Aerobic workouts are gentle training sessions where the predominate form of energy being utilized is fat—mostly body fat. They’re easy, some would say “too easy,” but that’s the entire point. Aerobic workouts slowly build mitochondrial density and teach your body to burn fat. They’re essential, and they aren’t what I talk about when I talk about “chronic cardio,” which is the kind of unsustainable moderate-to-high intensity, high volume training that breaks you down and damages your health. Aerobic training is long, slow, easy, gentle, and most of all productive. If you want to be a fat-burning beast, if you want to become metabolically flexible, if you want your baseline capacity for aerobic activity, you have to do aerobic workouts.
But not everyone wants to do running, cycling, or swimming. So today I’m going to give you some different options for aerobic workouts.
Calculate and stay under the aerobic threshold. Subtract your age from 180 to get the aerobic threshold. 180 minus age—that’s the max aerobic heart rate. Do not exceed it.
Wear a heart monitor or heart rate monitor. Until you can monitor your aerobic threshold intuitively through feel alone, you’ll want to use a device that tracks your heart rate or pulse and make sure you never stray above the “180 minus age” threshold discussed above.
Breathe through your nose the entire time. Nasal breathing is not just more efficient and beneficial, it’s also an indicator of low enough intensity. Mouth breathing implies you’ve left the aerobic zone.
Make sure you can hold a conversation the entire time. Holding a normal conversation without gasping for breath or taking long pauses to gather your strength means you’re performing a sufficiently-gentle aerobic session.
Alternate Aerobic Workouts
Here are some ideas for you to try.
Find a big hill. Find a long uphill hike. Find some steep staircases. Find a gradually increasing grade, in other words, and walk up it. The best way to do this is to walk a long trail or neighborhood with steep grades and rolling hills and switchbacks. You could do it on a treadmill with the steep incline or walk up and down the same hill, but that’s not as interesting as a long walk through varied terrain.
No, don’t do burpees on a treadmill. There’s no machine involved.
With burpee treadmills, you do normal speed burpees, but only 1-3 every 30 seconds. You just keep that going, doing the max number of burpees per 30 seconds that allows you to stay under the aerobic threshold. You shouldn’t be out of breath for this.
This is the best choice. This is not my opinion. It is cold, hard, objective fact that standup paddling is the superior form of movement. Maybe 30-40% of my “aerobic training” takes place on top of my standup paddle board because I love doing it. A nice bonus is that it’s also a great aerobic workout.
Loaded walks (rucking)
Strap on a weight vest of a backpack filled with books and go for a walk. The added weight will increase the intensity of the walk enough that your HR flirts with the aerobic threshold but it’ll remain easy enough so you don’t go over.
One of my friends loves to set the treadmill at max incline and hold one 25 pound dumbbell. Then he just walks, switching hand positions every 30 seconds (overhead with left arm, holding it at your side with right arm, resting on your shoulder, etc) for 30-40 minutes while staying under the aerobic threshold. This can also happen, obviously, out in the real world on real trails and paths.
Floor-based movement flow
You ever get down on the ground and just move around on all fours, swapping between different positions, crawling, somersaulting, cartwheeling, rolling over, planking, doing a push-up, shoulder rolling? It’s fun, it can be highly aerobic, and it can be done while doing other things like watching TV or listening to a podcast.
One of my favorite CrossFit workouts is Cindy, which tasks you with doing rounds of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 bodyweight squats as many times as you can in a set period of time. Most people do this at high intensity. A fun twist is to make it aerobic: set a timer for 45 minutes, strap on the heart rate monitor and do Cindy, only slow. Take your sweet time doing the pull-ups, push-ups, and squats. Don’t focus on the number of rounds. Just try to go slow and keep your heart rate in the aerobic zone.
It feels really weird at first but eventually you get into a groove and figure out the perfect pace to maintain the 180 minus age zone.
Rowing machine or kayak—whatever you got. Just don’t treat this like a race. You’re not trying to break any records or go at CrossFit pace. Imagine you’re taking your sweetheart out for a lovely row on the pond. Imagine you’re living in the Wind in the Willows universe, and you’re meeting the river rat and badger for a picnic in an hour down river. Take your sweet time and just row casually.
I once knew a guy who did all his low level cardio by doing walking lunges everywhere. It was wild. You’d see him walking down the street doing lunges. You’d see him in the grocery store doing lunges. He got so good at doing lunges that it wasn’t really a workout for him anymore. He certainly wasn’t out of breath, ever, while doing the lunges. And I will say that he had incredible leg definition.
If you do this, make sure it doesn’t become a “workout.” If your heart rate starts trending up too high, take a break from the lunges and just walk for awhile.
Energy utilization is a spectrum.
These aren’t the only ways to build aerobic capacity. Energy utilization operates along a spectrum. It’s not binary. If you sprint up a hill, you’re not just burning pure glycogen because it’s high intensity. You’re still burning fat, you’re still accessing the aerobic energy pathway. It’s just that the aerobic pathway isn’t enough and you also have to dip into other forms of energy. So in a sense, all workouts are at least partially aerobic. That said, I do recommend focusing on exclusively aerobic threshold training from time to time, just to build that aerobic base and build up your fat-burning capacity. If you sprint and only sprint, you’ll be in great shape, but I think you’d be better off throwing in a lot of long walks (or paddles, or loaded walks, or hill hikes, or rowing) to complement the high intensity work.
Another benefit of low level aerobic work is the meditative aspect. I am not a formal meditator. It just doesn’t work for me. But when I’m out on the paddle board, I’m simply existing in the moment. That’s how I meditate. Could work for you, too.
Anyway, that’s what I’ve got for you. There are many ways to do aerobic workouts, not all of them requiring running, cycling, or swimming (although those are fantastic options too). I hope after today you’ll give some of these a shot and start building up your aerobic capacity.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.