What to Know About Low-Intensity Workouts

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on June 13, 2024
4 min read

High-intensity exercise has many advantages, but it's not for everyone. Older people, people with chronic health conditions, and those with disabilities can't perform vigorous exercise. 

Low-intensity exercise is gentle and safe, but it still provides many benefits. It improves well-being, mood, fitness, and mobility. A low-intensity workout can often be done in your home or outdoors without a gym membership. Regular, low-intensity workouts enable you to remain active and live independently. They also help you recover faster from illness, injury, or surgery.

Physical activities done at a comfortable pace are considered low-intensity exercises. Your heart rate should stay steady at about 50% of its maximum rate. This steady pace should last for periods of at least 30 minutes. You should be able to carry on a conversation without getting breathless.

Some examples of low-intensity workouts are walking, bicycling, swimming, rowing, yoga, tai-chi, and resistance training. Such activities improve blood flow, prevent muscle wasting, and prevent falls and injuries. You have a better quality of life and can live independently.

Low-intensity exercise takes longer to provide benefits, but it's safe. The impact on joints is mild, and the risk of injury low. Many of these activities are done outdoors at minimal expense. Additionally, most of these activities are enjoyable, and you'll likely stick to them longer.

Exercise may seem impossible if you're struggling with an injury or recovering from illness or surgery, but physical activity is possible and safe for almost everyone. Low-intensity exercises allow everyone to choose activities appropriate for their current fitness levels. As you become accustomed to an activity, increase the intensity gradually. If you have a chronic condition, consult your health care provider before starting a low-intensity workout routine. Remember to follow the safety guideline "start low and go slow.".

As you grow older, you're likely to have one or more chronic conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, cancer, or heart disease. These require you to be careful about exertion and injuries. Low-intensity workouts are a safe and easy way to prevent and manage chronic diseases. Your workout should include activities that strengthen muscles and improve balance. Try to meet the recommendation of at least 150 minutes of physical activity a week. 

Various health conditions may leave you unfit for intense exercise, but remaining inactive for a long time is bad for your health, physical and mental. Low-intensity exercise can get you moving, improving your mood and self-confidence. Exercise of any intensity reduces your risks of dementia, stress, depression, and Alzheimer's disease. Sedentary behavior like sitting or lying for long periods increases obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. People with heart disease shouldn't lift weights or do other intense exercises. Low-intensity exercise is safe for most people, but you should consult your doctor before starting any new activity. 

A high-intensity workout is much more vigorous than low-intensity exercise. Your heart rate accelerates close to its maximum, and you can't speak more than a few words without stopping for breath. Some high-intensity exercises include:

  • Jogging or running 
  • Swimming laps
  • Aerobic dancing
  • Singles tennis and other vigorous sports
  • Hiking uphill
  • Bicycling 10 miles (16 kilometers) an hour or faster
  • Jumping rope

Though high-intensity workouts have a quicker return in terms of fitness and weight loss, low-intensity programs are more sustainable. More people stay with a low-intensity training program. High-intensity exercise yields better aerobic fitness but decreases adherence. Low-intensity workouts can thus result in the completion of more exercise.

Cardio activities are also called endurance or aerobic exercises. Brisk walking, jogging, dancing, swimming, and bicycling are all cardio activities. These activities speed up your heartbeat and breathing. Regular cardio will make your heart and lungs stronger.

If you can't manage intense exercises, low-intensity cardio is an option. Walking the dog, bicycling at your own pace to the store, and taking a dance class all count as cardio. Other options are yoga, yard work like raking, golf, and water aerobics. Level up slowly, increasing the intensity and duration of exercise.

Low-intensity exercises don't strain your body much but are still better than being inactive. You might feel that you can keep up these activities for hours. You don't feel out of breath and can converse comfortably. 

These low-intensity exercises need to be continued for longer to achieve the same gains as short periods of high-intensity exercises, but you may be limited to such activities by your health care providers because of a recent illness, surgery, or injury. 

Walking your dog is a low-intensity exercise because dogs stop often. You won't be walking briskly continuously or breathing heavily. Swimming, yoga, pilates, and cycling are all low-intensity exercises. Keeping a steady pace for a set time will get you benefits. Once your fitness levels improve, you can add short periods of running, sprinting, and aerobics. 

Low-intensity exercise is always low-impact, too. Such workouts minimize the stress on your joints. Your risk of injury is minimal with low-intensity workouts.

There are several benefits of regular low-intensity workout routines:

  • Improved cardio-respiratory fitness
  • Reduced fatigue and pain
  • Better mood
  • Reduced risk of falls and injury
  • Increased mobility and balance
  • Better sleep quality

Starting such an exercise program may also have social benefits. When you're outdoors, you may meet other people engaging in similar activities. 

Low-intensity workout programs are not scary and are easy to start. They're easier to complete, and you're more likely to stick with them. Since they don't tire you out, you can also be active for the rest of the day. 

These exercises are great for older people, people with injuries and disabilities, and those recovering from severe illness or surgery. Regular low-intensity workouts can keep you active and independent and help you recover your strength, vigor, and mental health.