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. Lots of good information, one question I have is in the past I’ve been told that the activity I get at work isn’t enough. I work in the construction trade and am perty much moving all day, lifting, pulling, pushing, walking, etc. From your artical most of what I do everyday constitutes low level cardio but is it enough. I lift about 2 to 3 tims a week and am seeing siggns of improvement but I just don’t see much of a change to the fat I on me. should I include more cardio in my workouts.

    tom wrote on August 25th, 2011
  2. Great article Mark.
    I have to admit that the idea of having low level aerobic activity as a base was one of the initial things that started me reading the primal blueprint. About 6 months ago I discovered I needed heart surgery (Im 27 by the way). I have had a leaking aortic valve since birth but it was only discovered recently when the leak started to get worse. I had been going all out to try to lose weight before I found out and my heart started to struggle and grew to compensate for the low blood flow (dizzy spells while I was sitting down at work are what took me to the doctor). To make a long story short I am 4 months in post op recovery (not doing any rehab course or anything just working on my own and following advise from my doctors). I have been going for low level walks for as long as I could most days since the op, currently up to about an hour. About a month ago I had my 12 week check up and they told me my heart has already reduced by nearly 30% in that time and is now back in the normal range. Which apparently is an excellent response. Im slowly getting back into my routine of work and exercise and I have to admit your articles are a big help to keep motivated. Thanks for the inspiration Mark.

    – Padraig in Ireland

    Padraig wrote on October 11th, 2011
  3. I’ve been advocating this style of ‘working out’ for years after retiring from playing soccer (i.e. graduating from college). We had to lift and run all the time, plus I ran on my own even though I hated it (AND I only seemed to get fatter from the voracious appetite I developed and fed with college food). At the end of college I had a serious talk with myself and said, ‘I’m not working out on purpose anymore!’ I quit lifting and running miles upon miles. It was hard, I had to change my way of thinking about fitness and get rid of the fear that I was going to get fat (I already was fat and it was running and lifting and eating to maintain that lifestyle that got me that way). Now I get low-level aerobic exercise by standing at my desk most of the day, making sure to move around, playing tennis with friends and my husband, doing yoga, riding my bike to work, playing pickup soccer, disc golf, doing handstands when I feel like it, and generally be silly and having fun! It’s a good life!

    drea wrote on October 25th, 2011
  4. What about trampolining?

    JP wrote on December 1st, 2011
  5. Undeniably consider that which you stated. Your favourite reason appeared to be at the web the simplest factor to take note of. I say to you, I certainly get irked even as other people consider concerns that they plainly don’t recognize about. You managed to hit the nail upon the highest and defined out the whole thing with no need side effect , folks could take a signal. Will likely be again to get more. Thanks

    fitness wrote on December 1st, 2011
  6. When I ride my bicycle or go running, what I do is always cycle or run at the fastest pace I can without going out of breath or my chest hurting.

    If I feel out of breath or any chest pain, I slow down until it goes away, and then increase it slightly until I can keep it at that pace comfortably.

    At this point I can continue on for an extended amount of time. It’s like my body’s cruising speed.

    Peter wrote on January 2nd, 2012
  7. Does jogging -slowly- count as low level aerobic? <4mph say for 3 miles or so?

    Sarah wrote on January 2nd, 2012
  8. Electric bike goes Primal!
    I am using my electrical bike to go to work giving me 3-5 hours of low intensity workout a week. I used to ride a “normal” bike but since its a hilly road and my daily life doesnt allow me to take 1 hour each direction I could not keep the pulse low enough. Just an reccomendation for thoose of you that has say 5-10 miles to work. Taking the car takes 15 minutes and riding the bike takes 30 minutes for me and since it is such low intensity I wear my office cloths + raingear and insulation when needed (live in north europe). I can imagine that anyone living in an area where traffic is congested the timing will even out between bike vs car.
    Just a suggestion on how to get that low level exersice into your daily shedule!

    tordnado wrote on February 24th, 2012
  9. This is the article I’ve been looking for on this, and every other, fitness website. I don’t like to think of fitness as an elitist activity, exercise is for everyone, but sometimes it’s easy to thing “I’d have time to get fit too, if I didn’t have to work everyday”.

    I’ve always wondered if my physically intensive work could be counted as proper exercise. And after a few years of working physically hard at work, then come home and working hard again on the gym. It’s nice to see someone acknowledge proper physical work as a good source of exercise.

    CB wrote on March 18th, 2012
  10. i have 4 dogs i walk at least 8 times a day maybe more, i like to run with the dogs on short burst (only problem is they are Chihuahuas and much faster than me so they wind up close lining themselves. :) sometimes my wife and I will ride our bikes and try to get lost and then find our way back (we live in a suburban new area but i alway have my phone on me in case, some of the advantages to modern life.) we sometimes do the same with hiking in this big state campground near us. you burn so many calories when doing low activity work with a problem solving component involved. brain and body working (brain may be working harder at some points)

    Chris wrote on April 25th, 2012
  11. I am so grateful that my job provides me with lots of practical exercise. I work in the produce dept at the grocery store, and I get in 10 or more miles at a moderate pace every workday, and lift-and-carry 40 lb boxes and bags while I do it. The base level of fitness I have gained from my job, as well as the nearly immediate subjective health benefits and performance improvements I have experienced eating a primal diet (largely fish, I live on an island and fresh fish is inexpensive here) have been incredible.
    The returns I have gotten are certainly due to the consistent nature of my activities; I have to go to work, so I automatically get lots and lots of low-intensity activity and whole-body strength training. It might sound unreasonable for some people who already have careers, but for those of you who are, like me, working in jobs that don’t require education, I think looking for a physical job, even temporarily, can lead to a lot of drastic results without having to think about it.

    Lindsey wrote on May 3rd, 2012
  12. We should all play human minecraft.

    Peter wrote on May 7th, 2012
  13. Glad I’ve found this post! Had a accident whilst cycling (which I do a lot of, mostly cardio I must say tho :o()& broke 3 ribs plus badly bruised back so at the moment only exercise I can do is walking.

    Once recovered I’ll probably change the ways I train after by doing low intensity workouts plus try crossfit a couple of times a week!!

    mark jackson wrote on May 7th, 2012
  14. I can attest to the benefits low intensity cardio being a Muay Thai kickboxer. I used to go by conventional wisdom that says to run hard for medium distances (2-3 miles) every time i run, all the time, and that casual jogging is a waste of time and counterproductive, but after a recent trip to train with the best in the sport in Thailand my attitude towards cardio has changed.

    “These Thai guys run every morning for an hour or more before they train.” When my friend told me this, i thought “Man, that’s intense, so much cardio!”. But what i found out after going there is that the daily morning runs they do are akin to a leisurely outdoor jog at a light effort, 10-12 minute pace, which given, is probably difficult for people who aren’t active, but for most athletes it’s under the category of “too easy”. I found out later that the purpose of the jog is to wake up, get the muscles warm, get mentally focused and prepare for the morning training session….The runs were a far cry from your typical 75%+ effort run i expected. Another thing they do at the particular camp i went to are short sprint sessions 2-3 times a week. Might i add that these Thai boxers are absolute BEASTS and physical specimens, lean, lightweight, enduring cardio machines with lots of power behind their punches and kicks, not strong in the weightlifting sense, but very strong when the demands of their sport (short burst cardio over and over, stand up wrestling) are kept in mind..

    I thought “man this is wayy too easy, and boring” (though looking back, the fresh country air and green scenery was nice)…So me being the ignorant, cocky westerner tried to upstage the Thai boxers by going hard and fast to the finish line of every morning run despite the coaches’ suggestions of “sabai sabai my friend” (relax, take it easy)…after several sessions i found myself injured, overtrained and sick in bed with the flu unable to train for days. After that experience i just went with the flow and did the easy jog with the Thais and something peculiar happened after a couple weeks, my cardio and energy efficiency in kickboxing training improved significantly!

    I’d also like to add that their diets are excellent for the amount of training they do. They do eat rice which is a cultural thing, but everything is organic/grass-fed- fruits, meats, broths, vegetables etc, with lots of different awesome spices and flavorings….they are so thin (which is probably also genetic) and they don’t measure portions or count calories either, These people are very close to nature. Though, on the other hand i do notice that the richer Thais with easy lives who aren’t boxers or hard working farmers/laborers are a little on the soft, pudgy side (ie. thin but not lean), probably due to the excess rice intake without any hard exercise to balance it out like the boxers/laborers. And despite these easy runs, i think Thais still fall under the category of “chronic cardio” (which would permit more grains to be used in the diet to meet calorie requirements), but chronic cardio due to the necessity and demands of their training, not obsessiveness, if these boxers had a choice they’d do nothing all day.

    So, in short…. there really is something to this low-intensity cardio, sometimes you have to go slow to be able to go faster, sometimes less effort gives more results.

    GrokMuayThai wrote on May 28th, 2012

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