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. I body-surfed for 30 minutes today.

    Chronic Cardio is also THE factor preventing naturally skinny men like myself from building any real muscle. Once I stopped punishing myself with cardio (in a failed attempt to lose fat) I was finally able to see real results in the gym. Lose fat with primal eating. Gain muscle by avoiding excess cardio. Really!

    Fixed Gear wrote on July 7th, 2009
  2. Mark,
    If I miss a workout but go for a walk I try to not guilt set in, because it’s so unnecessary. This is a great post to further give understanding that a good walk is a good thing.
    Best Regards,

    Zach wrote on July 7th, 2009
  3. AMEN and thank you for this article!!

    I do yoga every morning and night; go for long walks; dance to my favorite music :-)

    VeggieGirl wrote on July 8th, 2009
  4. I really enjoy a game of disc golf.
    Walk a few miles on uneven terrain
    Throw a disc a far as I can.
    Play,exersize,and relax and in one.

    Dylan wrote on July 9th, 2009
  5. Mark, when I go to the gym, I see very few people performing the true steady-state sufferfests that you warn us against. Most “cardio-freaks” are doing low-level aerobic training, maybe on machines, but low-level nonetheless. How many times do you see someone really grinding it out on a cardio machine? Most are soft-pedaling, walking, chatting, etc. Their biggest problem isn’t lack of low-level work, but rather that they never do anything more intense. I think it’s important to emphasize the importance of the intense weight/sprint workouts within the PB context. And when it comes to the low-level, aerobic stuff, I think you’d agree that it’s best whenever possible to ditch the machines, get outside, and do something enjoyable.

    On another note, I’d say relatively few endurance athletes are performing steady-state training these days. The 80-90% of Vo2 (i.e., steady-state) work is now considered a “no-mans land” by most. Maffetone, Mark Allen, etc. all suggest that the bulk of training should consist of low-level aerobic work. Of course, for a well-trained, high-level athlete, low-level aerobic work may mean running 7:00/miles, whereas for less experienced, the same effort level may mean briskly walking, but the heart rates and overall effect on the body is the same. I’ve read that Lance Armstrong’s training from 1999-2005 consisted of long hours (5+hours/day) at heart rates not to exceed 155-160 (he has a max ~200, and LT at 190, so 155 is very aerobic for him). Many of his training rides averaged ~130. Of course, these athletes will add in some work at tempo work at threshold and some Vo2 Max stuff, but that comprises a small percentage of their overall training.

    Would you say that the current endurance training protocol isn’t THAT far off from PB?

    ebrunner wrote on July 9th, 2009
    • ebrunner, at the elite level it would appear that there is a new awareness of the dangers of Chronic Cardio…but a ton of people are still hammering away far too much. Agreed that intensity is going to make the difference. But it’s still tough summoning intensity a day after a five hour ride or 90 minute run even if you were at “low levels”

      Mark Sisson wrote on July 9th, 2009
    • I see it. My girlfriends are chronic cardio-ers. One even goes twice a day, on a machine for an hour at a time. It’s the end of the world if they miss a session. And then they gripe about how sore and miserable they are. Best part is they pay a trainer to put them through all this! And dine on pasta and low-fat dairy, so they haven’t lost much weight. It’s frustrating to listen to. I’ve tried to set them on the primal path a few times but gave up because they don’t listen, so now I just lead by example.

      I love my 15-20 minutes of stair climbing followed by light weights and a solid primal diet!

      Sally wrote on June 5th, 2012
  6. Moderate exercise, such as light hiking, has always seemed to benefit me quite a lot. I’ve found that it helps in weight loss, as it lets me work off some calories on those days when I can’t easily arrange for a strenuous workout. Also I find that if I do the strenuous stuff too frequently there’s the risk of joint or muscle pain. Many people end up in this boat due to not balancing intense exercise with low level exercise.

    memory foam wrote on July 10th, 2009
  7. I wanted to add that a lot of life long extreme aerobic exercisers/athletes are turning up with atrial fibrillation. Their hearts become damaged over time from overly strenuous exercise. A-fib is a condition that for most gradually gets progressively worse until the heart is permanently out of rhythm.

    The type of exercise you are talking about actually is beneficial to a-fibbers and improves the situation. So does a primal diet.

    Tish wrote on February 7th, 2010
  8. I volunteer at the local Humane Society. Initially, I walked dogs then began to play with them in a yard then began to assist staff in scrubbing floors and etc. Slowly grew into “real” exercise, was fun and helps the animals and staff.

    ally wrote on March 1st, 2010
  9. Does singing and playing guitar fit into this category? I suspect that it may but a professional opinion is always better.

    ckoehler wrote on April 13th, 2010
  10. Mark, what about lactate threshold?

    I have access to LT testing from a rowing coach, and as I understand it, HR monitoring is essentially an easier but less accurate stand-in for lactate level targeting.

    2 millimoles or less is what I’m hearing as probably corresponding to the 55-75% max HR you’re referring to…thoughts?

    Peter Beck wrote on April 17th, 2010
    • Don’t worry about the absolute amount of lactate – 2 mmol/L is just a number. I think of absolute values like 2 mmol/L of lactate like HR calculations like 220 – your age – it may work for some, but that is just plain luck.

      I do lactate testing (in a way that does not focus on the absolute lactate values, but instead how your body clears lactate) and can assure you that your lactate values can be manipulated (diet, recovery before testing, etc.)

      Google FaCT Education if you want to learn a bit more.

      Kevin W wrote on May 2nd, 2010
  11. I don’t quite agree with you Mark regarding cardio workouts. I used to do construction work, so that is about 7-10! hours of “low level aerobic activity” per day. Often I would come home and go for a run, or sometimes go to a training session (wrestling) and then run home. I often felt much better after more intense workout, even I had many hours of low intensity work during the day.
    You cannot substitute low level for high level aerobic activity. I do agree that really long aerobic workouts that require you to consume additional gels or energy drinks, which are very popular amongst runners and cyclists (especially) are not healthy.
    I think cardio workouts are fine as long as you feel good after them without having to consume any recovery/sugary products during or after the workout. The length and intensity is different from person to person.
    You recommend sprints. Agree, if you are healthy and strong, as a Grok :). But for the most people it could be injury prone. Not everybody has marathon training background, and not every 55 year old person can sprint.

    Sergey wrote on May 11th, 2010
  12. At home I am always cooking & cleaning for my husband and children at work as an International Flight Attendant I do a lot of walking, pushing and pulling 250 pound carts up and down hill. Putting away peoples very heavy luggage. Bending, twisting, squatting to stock and serve from the carts and galleys. I also love to go for long walks on my layovers. I practice Ashtanga Yoga and teach a class once a week. That’s all.

    sky13 wrote on July 30th, 2010
  13. Great article, thanks!
    I work out at a rehab center at the hospital where I work and every day I see overweight, out of shape people torturing themselves with intense cardio sessions! Most of them will burn out and give up, but I fear that all they are doing is damaging their body. I applaud their effort, but I think you are right in saying that there is a mindset of no pain, no gain.

    I try to use the heart rate monitors on the equpiment and stay at about 60% of my max. It’s HARD for me to do that because it feels too easy! I really look forward to strength training. Sometimes my muscles want to scream just from using my own body weight, like when I’m doing planks and ball sits, but these moves are helping me get tone and definition for the first time in years :) So thanks for reminding me that I’m doing the right thing. And I’ll continue to love my evening walks with my husband :)

    MaryAnn wrote on August 3rd, 2010
  14. Mark – tell me about squash. I love this – it’s fun, mentally challenging, skill based but brilliantly aerobic.

    what are the thoughts on it?

    Sarah wrote on August 19th, 2010
  15. It’s also great for taking a break from work

    Jeff wrote on November 10th, 2010
  16. Mark, just recently started reading your blog and find it very informative. I’m a 65 YO retired F who teaches a senior exercise class 3Xwk to a similar small group of females (ages 60 to 73 or so). We do stretches, yoga, light (2-3 lb) weights, floor work, balance and yoga. Classes last 45-75 min depending on how much everyone talks. I have never thought of this workout as aerobic although we are tired by the time it is over and get warm from exertion after about 5 minutes. Also, I noticed that you mentioned yoga in this blog. We are all very active and most of us also walk. We all have various ailments from unfortunate lifestyle choices (I have diet and exercise controlled diab II) but all are controlable and stable. Does what we do count toward low level aerobic activity. Thanks

    Judith wrote on January 11th, 2011
  17. Hello Primalistas:

    Any more specific way to quantify “low level” ?

    At 51 y.o.,my RHR is high 40s- Low 50s. I volunteered for a heart study at a local university hospital and was “rejected” b/c I was supposed to be in the “normal” group and it turned out I had an (athletic) “big heart.” I told my wife that now it is scientifically confirmed :-)

    Lately, I have come under the influence of “Guru” (respectfully stated,) Phil Maffetone. His nutrition suggestions parallel the PB. He also suggests a predominance of easier training, using his “180” formula.

    I have begun using a heart rate monitor to experiment with Maffetone’s approach and I am interested to know the extent to which it meshes w/ PB.



    Eddie wrote on February 19th, 2011
  18. Please check out where my ordered copy of the new recipe book is. I received m copy of Primal Blueprint, but I also ordered the new cookbook. I will wait for either the book to arrive – or for your reply to this. Thanks.

    Cindy Hocking wrote on April 11th, 2011

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