIIT really took off in the first place.
“They come for an hour and they think they can’t quantify the value of breath or yin yoga.” (Yin yoga is a very slow-paced style of yoga where poses are typically held for 45 seconds to two minutes.)
But this is finally starting to change as more and more people discover the benefits of balancing intense workouts with gentler movement on both their mental and physical health.
Gyms are slowly having to cater to increasing consumer demand for less intense ways to workout — at DW Fitness First, for example, an “H2O HIIT” pool-based class was launched earlier this year which allows people to condition their muscles while keeping impact on the joints low.
The gym chain has also launched 15-minute Flow workouts on its Core app to give users another way to improve mobility and de-stress.
Similarly, many of BLOK’s trainers have started incorporating breathwork and yoga-style cool-downs to more intense classes, allowing people to get the best of both worlds.