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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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July 02 2009

The Definitive Guide to Low Level Aerobic Activity

By Mark Sisson
101 Comments

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.

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101 thoughts on “The Definitive Guide to Low Level Aerobic Activity”

  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.

  2. Great article Mark! I love taking a nice long walk or hike. I like that you highlighted all kinds of activities like dancing.

  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.

  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.

    1. 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?

  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!

  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.

    1. 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.

  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.

  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

  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.

  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

    1. 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.

  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.

  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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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).

  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.

  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).

  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…

  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

  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!

  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…

    1. Totally true. I spent about 30 min subbing scuff marks of the stairs last week. All i could think about was painting Mr. Miyagi’s fence and waxing his car.

  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.

  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.

  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?

  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…

    1. 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.

  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.

  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

    -Anthony

  25. 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…..

  26. 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.

    1. 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…

  27. 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. 🙂

  28. Golf seems to fit into Mark’s concept nicely.

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

  29. 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

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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!

    1. 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.”

  35. 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.

  36. 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!

  37. 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

  38. AMEN and thank you for this article!!

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

  39. 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.

  40. 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?

    1. 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”

    2. 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!

  41. 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.

  42. 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.

  43. 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.

  44. Does singing and playing guitar fit into this category? I suspect that it may but a professional opinion is always better.

  45. 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?

    1. 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.

  46. 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.

  47. 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.

  48. 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 🙂

  49. Mark – tell me about squash. I love this – it’s fun, mentally challenging, skill based but brilliantly aerobic.

    what are the thoughts on it?

  50. 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

  51. 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.
    http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/central/

    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.

    TIA,

    Eddie

  52. 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.

  53. 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.

  54. 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

  55. 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!

  56. 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

  57. 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.

  58. Does jogging -slowly- count as low level aerobic? <4mph say for 3 miles or so?

  59. 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!

  60. 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.

  61. 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)

  62. 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.

  63. 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!!

  64. 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.

  65. I love my “electronic reading devices”, but instead of sitting on my butt to read my favorites, I increase the font size and slap that bad boy on my treadmill rack. It’s more enjoyable than watching mindless TV and I since I want to read “just one more chapter”, I can put in some significant walking distance while indulging my brain. Guilt-free pleasure!

  66. It is very liberating to hear that low level cardio is the best form of cardio. I have had colleagues in my office sneer and laugh at low level cardio as a weak attempt to fitness and they also have the no pain no gain attitude. To hear Mark say that all that is BS and low level cardio is the best form of cardio makes me very happy

  67. I’m surprised nobody has mentioned this, but… Bodyweight workouts!

    They get my heartrate up to about 120-130 which at my age is well within the 55- 75% recommendation.

    A good set of prisoner squats, lunges, and push-ups, backwards bench dips… Not only do you build/tone muscle but you get the cardio benefits as well!

    And of course, I do WAY more than my fair share of walking…

  68. Good old-fashioned housework provides a good amount of moderate exercise, like when you’re crawling around scrubbing floors, squatting down to clean under the bed, stretching to clean the top shelves in the cupboards, moving the furniture around to vacuum behind it, shaking out the rugs. Washing the car, pulling weeds, digging compost into the garden. All things that people hire someone else to do so they have time to go to the gym. Doesn’t make sense, does it?

  69. Hi Mark,
    I ditched my Total Gym, Malibu Pilates Chair, and Spinning Class membership for 3-mile brisk walks five days a week and I’m loving it.

  70. I wanted to continue the discussion which Anthony had started with his reference to the book Body By Science (BBS). I am indeed curious as to what Primal experts think of the book. I have not had the opportunity to read it. It sounds like, from what Anthony says, that the BBS authors caution against overly romanticizing early man’s approach to physicality. But I’d like to hear more on that…

    The other thing I wanted to mention, which kind of falls in line with Anthony’s point “walking cool. jogging not so much”. I have heard that studies (and I don’t have a reference to cite) of the Amish population reveal a much lower rate of heart disease and obesity. In a way it doesn’t surprise me. Having grown up in an rural area surrounded by an Amish community I witnessed first hand all of the walking and manual labor that they do daily. Even today, an Amish gentleman frequently shovels my parents driveway and never ceases to amaze them with the speed and sheer physical exertion that he can sustain.

    So, maybe not Primal, but certainly 19th century…. 😉

    –Joe

  71. Great article – gotta say having a dog is great for working in some low-level movement into the day. Just a few walks a day, and whenever I don’t feel like doing it, I just remind myself of how much the dog loves all the new scents and sounds and sights he gets to encounter when he ventures out of the house.

  72. Rowing. There’s no better combined strength and cardio exercise. Low impact to boot. Get yourself on a proper rowing machine – like a Concept 2, what the Olympians use – for 30 minutes a day and be amazed at the results after a few months,

  73. I play mixed netball every week. It’s great fun with plenty of moderate exercise, and if you play Centre like I do, plenty of sprints. I am drummer so I get plenty of moderate exercise with my arms and legs but unfortunately I am sitting down a lot. Not very Primal. Although I feel there is something VERY Primal about bashing drums.

  74. I’d like to think my random evening dance parties count for this! As well as the light hikes I try to take a few days a week at the local legit park (read: has trails and real nature, not just a patch of grass). Though even light casual walking makes me happy.

  75. What about walking with a weighted backpack (Ruk sacking)? Is this a good activity? How much added weight to start? Thanks.

  76. In this article you mention that low level aerobic exercise “stimulates the production of Interleukin-6, an anti-inflammatory cytokine, which in turn signals and benefits other organs.” But isn’t IL-6 a pro-inflammatory cytokine? Did you mean IL-10? Or maybe you’re referencing the tendency of IL-6, when in sufficient quantity, to trigger the repairing effects of IL-10?

    In these articles you mention IL-6 as pro-inflammatory:
    https://www.marksdailyapple.com/how-to-tell-if-youre-inflamed-objective-and-subjective-inflammatory-markers/#axzz3s4W3ZZ4x
    And
    https://www.marksdailyapple.com/arthritis-diet/#axzz3s4WJzhYL

  77. Very interesting and appealing ideas. Experimentation will be done.

    As a side note, although I guess the main customers for these ideas and related products are office work types, there are many many people who do work that gives a much more Grok-esque baseline level of activity: construction trades, the restaurant business (kitchen and service, that’s me), janitorial staff, etc. And postal delivery people doing foot routes would seem to be the true badasses of low level aerobic work.

  78. I know you’ve probably answered this before, but I can’t seem to find it. In the Primal Endurance book the formula for max heart rate was 180 – age. In the Primal Blueprint Ebook it says 220 – age. For the sake of clarity – which is it? Thanks in advance – I am loving the program!!!

  79. I have stage 4 COPD so walking at all is difficult for me! I have your book and I’m just starting your eating regime plus vitamins. Can I actually improve my health as it’s so advanced?
    Many thanks

  80. Me again! I should have said I have NEVER SMOKED! I’ve had aroma all my life and repeated chest infections plus radiotherapy for breast cancer has caused severe lung damage!