Steady State Cardio: The Complete Guide

In recent years, it seems like high-intensity interval training has garnered all the attention. 

From Tabata sprints to HIIT spin classes, many of the workouts everyone buzzes about deal with some combination of going full-out for short sprints and then recovering many times over.

And while it’s undeniable that HIIT has many amazing health and fitness benefits, good old-fashioned steady state cardio still deserves a permanent slot in most people’s training programs.

In this article, we will take a deep dive into steady state cardio exercise, exploring the benefits of steady state exercise, steady state cardio examples, tips for steady state cardio exercise, and workouts you can try.

We will discuss: 

  • What Is Steady State Cardio Exercise?
  • How Long Should Steady State Cardio Workouts Be?
  • How Hard Should Steady State Cardio Workouts Be?
  • Benefits of Steady State Cardio Exercise
  • Is It Better to Do HIIT or Steady State Cardio Exercise?
  • Steady State Cardio Examples
  • How to Get Started With Steady State Exercise

Let’s get started!

Two people jogging.

What Is Steady State Cardio Exercise?

Steady state cardio exercise invokes performing continuous aerobic exercise at a constant effort level without varying the intensity or stopping to rest.

In other words, your heart rate will stay within the same zone during the entire workout, and you won’t adjust your pace or effort level much in either direction.

How Long Should Steady State Cardio Workouts Be?

Although there aren’t specific regulations about how long or short your workout needs to be to be considered steady state cardio, most steady state cardio workouts are between 30-60 minutes long.

Anything under 15-20 minutes is usually too short to appreciate significant benefits, and it often takes at least 5 minutes of continuous exercise to reach a physiological steady state.

People hiking.

How Hard Should Steady State Cardio Workouts Be?

In terms of the intensity of steady state cardio exercise, there are two different tiers or divisions: low-intensity steady state exercise (LISS) and moderate-intensity steady state exercise (MISS).

Both intensity levels of steady state cardio exercise involve keeping your heart rate lower than it should get during the hard intervals with high-intensity interval training (usually said to be at least 80% of your max heart rate).

LISS

LISS is even more disparate than HIIT because the recommended heart rate range is usually around 50-65% of your maximum heart rate.

You will find that different fitness organizations report different target heart rate ranges for the various intensity levels.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, the low-intensity cardio zone falls between 57-63% of your maximum heart range.

To calculate your personal target heart rate range for LISS, take your maximum heart rate and multiply it by 0.57 to find the heart rate, and multiply it by 0.63 to find the heart rate maximum.

Let’s walk through an example of calculating your heart rate range using age-predicted max heart rate.

Two people mountain biking.

According to researchers, a more accurate estimation than the Fox Formula for max heart rate can be found through the following formulas:

  • Maximum Heart Rate for Males = 208.609-0.716 x age 
  • Maximum Heart Rate for Females = 209.273-0.804 x age

For example, if you’re a 36-year old male: 208.609-0.716 x 36 = 183 bpm. If you’re a 36-year old female: 209.273-0.804 x 36 = 180 bpm.

Let’s use the female with a max heart rate of 180 bpm for calculating the target heart rate range for LISS.

Minimum LISS heart rate = 0.57 x 180 = 103 bpm

Maximum LISS heart rate = 0.63 x 180 = 113 bpm

Therefore, she should keep her heart rate between 103-113 for LISS cardio workouts.

The intensity of LISS can be likened to walking at a moderate pace. You should be fully conversational and be operating at about a 6 on a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale of 1-10 (with 10 being your max effort).

When you are doing low-intensity steady-state exercise, your muscles are primarily oxidizing fat for fuel.

A person on a stationary bike doing steady state cardio.

MISS

For moderate-intensity steady state (MISS), you’re working somewhat harder.

According to ACSM, this intensity zone corresponds to a heart rate range of 64-76% of your maximum heart rate.

Using our same 36-year-old female with a maximum heart rate of 180 bpm, we can calculate her moderate-intensity steady state cardio target heart rate range to be 115-137 bpm.

The effort level from moderate-intensity steady state exercise should feel like a 7 on the 1-10 RPE scale. You should be able to talk in mostly full sentences.

One benefit of doing moderate-intensity steady state exercise over LISS is that your exercise minutes “count” towards the recommended 150 minutes per week guidelines for physical activity set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the British Heart Foundation.

When you are doing moderate-intensity steady state exercise, your muscles are oxidizing roughly an equal amount of fat and carbohydrates for fuel.

A person on a rowing machine.

Benefits of Steady State Cardio Exercise

There are many health benefits of steady-state aerobic exercise, including the following:

  • Increasing circulation and improving blood flow
  • Strengthening your heart and lungs
  • Improving mood and feelings of well-being
  • Decreasing the risk of lifestyle diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and certain cancers
  • Increasing mental toughness and focus
  • Increasing bone density, depending on the form of exercise you do for your workout
  • Increasing your body’s ability to burn fat for fuel
Two people on elliptical machines.

Is It Better to Do HIIT or Steady State Cardio Exercise?

With the popularity of HIIT workouts, it would be shortsighted not to do a brief comparison of the pros and cons of each.

HIIT workouts are very efficient from a time standpoint, with studies demonstrating that you can get the same metabolic and cardiovascular benefits as a moderate-intensity steady state workout in about 40% less time.

HIIT workouts can also be more engaging because you’re constantly switching your pace and effort level, so the time can go more quickly.

The good news is that studies that have compared the fitness improvements from HIIT-style exercise with steady state aerobic training have found no discernible difference between the two styles of training.

A person swimming.

Pros of Steady-State Exercise Compared to HIIT

Compared to HIIT workouts, steady-state cardio exercise has the following benefits:

  • Aids recovery from workouts better
  • Can be more social because you can carry on a conversation
  • Can be more enjoyable than HIIT workouts and less stressful, according to research
  • Easier to try new types of exercise
  • Less taxing on the cardiovascular system
  • Conditions your body better to use fat for fuel

Of course, some of these benefits are subjective, so it’s up to you in terms of what you like more, though neglecting steady-state exercise altogether can potentially be detrimental to your fitness.

Cons of Steady-State Exercise Compared to HIIT

  • More time consuming
  • Can be boring
  • Can potentially increase the risk of overuse injuries due to the repetitive nature
Somone standup paddleboarding in the ocean.

Steady State Cardio Examples

Pretty much any type of exercise that can elevate your heart rate to the appropriate level (roughly 57-76 percent of your maximum heart rate) can be used for steady state exercise, although certain types of exercise lend themselves to the constant effort characteristic of steady state exercise better than others.

For example, it’s much easier to maintain a steady effort and pace when you are doing repetitive motions such as paddling on a stationary bike or running outdoors or on a treadmill.

Although you can certainly have some fluctuations in your heart rate and still have your workout qualify as “steady state cardio,” you should keep your heart rate within the zone of whichever intensity level you’re trying to maintain.

In other words, if you are aiming to do a low-intensity steady state workout, your heart rate can fluctuate within the bounds of that 57-63% of your age-predicted maximum heart rate, and if you are doing a moderate-intensity steady state workout, your heart rate should stay within 64-76% of your maximum heart rate.

Therefore, because these ranges are fairly tight, it can be difficult to do steady state exercise with something like circuit training.

This is because different exercises will elicit varying increases or decreases in your heart rate, and there will be some amount of rest between exercises as you move from station to station.

A person cross-country skiing.

Here are some exercises that work well for steady state cardio workouts:

  • Running inside on a treadmill or outdoors
  • Deep water running
  • Stand-up paddle boarding 
  • Kayaking 
  • Rollerblading
  • Cross-country skiing 
  • Snowshoeing 

Some people find that steady state cardio exercise can get kind of boring because it is so repetitive.

However, if you mix up the types of exercise you do for your steady state workouts throughout the week, you’ll not only prevent mental burnout, but will also see greater improvements in your fitness and strength.

For example, you might do a steady state distance run on Mondays and Thursdays, a HIIT workout on Tuesdays and Saturdays with hill repeats or track intervals, and a hike (steady state exercise) with your dog on Fridays.

A person rollerblading.

How to Get Started With Steady State Cardio Exercise

One of the best things about steady state aerobic exercise is it is extremely easy to get started and approachable for people of all fitness levels.

All you need to do is pick some sort of exercise that you can perform nonstop for at least 20 minutes or more. 

However, if you are a beginner, starting with just five or 10 minutes is actually perfectly acceptable and may be safer in the long run.

After a brief warm-up, simply lock into a cruising speed or intensity level that puts your heart rate in the desired range.

Keep going for as long as you like, aiming for 30-45 minutes for moderate-intensity steady-state workouts and 45-60 minutes for low-intensity steady-state workouts.

Recruit a friend, enjoy exercising in the outdoors, or listen to music or a podcast to help pass the time. 

Try to relish in the fact that you’re getting a great workout while still feeling fairly comfortable; in terms of exercise, it doesn’t get much better than that!

Looking to mix up your steady state cardio with some HIIT training? Check out our HIIT workouts you can do in the comfort of your own home.

A person's feet walking on a treadmill.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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