Fitness trends, much like diet trends, change so quickly it’s hard to keep up. Constantly changing health strategies are confusing and exactly why I turn to time-tested ancient wisdom, backed by science, at LifeSpa.
My first book (published in 1994), Body, Mind, and Sport, is all about Ayurvedic exercise, employing nose breathing to keep exertion to ~50% of one’s maximum. This idea is back in the mainstream under a new name: low-intensity steady-state cardio, or LISS!
Fitness Pendulum Swings Again
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) came as a result of research suggesting that keeping your heart rate at 60-80% of max for 60 minutes or more could cause excessive cardiovascular wear, tear, and damage.2
It was findings like these that moved the fitness needle to HIIT from endurance sports:
Shorter exercise duration was associated with favorable antioxidant and vascular effects, while longer exercise blunted these beneficial effects and was accompanied by adverse effects on vascular function, mainly in older coronary patients.3
Sadly, the devil is always in the details. Here is what the endurance studies were actually saying:
Running distances of about 1 to 20 miles per week, speeds of 6 to 7 miles per hour, and frequencies of 2 to 5 days per week were associated with lower all-cause mortality, whereas higher mileage, faster paces, and more frequent runs were not associated with better survival.3
A randomized crossover trial assigned 60 male patients with coronary heart disease to exercise sessions of either 30 or 60 minutes. The 30-minute exercise sessions produced less oxidant stress and improved arterial elasticity, whereas 60-minute sessions worsened oxidant stress and increased vascular stiffness as measured by pulse wave velocity, mainly in older patients.2
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These studies basically say long-distance endurance training at higher intensities, like marathons, ultra-marathons, or Ironman triathlons, incur excessive and potentially harmful cardiovascular wear and tear. I agree, but still believe there’s a way to perform such feats and have them do no harm. In fact, that was the main point of Body, Mind, and Sport.
While many still do triathlons because it is such an infectious sport, the fitness industry used this research to promote HIIT, where banging out short bursts of high intensity training replaced long slow endurance training. HIIT, particularly CrossFit, have become wildly popular, but they are not without drawbacks. Once study found that 74% of practitioners had suffered at least one injury while practicing CrossFit. The most common injury sites were shoulder, lower back, and arm/elbow.4
The pendulum has swung once again, but this time back to what is now called LISS, or low-intensity steady-state cardio, where heartrate is kept to 50% of max. The formula used in LISS, the exact formula used in my book to get to the ideal heart rate is 220 – age x 50%. So if you are 40, your maximum heartrate would be 180 and your new training rate at 50% of max would be 90 beats per minute.
Exercise, the Nervous System + the Zone
Exercising at this level for longer periods would mimic the way our ancestors may have moved. Sprinting and intense exertion were for the times when bursts were needed to chase a rabbit, turkey, or go in for the kill. Such bursts carried many benefits. I write about this in my article The 12-Minute Workout.
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Perhaps damage from endurance training comes from excessive stimulation of the fight-or-flight (run-from-a-bear) nervous system activating during, say, an Ironman for some 9-12 hours. In Body, Mind, and Sport, I cite research we did comparing mouth breathing to nose breathing during submaximal exercise. We found that how you breathe can change the way the body perceives endurance exertion. Nose breathing decreased fight-or-flight stress, while boosting parasympathetic (rest-and-rejuvenate) activity, brainwave coherence, and alpha wave production: all signposts of exercise in “the zone” or “runner’s high” so many athletes seek.5
Back in the early 1990s, we published studies that replicated “the zone” with nose breathing during exercise, while maintaining the Ayurvedic principle that keeping heart rate to 50% of its max is ideal, and can be maintained indefinitely.5
Ayurveda and LISS take a less-is-more approach, with the understanding that the human body has unlimited potential, but to achieve that potential you must not train it to exhaustion. Train in the desired state: parasympathetic and alpha brainwave dominance.
Learn this time-tested technique to safely maximize athletic potential and produce the zone of brainwave coherence and alpha wave training in my book Body, Mind, and Sport or in my many nose breathing articles.