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by Health By Principle

Steady State Cardio vs. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)


By Rachel Welch

Turn up the music and get ready to move your body!

Exercise is spectacular for both body and mind. Fortunately, it comes in so many forms that there is something for everyone, regardless of age or fitness level. All movement is good movement, as long as you’re doing it safely.

When it comes to exercise goals, some individuals focus on muscle building, some choose cardio, and others say, “Why not both?”  

Whatever your chosen style of exercise, two trendy and effective forms of movement are steady-state cardio and HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training).

Let’s dive into each of these, their benefits, similarities, and differences to ultimately find out which one is better.  


High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) 


HIIT is characterized by its format of short bursts of intensity while exercising, followed by breaks of lower-intensity movements, to achieve rest and recovery in between.  


The goal of HIIT is to max-out a person’s oxygen consumption, and boost their overall endurance. This form of exercise has gained popularity partly due to its potential results and partly due to the trending gyms and programs focusing on this approach.  


Some examples of HIIT workout moves are: 


Sprints: run as hard and as fast as you can for a short distance before resting 


Timed swimming laps: swim as quickly and as powerfully as possible for the duration of the timer, and see how many laps you can squeeze into the time frame  


Circuit training: this is one exercise after another. For instance, you might do ten squats, immediately followed by ten lunges, curls, etc.  


HIIT exercises like these have proven to be effective at improving individuals’ fasting blood glucose levels, insulin sensitivity, overall muscle health, and the body’s ability to consume oxygen.  


Additionally, HIIT has proven to be a good option for the reversal of metabolic syndrome, which is regarded as a predictor of a person’s longevity, and their likelihood of experiencing cardiovascular disease.  


For improved metabolic health, HIIT is a good option. A study from 2013 explored the relationship between metabolic syndrome and HIIT and found that HIIT is helpful at reducing the risk factors for long term health issues like these. Researchers also theorize that HIIT may have the power to reverse an unhealthy trajectory.  



Steady State Cardio (SSC) 


SSC is different from HIIT, focusing on extended duration, lower-intensity exercises. While HIIT pushes muscular performance and endurance to their max quickly, SSC gradually increases endurance and keeps you below that high threshold of intensity. SSC helps the heart to maintain a steady rate throughout the workout, whereas HIIT causes dramatic fluctuations. Some examples of SSC include: 


  • Brisk walks 
  • Jogging 
  • Swimming laps at a leisurely pace 
  • Running a marathon 
  • Rowing/paddling 
  • Light running 


With all these examples, the exercises achieve an increased heart rate and help maintain that steady pace while consistently and slowly burning calories.  


SC usually encourages the maintenance of a heart rate within 45-65% of a person’s maximum heart rate, which may fluctuate with everyone. Also, SSC allows for an easier recovery post-workout than HIIT, due to its lower stress on the muscles, tissues, and nervous system.  


In fact, a study from 2018 found that adding a SSC exercise after HIIT, improved the athlete’s recovery time, even with just 15 minutes. This ranked superior compared to the otherwise passive recovery that came after only engaging in HIIT. 


A rule of thumb is with SSC, think “slow and steady” compared to HIIT’s “fast and intense.”  


But, which one is more effective? 


Deep Dive 


A study from 2015 compared the efficacy of HIIT and SSC with the end goal of improved exercise tolerance, oxygen capacity, and overall time requirements.  


They studied a group of 55 college-aged participants who engaged in eight weeks of training within three randomly assigned groups.  


One group focused on Tabata training, which was a very high intensity interval training session.  


The second group, (the Meyer group) focused on moderate intensity interval training, and the third group focused on steady state cardio at a low intensity.  


They found that among all three groups, oxygen capacity changed drastically, with a nearly 18% increase.  


They also found significant changes in each group’s body weight and power output, with no difference between the groups.  


In the end, they concluded that HIIT, moderate intensity, and SSC all yield the same amount of change, and very similar results. The main difference was that HIIT required a shorter time commitment, but still yielded the same results as a longer SSC or moderate intensity session.  


More recently, a study from 2019 took a deep dive into the effects of low-volume HIIT on total body fat and body mass, compared to no exercise and moderate intensity exercise.  


Surprisingly, they found that HIIT provided no significant impact on overall body fat compared to not exercising, or to exercise at a moderate intensity.  


They did see positive results in overall cardiovascular health and fitness but found that HIIT had no more impact on total body fat or composition than the other forms.  


 HIIT and SSC: Separate but Equal? 


To summarize, the research shows us that HIIT and SSC are equally effective in terms of improving the body’s oxygen capacity and exercise endurance.  


It also shows us that HIIT will not be more impactful on weight loss and body mass reduction.  


Essentially, this means that if your goal is to lose weight, HIIT will not get you there any faster than lower intensity exercises.  


However, if your goal is to improve cardiovascular health, HIIT, SSC, and moderate intensity exercises appear to all be equally impactful.  


Exercise in Every Form 


With similar results from both HIIT and SSC, it gives some peace of mind that we are truly free to choose whichever form of exercise that we like the best and can know that we will achieve similar results.  


Whether you choose to exercise in the wee hours of the morning, afternoon, or evening, you can explore HIIT or SSC and find equally beneficial results. Remember to maintain healthy practices in the other areas of life, as well.  


When beginning or altering an exercise routine, it’s important to continue prioritizing other areas of your health such as diet, sleep, and overall nutrition.  


Keep whole and colorful foods in your regular diet and stay hydrated with ample amounts of water and electrolytes 


Remember that nutrition plays a large role in fitness and overall results, so make sure you are well-fueled with magnesium, vitamin D, and explore supplementing anything that your regular diet may be lacking.  


If you choose to incorporate a form of fasting into your regimen, make sure to consult a doctor beforehand to make sure you do so in a healthy and sustainable way.  


If your goal is to feel stronger and healthier now, or into the later years of older age, exercise is an exceptional roadmap to get you there.  


But Why Should You Exercise?  


Exercise benefits not just your physical health, but also boosts your mental health. Let’s break down the basics of exactly why exercise is so phenomenal. 


Mental Health 

“Mind over matter” is a fun catchphrase, but not always easy to implement, considering that many people experience mental health challenges, issues with focus, cognitive performance, and more. For individuals with anxiety and depression, it can seem like a full-time job to execute the most minimal of daily functions.  


For people with a heavy mental load, it can seem impossible to sift through the items on the to-do list and focus on the present moment. How can one put their mind over anything when their mind seems to fight against them on a regular basis? This is where exercise comes in.  


Regular exercise has been proven to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, sharpen cognitive performance and focus, and preserve memory and mental acuity into older age. To continue piling on the benefits, exercise is also proven to be the most effective way to keep your brain from shrinking with age – even more so than puzzles, brain teasers, and reading.  


A California-based study found a direct correlation between cardiovascular health and strong performance on cognitive tests years later. In layman's terms, the healthier your heart is, the better your brain will perform in the long run.  


Regarding the benefits of exercise on mental health, a recent Australian study from 2022 evaluated the impact of exercise on depression, anxiety, and psychological distress. They found that all participants who engaged in exercise significantly improved their various psychological health challenges.  


Furthermore, they noted that when the exercise was more intensive, the benefits followed suit and were more impactful.  


This is great news for everyone and should be especially motivating.  


To improve your health (both mental and physical), you need only increase your exercise frequency and endurance over time and can trust that mental health benefits are on the way.  


So, if you feel yourself falling into a mental funk or are trying to climb out of one, force yourself to go on a mental health walk and shake off the stress. Even 150 minutes a week, or 20 minutes a day, can help you remain the sharpest tool in the shed for years to come.  


Physical Health 

 In addition to improving mental health, exercise also plays a pivotal role in physical health and your ability to maintain strength, balance, and mobility throughout your life.  


It is also important to note that while exercise can and will help reduce body weight, that does not have to be your focus when you get out and move.  


Studies have shown that people who exercised simply to lose weight, did not have as many positive results as those who exercised for mental health or lifestyle purposes.  


This is why it’s important to find types of exercise that you enjoy, that are sustainable, and that you can implement into your daily life for years to come. No matter which forms you choose, you will reap the following physical benefits: 


  • Better quality of sleep 
  • Stronger cardiovascular health 
  • Reduced risk of cancer 
  • Reduced risk of and improved management of diabetes 
  • Improved muscular strength and endurance 
  • Stronger bones 
  • Better balance 
  • Better coordination 
  • Healthy body weight 


Our Two Cents of Wisdom  


Most importantly, remember to have grace with yourself as you begin any new protocol or lifestyle change. Most changes require some level of trial and error, so allow yourself to start over as many times as you need to without guilt or self-criticism.  


Health is a lifelong journey, and one worth working towards, even if it takes more time than you thought, multiple trials, or various new starts. By incorporating either HIIT or SSC, you will be well on your way to cardiovascular health and further empowerment.  


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