February is the month of love, Valentine’s Day and HEART health. In America, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. Integrative medicine shows us that there are several things you can do to help decrease your risk of heart disease including a healthy diet and cardiovascular activity. Cardiovascular exercise, or cardio, is defined as any activity that places stress on the heart for an extended period of time, which increases your heart rate and blood pressure. It is important to remember that your heart is a muscle just like any other muscle in your body that needs to be worked to stay healthy. This blog is going to focus on the BEST cardio for heart health. Is high intensity interval training (HIIT) or steady state cardio best for heart health?

First, let’s break it down.

Steady State
The name gives this one away. Steady state cardio is any aerobic activity that is maintained for an extended period of time, typically 20 + minutes. During steady state cardio, you want to reach about 60-70% of your max capacity. You don’t want to push yourself so hard that you cannot make it through the length of the workout. Aerobic exercise includes walking, running, cycling, swimming, and even dancing.

HIIT
HIIT, or high intensity interval training, has gained popularity by many fitness professionals as being an efficient way to burn calories and fat in a shorter amount of time. This workout requires short burst of all out energy (90 to 100% of your max capacity). In contrast to steady state cardio, HIIT is an anaerobic exercise that does not rely completely on oxygen and pulls from your body’s stored carbohydrates for energy.

Pros and Cons of Each
Steady state cardio is great for beginners, allowing time to build up endurance and cardiovascular (heart) health. It can be accomplished almost anywhere, all you need is a pair of sneakers. You can easily go for a power walk or hop on a bike. Depending on the type of steady state cardio you are performing, your body can typically handle steady state cardio on a daily basis. For example, your body can handle going for a 30-minute power walk every night after dinner. Endurance exercise can be hard on the body over time. For example, marathon running can place high amounts of stress on your body and over time cause catabolism (or the breakdown of muscle tissue).
In order for steady state cardio to improve cardiovascular health, you have to push yourself hard enough to increase your heart rate and blood pressure for an extended period of time. It is easy to slow down your walk when you start breathing harder, defeating the purpose of improving cardiovascular health. Steady state cardio is also more time consuming. You need at least 20 minutes, and often 30-45 minutes.

One of the largest benefits of HIIT is that it can be done in a short period of time. You can be completely exhausted after 10-20 minutes of true HIIT. Due to the fact that HIIT training is short bursts of energy, it is far less likely to cause catabolism. Also, HIIT has been shown to increase your metabolism after the workout more than steady state, making it a great fat burning way to exercise. This form of exercise is not as good for beginners because it requires you to push as hard as you can for a period of time. You feel more uncomfortable doing HIIT than steady state cardio. Also, HIIT should not be performed on a daily basis because your body needs time to recover between workouts.

So back to the original question, which is better for heart health?
You may not like my answer, but it really depends on the person and their current fitness level. Just like diets, there is not a one-size fits all workout plan. Typically, when I am focusing primarily on heart health though, I recommend steady state cardio. It allows your heart rate and blood pressure to remain elevated for an extended period of time, giving your heart a longer workout. If you are in really good shape and are having trouble getting your heart rate and blood pressure up like you used to be able to during steady state cardio, you may want to mix it up and incorporate some HIIT. This will challenge your body and allow you to increase your heart rate more effectively. Also, if you are looking for the larger fat burn, evidence suggests HIIT is the better exercise for you (plus it can be accomplished in a shorter period of time).

Kristin Corbin Oja, recently having completed her doctorate of nursing practice, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner, registered nurse, personal trainer, and group fitness instructor.

Email appointments@centrespringmd.com to schedule a visit with Kristin Corbin Oja.

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