What Is Steady State Cardio? Our Complete Guide

Plus, how to work steady state exercise into your routine.

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

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

And while it’s undeniable that HIIT has many fantastic health and fitness benefits such as improving your VO2 max, good old-fashioned steady state cardio still deserves a permanent slot in most people’s training programs to increase aerobic capacity.

Steady state training involves performing continuous aerobic exercise at a constant effort level without varying the intensity or stopping to rest for an extended period.

In this article, we will explore the benefits of steady state cardio exercise, when to do steady state or HIIT depending on your fitness goals, and example sessions to add to your workout routine.

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?

If you are wondering, “Is 30 minutes of steady-state cardio enough?” yes, it is!

Although there aren’t specific regulations about how long or short your workout needs to be, 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?

There are two different tiers or divisions regarding the intensity of steady-state cardio exercise: lower-intensity steady-state exercise (LISS) and moderate-intensity steady-state exercise (MISS).

What is a good heart rate for steady-state cardio?

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).

What is LISS cardio?

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 various intensity levels.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine,1Scheid, J. L., & O’Donnell, E. (2019). REVISITING HEART RATE TARGET ZONES THROUGH THE LENS OF WEARABLE TECHNOLOGY. ACSMʼs Health & Fitness Journal23(3), 21–26. https://doi.org/10.1249/fit.0000000000000477 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 minimum, 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,2Shargal, E., Kislev-Cohen, R., Zigel, L., Epstein, S., Pilz-Burstein, R., & Tenenbaum, G. (2015). Age-related maximal heart rate: examination and refinement of prediction equations. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness55(10), 1207–1218. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25389634/ 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 to calculate LISS’s target heart rate range.

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 operate at about a six on a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale of 1-10 (with 10 being your max effort).

When doing low-intensity exercise, your muscles primarily oxidize fat for fuel.

A person on a stationary bike doing steady state cardio.

What is MISS cardio?

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

According to ACSM,3Scheid, J. L., & O’Donnell, E. (2019). REVISITING HEART RATE TARGET ZONES THROUGH THE LENS OF WEARABLE TECHNOLOGY. ACSMʼs Health & Fitness Journal23(3), 21–26. https://doi.org/10.1249/fit.0000000000000477 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 seven on the 1-10 RPE scale. You should be able to talk in mostly complete sentences.

One benefit of 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.4Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). How Much Physical Activity do Adults Need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm

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

A person on a rowing machine.

Benefits of Steady State Cardio Exercise

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

  • Increasing circulation and improving blood flow
  • Improving heart health by strengthening your heart and lungs
  • Increasing calorie burn and supporting healthy weight loss and fat loss
  • Decreasing stress and anxiety
  • Enhancing 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 your endurance
  • Increasing your lung capacity and the efficiency of your cardiovascular system5NSCA. (2017, May 1). Aerobic Endurance Training Strategies. Www.nsca.com. https://www.nsca.com/education/articles/kinetic-select/aerobic-endurance-training-strategies/ and improving recovery between hard workouts
  • Increasing mental toughness and focus
  • Increasing muscular strength and endurance
  • Increasing bone density, depending on the form of exercise you do for your workout
  • Increasing your body’s ability to perform fat burning for fuel
Two people on elliptical machines.

Is Steady State Cardio Better Than HIIT?

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

High intensity workouts such as HIIT are very efficient from a time standpoint. Studies demonstrate that they can provide the same metabolic and cardiovascular benefits as a moderate-intensity steady-state workout in about 40% less time.6Wewege, M., van den Berg, R., Ward, R. E., & Keech, A. (2017). The effects of high-intensity interval training vs. moderate-intensity continuous training on body composition in overweight and obese adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Obesity Reviews18(6), 635–646. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12532

HIIT workouts can also be more engaging because you’re constantly switching your pace and effort level, which makes them entertaining and fly by.

The good news is that studies7Foster, C., Farland, C. V., Guidotti, F., Harbin, M., Roberts, B., Schuette, J., Tuuri, A., Doberstein, S. T., & Porcari, J. P. (2015). The Effects of High Intensity Interval Training vs Steady State Training on Aerobic and Anaerobic Capacity. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine14(4), 747–755. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4657417/ 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 sessions 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 research8Foster, C., Farland, C. V., Guidotti, F., Harbin, M., Roberts, B., Schuette, J., Tuuri, A., Doberstein, S. T., & Porcari, J. P. (2015). The Effects of High Intensity Interval Training vs Steady State Training on Aerobic and Anaerobic Capacity. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine14(4), 747–755. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4657417/
  • Less taxing on the cardiovascular system
  • Improves body fat distribution9Keating, S. E., Machan, E. A., O’Connor, H. T., Gerofi, J. A., Sainsbury, A., Caterson, I. D., & Johnson, N. A. (2014). Continuous Exercise but Not High Intensity Interval Training Improves Fat Distribution in Overweight Adults. Journal of Obesity2014, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1155/2014/834865 relative to HIIT
  • Conditions your body better to use fat for fuel
  • Can be less intimidating for beginners and exercisers who are overweight or obese, according to research10(2024). Novintarjome.com. http://www.novintarjome.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/24ttf45455.pdf

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.

It can be high-impact, like running, a low-impact, like cycling, or no-impact, like swimming.

However, 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 peddling 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 when you often switch back and forth between strength training or resistance training and cardio exercises.

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
  • Walking
  • Hiking
  • Cycling indoors or going for a bike ride outdoors
  • Rowing
  • Swimming
  • Deep water running
  • Stand-up paddle boarding 
  • Kayaking 
  • Elliptical machine 
  • Stair stepper machine
  • Rollerblading
  • Cross-country skiing 
  • Snowshoeing 

Some people find that exercising at a steady pace can become 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.

How often should I do steady-state cardio for optimal health benefits?

Three times a week would be a good number of days to perform steady state workouts.

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

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 outdoors, or listen to music or a podcast to help pass the time. 

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

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:

References

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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. 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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