Why Low Impact Cardio Is The Anti-Stress Workout To Try Now

Why Low Impact Cardio Is The Anti-Stress Workout To Try Now

Exercise has long been touted as one of the best ways to manage stress, but if you’ve been smashing HIIT classes over the last few months and aren’t seeing results, chances are they could be having the opposite effect. With an increasing number of studies showing HIIT and running can wreak havoc on stress levels and muscle growth, it pays to dial back the intensity for a happier body and mind. Here’s why low impact cardio might be the answer.

Stress Levels Stay On An Even Keel

Feeling frazzled by 11am after a sunrise run or rounding off a hectic day with a Peloton session and then struggle to sleep? Cortisol, your body’s stress hormone, may be to blame. The body perceives exercise as stress, explains Lucie Cowan, trainer at Third Space London. “Running from a predator in the wild and a HIIT class aren’t actually that far apart, physiologically speaking. Typically, it’s the super-long runs and HIIT-style classes that can result in the biggest cortisol response,” she says. This, in turn, can wreak havoc with an already stressed mind and body. Lower-impact activity, on the other hand, such as Pilates, barre, walking and swimming, don’t raise cortisol levels in the same way, making them the perfect way to stay fit in the midst of a pandemic. Incorporate plenty of low impact activity into your week and you’ll promote more of a parasympathetic (rest and digest, i.e. relaxed) response, which, over time, will help you sleep and recover better and stabilise mood. 

It’ll Improve Body Composition

If you’ve stuck to HIIT-style workouts and interval training throughout lockdown but haven’t seen the results you wanted, cortisol could be causing chaos in this department, too. When your body is stressed – either as a result of emotional or physical stress, or both – it clings onto fat, particularly around the midsection. Higher cortisol levels also drive up insulin production, which can trigger sugar and caffeine cravings, creating a vicious cycle. Plus, additional cortisol in the body can attack muscle mass, wreaking havoc with your metabolism. Lower-impact exercise, meanwhile, keeps cortisol levels in check, while classic low impact workouts such as barre and Pilates have been shown to burn fat just as much as HIIT. “Low impact cardio is a great way to burn fat,” says Catie Miller, founder of XTend Barre London. “In fact, I’ve seen clients burn up to 700 calories in a 45-minute barre workout. Deep focus on technique, breathing and engaging muscles correctly can increase your own resistance and make these workouts just as challenging and effective as their higher intensity counterparts.”

Science Shows It’s Just As Effective As HIIT

If you think you need to sweat to see results, think again. Recent research from Les Mills found that 30-40 minutes of HIIT per week in a maximum training zone (above 90% of the max heart rate) is the absolute maximum you should be doing. “There’s only so much HIIT a regular exerciser can do in one week before the effects are compromised,” says Bryce Hastings, head of research at Les Mills. “Less is more when it comes to HIIT. Doing too much won’t achieve transformative effects. In fact, too much actually hinders.”

You’ll Come Back For More

After years of being told we need to sweat until we collapse in order to achieve results, low-impact workouts are a much-welcomed break from extreme exertion. “Low impact workouts have been gaining popularity as people realise too much high impact work can be detrimental to the body, especially if you’re working with previous injuries,” says celebrity trainer Monique Eastwood. “Low impact activity has gained even more popularity this year in lockdown. Where people have had to balance work and home life, lower impact activities are a far more enjoyable form of exercise to incorporate into daily life,” she says. Trainer and founder of Kind by KG Katie Gray agrees, saying, “Low impact cardio has so many benefits, but a huge one is that you don’t need to psych yourself up for it, like you might have to for a Barry’s class. In fact, the likes of Pilates and barre allow you to build strength and endurance at your own pace and supercharge your cardiovascular health without over-stressing the body.”

It Protects Your Joints

While online HIIT workouts and daily runs come with a whole host of benefits, including keeping you active during WFH deskbound days, they can also be strenuous on your body. In fact, when you run, studies suggest you put around six times your body weight through the muscles and joints in your ankles, knees and legs. Lower impact cardio, on the other hand, will protect your joints, offering a more sustainable workout solution. “Low impact cardio exercise is focused on keeping at least one foot on the ground at all times,” says Katie, “This is much kinder on your joints and reduces the risk of injury as you move at a slower, albeit still effective, pace.”

Recovery Is More Efficient

It’s normal to feel a little sore after an intense workout, but when stress levels are high, the effects are multiplied. The mental demands of stress deplete valuable resources from the body, leaving you feeling more tired than usual. “If you feel like your muscles are never fully recovering and soreness is interfering with your next session, even following a rest day or two stress could be the culprit,” says Lucie. “Decreased performance is also a key sign stress is affecting you. If you’re struggling to progress in your strength or performance, it’s time to scale back,” she says. In fact, prolonged stress and consistently high cortisol levels can burden the immune system, causing chronic inflammation, which ultimately breaks down connective tissue, leaving you susceptible to injury. If this sounds familiar, consider switching up a couple of your more intense workouts for something with less impact that’ll aid recovery – in fact, studies show lower-impact activities can help reduce inflammation and stiffness, increase blood flow, improve flexibility and clear built-up lactic acid. 

But It’s Important To Stay In The Zone

For a low-impact workout to be effective, you’ll need to keep your heart rate between 120-140 BPM, depending on your fitness level. “Low-impact cardio refers to any activity which raises your heart rate without sky rocketing it,” explains Katie. “A good measure would be that you can still have a conversation with someone whilst working out. To keep your heart rate in the optimal zone for an effective workout, keep your rest periods short. For example, in my classes, I do each move for 45 seconds with a 15 second rest, which means the heart rate doesn’t have the chance to drop significantly. I also mix the moves from standing to the floor, which causes the body to react to maintaining blood pressure and blood flow, keeping the heart rate in the perfect place.”

Want in? Try one of these SL-rated low-impact classes, all of which are available online…

The Louisa Drake Method: Former professional dancer Louisa Drake’s cult method uses resistance bands, light hand weights and stability balls for a low-impact workout that challenges every muscle in the body. Expect a stronger, more sculpted body and a calmer state of mind.

Visit LouisaDrake.com

Kind by KG: After years of experiencing the damaging effects of HIIT, Katie launched Kind by KG to prove that lower impact doesn’t mean less results. A unique fusion of Pilates and barre, this strengthening and conditioning workout will leave you longer and leaner.

Visit KindByKG.com

XTend Barre: A Pilates, barre and dance hybrid, XTend Barre has fast become the ballet-inspired workout to know in the capital. Guaranteeing real results, each class features a combination of movements that enhances flexibility, improves balance and chisels the body.

Visit XTendBarre.com

Maia Well Co: Ideal for those looking for variety, Pilates instructor and health coach Zoe-Maia’s online platform features dozens of classes, all designed to strengthen and stretch the body from head to toe. Delivering the signature Pilates burn without putting stress on the body, this is movement that feels, and does, good. 

Visit MaiaWellco.com

Barrecore: Focusing on exhausting muscles with intelligent movements that bring your muscles into a ‘shake’, this classic barre method has been proven to improve strength and transform the physique in just a few weeks. Prepare for a perkier bum and a flatter stomach.

Visit Barrecore.com


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