Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
2 Jul

The Definitive Guide to Low Level Aerobic Activity

Maybe you’ve found yourself feeling self-conscious on evening walks while five people pass you (perhaps twice) in their best running forms. Perhaps you spent the day at the lake canoeing or hiking around the beach and later felt guilty for not having made it to the gym. Or maybe you’re frustrated having to mow or rake over the weekend because it means giving up workout time in exchange. Message for the day: shed the guilt, forget the self-reproach, and enjoy a little affirmation.

We’re talking about a favorite of mine: low level aerobic activity. Sure, it can feel all too relaxed, even indulgent compared to the intense stuff. But don’t be so quick to disparage. Low level aerobic activity, I’m here to tell you, is the crucial base of Primal Blueprint fitness (Rule #3 in my book for those of you who are currently reading it). It’s the base, the foundation, the keystone to the big fitness picture.

After all, it was how our good man Grok and his family spent most of their days. Carrying water from the stream. Collecting fire wood, walking through the forests and meadows to gather greens, berries, and other plants. Working on their shelter. Perhaps migrating to another area because of drought, predators or competing tribes. Butchering, building, washing, cooking, dancing, you name it. Some of it was hard work, but it was mostly just continual – the sheer volume of low level activity that characterized Grok’s existence.

If the human body evolved within these conditions, our lives today often leave us as fish out of water. There’s the joke about old time farmers laughing at people who pay to slog away on a treadmill for hours at the gym. Why would anyone pay to run in place like a hamster when there’s plenty of real, hard, useful labor to be done instead? Of course, not all of us have livelihoods that involve enough physical exertion to constitute adequate exercise, and our modern home lives (with washing machines, electric/gas mowers, etc.) don’t require the same labor as they once did. Unlike Grok, few of us built the homes we live in. Few of us till large tracts of land for planting. We generally don’t spend our days scrubbing, hauling or foraging. But it doesn’t matter, ultimately, what form our low level cardio takes. What matters is what happens on the inside.

Let’s take it apart. Low level aerobic activity involves working at 55 to 75 percent of your maximum heart rate. You often see it referred to as “moderate exercise.” (Recently, researchers attempted to define the term more and came up with 100 steps a minute. Their results offer some kind of guidance, but they’re nonetheless a vast generalization.) Heart rate (and the aerobic activity that determines it) varies considerably based on how in shape you are. Here’s what it looks like translated into practical terms. For fit folks, the low aerobic range usually kicks in on the lower end (55%) with a slow to medium paced but easy hike, a slow bike ride or relaxed cardio workout at the gym. An out of shape person would likely hit that same 55% with a stroll around the block. Now flip to the upper limit (75%) of low level cardio, and a fit person is likely looking at a vigorous hilly hike, a somewhat hilly bike ride, or a medium cardio workout at the gym. An unfit person will achieve that 75% with a medium level hike, a minimally hilly and casual bike ride, or an easy-medium intensity cardio workout on the gym equipment. (As for the endurance athletes out there, 80% of your maximum heart rate generally constitutes the upper limit of the “low level” range.)

As I’ve suggested before, our society has come to worship a chronic cardio model as the beacon of fitness. It follows that low level aerobic activity appears to do nothing but fall short – a weak attempt at the “real” thing. Worse yet, it’s an attitude that makes the fitness quest seem like an all or nothing proposition. No pain, no gain. Total bunkum. Sure, the Primal Blueprint model incorporates low level aerobic activity as part of a larger picture along with strength and “sprint” interval training. The PB fitness model, however, is built upon that low level foundation.

Not only is low level aerobic activity the natural evolutionary expectation of the body, it’s flat out beneficial in its own right. It plays an integral role in maintaining weight and metabolic balance. It also builds your base and makes more strenuous workouts possible by toning all the muscles, joints and connective tissue needed for optimal strength training and high intensity aerobic activity. Low level aerobic exercise engages your energy systems and incrementally improves their functioning and efficiency. And while it does all that, it also physiologically and hormonally counters the effects of stress.

The impact is impressive to say the least. Specific studies have found that it reduces the risk of metabolic syndrome, breast cancer, and death from cardiovascular disease. It also appears to reduce the risk of vascular dementia. But the kicker is this. Low level aerobic activity, research suggests, can decrease overall systemic inflammation and the risk for the vast array of degenerative diseases that plague our modern society. Skeletal muscle fibers, researchers have found, act as “an endocrine organ.” Working the muscle fibers, it appears, stimulates the production of Interleukin-6, an anti-inflammatory cytokine, which in turn signals and benefits other organs. Don’t you love this? (On the lighter note, low level aerobic activity also decreases the incidence of colds. As we all know in the context of our busy lives, that’s nothing to shake a stick at.)

Want more? Turns out there are mental health benefits as well. Moderate exercise has been shown to improve the mood and well-being of those with chronic depression. But for all of us, low to moderate level aerobic activity can elevate our mood a good two to four hours after exercise. (And that’s just after twenty minutes or so of activity.) We’ve all felt this one, haven’t we? Letting go of the stress on a solitary hike or evening walk with a friend?

But how much do you need per week for real, ongoing health benefits? While there’s no limit to the benefit of low-intensity aerobic exercise, rest assured that you can experience outstanding health gains by engaging in simply a moderate amount of low-intensity aerobic movement. It shakes out likes this. Go for a minimum of two hours of low-intensity aerobic movement per week. Two hours pales in comparison to Grok’s daily grind, but I know few of us have the time to live a full Grok existence. (That’s not really the point anyway.) Ideally, however, we’d put in more than that two hour bare minimum. I’d consider three to five hours a week of low-intensity an optimal range for modern day folks.

What does it boil down to then? Simple activity – whatever floats your boat. Dancing (line, club, ballet, etc.), outdoor hikes, pleasant bike rides, vigorous gardening, brisk walks, a light swim, rollerblading in the park, ice skating, yoga, some doubles badminton or tennis, a game of Ultimate, playing or just mowing the lawn. In short: leading an overall active life by working in low level aerobic exercise into the daily pattern of your life, your relationships and your free time fun. It’s the good life, I’d say.

Now I’ll turn it over to you. Tell me how you make low level aerobic exercise fit into your life and fitness? Have other comments or questions? Shoot me a line, and thanks for reading.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. My Dad (who is in his late 50’s) and I went turkey hunting together this past spring. We walked about 10 miles through brush and fields over the course of a day, much as Grok would have done I suppose. We carried all our gear as well, which amounted to about 50 pounds of “stuff.” I’m here to tell you that I was truly tired at the end of the day.

    Don’t let anyone tell you that isn’t a good workout.

    Greg at Live Fit wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  2. Great article Mark! I love taking a nice long walk or hike. I like that you highlighted all kinds of activities like dancing.

    Yummy wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  3. One of the FIRST things that attracted me to the PB was the encouragement of low level aerobic activity and the explanations as to why “chronic cardio” is unhealthy. I had to adopt this way of exercising when I was 17 after my orthopedic surgeon told me that if I kept running & playing soccer competitively I’d be in a wheel chair within the year because my badly injured knees could not handle the stress. So after several surgeries (with more to come in the furture) to insure I could keep walking, thats what I did… walk. But I felt exactly how this article started out – self conscious, guilty, frustrated. I love this community (partly) because not only does it tell me its ok to “walk,” it helps reaffirm that I’m all the better for it.

    Jane wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  4. Helped a friend move last weekend; provided some great low level aerobic activity. It’s a low impact combo of dipping, lifting, walking, and stair climbing. And you even get some HIIT when its time to carry the heavy furniture to the UHaul. Of course, the free pizza at the end of the move was no help.

    Whistler wrote on July 2nd, 2009
    • I checked out the Strength and Power Travel Circuit; most of those ecirecxses are impossible for someone with knee problems. I can’t do squats and lunges; I can however, do a wall squat with my exercise ball between my back and the wall. My knees creeked something awful when I first started, but now make less noise (and hurt less) when I do my 2 sets of 12 reps.Can you provide other Strength and Power Travel Circuit exercises that don’t involve stress on the knees as much, please?

      Samnang wrote on June 7th, 2012
  5. I’m still working on accepting that walking is a “good enough” exercise :) And that a 15 minute workout of tabata sprints and body weight exercises is plenty for the intense days (even though my legs/abs/back/chest definitely feel the burn the next day!). The chronic cardio mindset is definitely brain-washing. I actually really enjoy taking a 45 minute walk/hike through the park with my dogs and friends though, so much more than running alone for any amount of time. And all day hikes are my most sincere idea of vacation! This recommendation of “make your easy exercise days longer and easier, and your intense exercise days harder and shorter” was one of the first big things for me too, it’s just so much more enjoyable!

    hannahc wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  6. Mark, I highly recommend reading a recently released book titled “Body by Science”, particularly the section on romanticizing our ancestors and the errors/consequences that can be made in attempts to mimic their exercise habits.

    Anthony wrote on July 2nd, 2009
    • Hi Anthony

      Perhaps you can give us a one liner about these revelations ?

      I find it hard to imagine a valid argument against doing what we have been selected (through evolution) to do.

      Nostril Damus wrote on July 2nd, 2009
    • I’ll check it out, Anthony.

      Mark Sisson wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  7. I got my low-level exercise today by spending 1.5 hours hunting for placemarkers on a salt marsh, then taking elevation measurements. It’s harder than it sounds, as the ground is not always stable and there are lots of holes and soft spots to step into.

    Susanne wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  8. may i suggest a top tier primal exercise? backpacking.

    also, for added benefit: backpacking.

    …and don’t forget the more soul soothing activities like backpacking.

    i kinda like backpacking

    shel wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  9. I enjoy jogging for low-level cardio. I’ll do 4-5 miles at about a 10-minute-mile pace, a couple of times a week. It’s a lot more fun than walking and no more strenuous than a vigorous hike. It’s also a good pace for my three-legged dog, who’s more comfortable at a slow lope than a walk.

    Kimberly wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  10. i have reduced the jogging intensity to 60% to 65% of max hr….crazy thing is my running pace has improved at these intensities to what pace used to be to 75% to 80% of max…and i feel much better doing it…effortless

    bob wrote on July 2nd, 2009
    • I weigh 82 kg and was going to start primal from tomorrow. Do you think I can continue to jog at say 5-5.5 mph for 45 minutes as my low level activity or am I better walking for 45 min? I am 31 and am trying to get to 70-75 kg.

      Abdul wrote on May 22nd, 2011
  11. I am a music student ASU who plays drum set. this is not my only low level cardio, but definitely my favorite. for the past week, rocking out to jackson’s Thriller has been my favorite thing to do.

    also, treading water can be very fun if you time yourself. after 5 -10 of treading without rest, my heart rate seams to be near 75 percent.

    Wyatt wrote on July 2nd, 2009
    • i went to ASU :)

      leslie wrote on January 6th, 2010
  12. Mark;
    Can you elaborate further on the amount of actual fat burning that is undertaken when, say, one goes for a brisk walk for 3/4 of an hour? How long of that is the uptake of glycogen, if any?
    Is it most effective to undertake the low level activity before, or after a session of heavy weights, to maximize fat burn?

    Thank you.

    Milad wrote on July 2nd, 2009
    • I think you are missing the point of low level cardio. Its not for burning fat. It is for getting your body to move and relax at the same time.

      For burning fat, you should teach your body to burn fat, by keeping your insulin levels very low. This is done best by either fasting or going low carb.

      Exercising for reducing fat is a waste of time.

      Anand Srivastava wrote on July 3rd, 2009
      • Dr Phil Maffetone, a sports doctor, would disagree – It’s not just diet. Low intensity aerobics also trains your body to burn fat rather than sugar (repeated intense workouts, or anaerobic exercise trains the body to burn sugar).

        carroll wrote on August 12th, 2010
    • Here:

      This article will answer your questions nicely. :)

      Eric wrote on January 27th, 2013
  13. Thanks Mark. I love to read your blog. You give such a detailed explanation , with further links for more information, great.

    Yes I also read this week somewhere that it reduces overall systemic inflamarion too. I must say I enjoy walking a lot , it gives me lots of serenity and harmony. I usually walk 1hr min/day is for pleasure.

    thania1 wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  14. Dogs!

    I walk mine every day for at least an hour most days, and significantly longer if time permits. I have no backyard/garden so if Fido has to “go,” then I have to walk.

    We also spend a lot of time playing frisbee, and she’ll even run sprints with me (and occasionally lets me win).

    Russell wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  15. I commute to and from work every weekday on my bike – rain or shine. It reduces my carbon footprint and I don’t have the stress of sitting in traffic going into/coming out of town. I get my daily dose of Vitamin D. I also look forward to it – it wakes me up in the morning and is a great release after a long workday! I couldn’t imagine life without my commute – it’s the best part of my day! How many Americans can say that…

    LizMac wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  16. My friend Tsuyoshi and I walked from the top of North county san diego, to Torrey pines state park beach, about 18 milks of beach, Then inland 15 miles through a canyon to his house…. barefooted for the beach part… then in vibrams for the rest…. what a freakin workout… and tons of fun, went to places i have never been, beachs i always wanted to run around on, and cleared my mind.


    Troy wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  17. I used to be self conscious about walking. It certainly wasn’t the “manly” thing to do. Couldn’t look “weak” walking through the neighborhood! What a fool. I love walking with my wife or alone for at least 30 minutes an evening. Thanks Mark!

    LG wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  18. How about good old-fashioned housecleaning? You know. . .scrubbing floors on your hands and knees, washing windows, sweeping with a (gasp!) broom? I’ll bet our great-grandmas stayed in pretty good shape. Now we have Roombas and Scoobas so we can spend more time in front of the TV. (I can’t help but think of those “humans” in Wall-E who looked like beached whales and all but lost their ability to walk…

    Catalina wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  19. About a year ago I started a new job as a baker. My days involve 7 hours on my feet, brisk walking almost constantly, heavy lifting in spurts and lots of bending and squatting. At first I was too exhausted to work out at night and felt guilty about it! Over the course of the year however I’ve noticed a general toning of my muscles and repositioning of body composition. Since switching from a vegetarian diet a few months ago, I’ve noticed an increase in muscle mass and energy. Now I can finally sit at night an relax and not feel guilty! My only fear is my many years of vegetarianism has permanently injured my body – I’m better but still not at the energy level and strength level I’d like.

    Brenda wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  20. I park on the other side of the city when I get to work and have a good 15 minute walk including up and down many sets of stairs (instead of taking the escalators) that is 30 minutes already without even trying!

    Also another way is a weekend of spring cleaning the house, nothing like scrubbing the floors on my hands and knees with a brush singing songs from Annie, lol and I don’t feel guilty for not going to the gym as this is probably a better workout.

    Miriam wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  21. I’ve read research stating that interval training improves aerobic capacity and I’ve also read that cardio encourages the conversion of transitional muscle fibers from fast twitch to slow twitch which is bad for athletes who aren’t involved in endurance sports. As such, I’ve sworn off all cardio.

    Since reading the fitness chapters of Primal Blueprint, my perspective of low intensity cardio is changing. I’m excited because I miss riding my road bike!

    In regard to muscle fibers transitioning, I’m thinking that the effect can’t be too significant, otherwise it would have impaired the ability of prehistoric humans to hunt and flee from danger which is not conducive to evolution.

    I wonder though if more of the fiber type transition is likely to occur when you get closer to 75% of max heart rate?

    Vin - NaturalBias wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  22. Vin, it’s probably true that the closer you get to 75% for longer time periods (or above it) the more fiber type transition occurs. I tell all young runners to stick with the sprints or middle distance as long as possible, because once you start training for 10ks and marathons you never get your speed fully back, I’m sure it works that way in general. Make your easy workouts easier and your hard workouts shorter and harder…

    Mark Sisson wrote on July 2nd, 2009
    • Thanks Mark!

      Vin - NaturalBias wrote on July 2nd, 2009
    • this is exactly what the Ethiopian distance runners do according to Bob Babbitt and his Competitor podcast–high quality workout and very very easy recovery runs.

      Rudi wrote on May 3rd, 2014
  23. I try to walk for an hour “uphill” on the threadmil each day, some days followed by some interval rowing or sprinting. The threadmil is not the most inspiring thing to do, but I listen to audiobooks while I do it, and I find it hard to keep it as steady if I walk in nature.

    Jonas Cronfeld wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  24. @ Nostril Damus

    I understand the logic behind aligning our lifestyle with that of our ancestors- and I believe in the case of nutrition it is dead on- but in the field of exercise I believe there are benefits of modern technology to be had.

    To sort of step on my own toes, I believe anaerobic metabolism is far more ancient (primal) than aerobic metabolism. While I don’t see any negatives in low, LOW levels of aerobic activity (as Mark suggests that our ancestors performed such as walking and performing random like foraging or carrying water) there are negatives to be had in moderate levels of aerobic activity- namely wear and tear and free radical damage.

    Much of what I’ve read on the subject argues that the minimal physiological adaptations produced by any level of aerobic steady state activity are not worth the negatives- and as a tangent, by no means is it necessary for optimal health and well being (especially long term).

    Or, IOW, cranking your anaerobic metabolism briefly, intensely, and infrequently is all that is required to achieve the level of health and wellness that is your birth right. Doing so with weight training, IMO, also makes this task much, much safer while providing the same benefits.

    hope this helped


    Dream wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  25. *performing random tasks

    Dream wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  26. Luckily my job involves spending upwards of 8 hours on my feet each day so I definitely get my lifestyle activity in!

    Last weekend in the heat I did some moving and building of furniture, boy what a workout….Now time for me to hit the weights…..

    Chris - ZTF wrote on July 2nd, 2009
  27. To further clarify my point, I’m not suggesting we become completely sedentary. Staying active, getting outside, horsing around and so on is key, on a physical and psychological level for healthy living.

    However moderate aerobic activity as a means to exercise just doesn’t hold up IMO. Walking, cool. Jogging, not so much.

    There is a fine line between exercise and recreation. Both serve an individual purpose and should not be confused for one another.

    Dream wrote on July 3rd, 2009
    • Does this disagree with the Primal Blueprint? Light, playful activity intermingled with brief, intense workouts, often with heavy weights… I was under the impression that was exactly what the Primal Blueprint recommended. I also thought long bouts of jogging were discouraged. Maybe the justification is different, but other than that, it doesn’t sound different to me. But maybe I’m missing something…

      Plato wrote on July 6th, 2009
  28. Timely post!!! Today was a running day, but I had to go on a shopping trip. I don’t like it when that happens, because around here, a shopping day is very taxing (hence I am no shape to run afterwards). Walking to the train, up stairs, down stairs, walking all over town, lugging bags on the shoulders, more stairs…

    Thanks for helping me accept that I didn’t really skip out on exercise. Today though, non-primal Mr. Hello Kitty enjoyed a generous level of activity: he climbed Mt. Fuji! First time for him, second for my son, and I’ve already climbed it so no need to do THAT again. It ain’t like childbirth because you *don’t* “forget”, hahaha. :)

    Hello Kitty wrote on July 3rd, 2009
  29. Golf seems to fit into Mark’s concept nicely.

    It’s 4+ hours of walking, lifting (your clubs) and focusing on shots.

    thehova wrote on July 3rd, 2009
  30. Thanks Mark for another great article!

    I absolutely love hiking. There is something so refreshing about just walking through nature. It clears my head and gets me to really appreciate the present moment.

    ~ Gina

    Gina from Diet Renegade wrote on July 3rd, 2009
  31. 75% of your HR is hardly LOW. AN unfit person, especial if overweight can easily reach 75% Target HR whereas a slimer fit person with need to push it to reach 75%- walking more inclines, carry more weight- ideally above the chest and shoulders as the arms push the heart even more than the legs.

    pjnoir wrote on July 3rd, 2009
  32. Mark,
    You mentioned lawn mowing which I find to be a cool low intensity workout. I didn’t always feel that way but one day when I had to miss a training session to cut the grass I started looking at what it provides in the primal realm, at least for my lawn: 1 hour of walking, on some uneven terrain, and pushing something thata gets heavier as it goes along! The only times I stop are to empty the catcher about 5 times which requires bending, pulling, lifting and shaking as I dump it over the fence onto my canal bank. Plus it’s outside and I can vary the speed of my pace. I also get alot of thinking done. I can’t say I look forward to it but after examining the benefits (and you seem to agree) I can find rewards in doing it.

    Randy wrote on July 3rd, 2009
  33. I live in London, where keeping a car is more trouble than it’s worth. I get around using a mix of walking and public transport. I found the train journey to work too crowded and stressful (I’d always arrive feeling like I needed to punch someone) so now my journey involved a 10 minute tube journey followed by a half hour walk. I also make sure I get out and walk in the park at lunchtime. I’m not sure it makes up for all the hours I spend hunched over a computer, but it certainly can’t hurt.
    Likewise, I walk to the shops, then lug all my groceries back home in a backpack. I live up a hill.
    I’m glad I don’t live America – most cities and towns don’t seem to cater to pedestrians. No wonder so many people have health problems.

    Ms Cal wrote on July 4th, 2009
  34. I don’t know a CITY in America that is unworkable. Cities by nature are design to walk or use a bike and not an automobile. Suburbs are different, but with smaller shopping centers coming back in style- many have become “walkable.” Although walking would be a good start in curing many health issues, it is not a panacea to replace a better diet. I’m very glad to live in America and share the road to work, either in my car or on foot.

    pjnoir wrote on July 5th, 2009
  35. Mark-
    Great post. I logged my best elite level performance when I had a solid low-leve base. I was playing a Brazilian martial art, Capoeira for upwards of 2hrs/day. On top of this I was able to train CrossFit and my overall strength, stamina, work capacity and health were better than ever before or since,

    However one can do it, build that big base of fun lower level activity, then make brief forays into the hard stuff. Great recipe!

    Robb Wolf wrote on July 5th, 2009
    • Robb, after ten years of intensive training and competing in marathons and triathlons, my own epiphany came when I had “retired” and was training regular, mostly unfit clients every day. I’d work out with them doing 12-minute miles or easy easy bike rides. Maybe 3 or 4 hours of very slow work each day(I’d say painfully slow, but it wasn’t painful at all). Then once or twice a week at most, I’d get to the track and hammer some 400s or I’d do hill repeats on my bike. 30 minutes of HIT. That was it. Low and behold I raced faster, recovered quicker and was never as “beat up” from training as I had been just about every day for the previous ten years. That’s when I finally “got it.”

      Mark Sisson wrote on July 7th, 2009
  36. Yes, yes and again yes! I always had problems with reactive hypos, and sometimes reactive hypers (liver dumping excess glucose) from cardio level activities which didn’t (usually) occur with constant low level stuff like walking, gardening, housework etc.

    Now my BG problems are mostly under control I still tend to do the same kind of stuff, walking downtown for the shopping, hiking out in the country with my photographic gear (which weighs a few kilos) and taking full advantage of my ADD. You know how annoying it is when you go upstairs for something, can’t remember what it was and have to go downstairs again? No, it’s NOT annoying at all, just an excuse for more exercise. In fact if I need to take something upstairs and bring something else down I’ll deliberately make two journeys.

    Also I’m somewhat allergic to “exercise” as an end in itself, for which I entirely blame school games and those mouth breathers exuding testosterone in gyms (the men are even worse). If I can find something which provides exercise and also an end result I’m there.

    OK I don’t do as much as I should, I have a very elderly mother I daren’t leave for too long (although ultra slow walking can be an exercise in itself) plus I spend far too much time sat at my computers reading MDA (glares) but I add in relatively short bursts of high intensity stuff and the balance seems to be working nicely without knocking over any of my systems in the way that running and stuffing my face with carbs never did.

    Trinkwasser wrote on July 6th, 2009

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