If you want to tone up, try toning it down
After years of exhausting, high-intensity workouts, Lauren Clark finds out why many fitness enthusiasts now believe that low is the way to go
ace yourself,” is not a phrase you often hear being barked by gym instructors in classes around the country, where sky-high heart rates and burning abs are the currency. But in the new LIT class at Fly LDN, slow and steady wins the race.
Over the past decade, those seeking to get fit have been encouraged to embrace a no-pain-no-gain exercise philosophy. But now, LIT – or lowintensity training – is at the peak of a new wave of workouts that tighten and tone but won’t grind you down.
Leading London gym Third Space has recently unveiled its low-intensity Pulse class, while other big studio launches – including BXR’s Form & Focus, Psycle’s SOS and Core Collective’s Stretch – all run along similarly nurturing lines. Then there’s the concept of “prehab” – mobility and flexibility classes to protect your Lycra-clad limbs from injury – which is now a fixture at Gymbox and Ten Health & Fitness.
Indeed, it’s now cool to be kind to your body. “There has been a move to a more holistic approach to fitness,” says Shona Vertue, a gymnast turned personal trainer and yoga teacher, and founder of The Vertue Method. The Australian regularly treats her 308,000 Instagram followers to body-weight workouts where she stresses “form” over rep count.
Back in my LIT class, I can see exactly why many are now swapping high-intensity interval training – or HIIT – for something gentler. As we glide at a stable speed between walkouts, kettlebell squats and TRX lunges, I realise that, although I’m challenging my body, I’m not pushing it to its limits. “People are realising that, to look after themselves physically, they need to tone down their workout intensity a notch,” notes Katie Anderson, LIT instructor at Fly LDN. “Previously, they have been scared to stray from HIIT, but the benefits of stretching, and having time to correct form before gradually building up weight and reps, are clear.”
As LIT’s dominance increases, so our obsession with HIIT eases. The idea that signing up for daily sessions of the latter could be counter-intuitive to our gym gains is beginning to take hold. Granted, it was science that deemed punishing workouts super-effective. One study found that a single HIIT session raised levels of irisin – the hormone that turns bad white fat into good brown fat – by 12 per cent. Another showed how explosive movement can trigger a wave of human growth hormone.
But Luke Worthington, sports scientist and head of trainer education at Third Space, believes eagerness for results and lack of time has led people to overindulge in HIIT. “Stressing our bodies out with multiple sessions a week is leaving us mentally and physically burnt out, because it’s unsustainable,” he explains. “There’s no exercise quick fix.”
Worthington is now looking to the United States, where the low-intensity movement is already in full swing and where “fitness” now takes into account breathing, movement and rest, as well as emotional well-being, sleep and appetite.
A key LIT buzzword is “recovery”. “If you don’t give your body a break from exercise, it won’t have the opportunity to ‘cash in’ on the benefits,” says Dr Nicky Keay, sport and dance endocrinology specialist. She warns that, while an hour of HIIT may force your body into a tempting fat-burning and calorie-blitzing mode, it can also flood it with the stress hormone cortisol.
“In short bursts, it helps us become stronger and fitter,” Dr Keay explains. “But if it stays high, you can run into trouble, with an increased likelihood of illness from
a compromised immune system.”
Ironically, research has also found that HIIT can cause you to retain fat, while other long-term risks of overtraining include issues with reproductive hormones, bones, gastrointestinal function and the nervous system, as well as increased risk of injury.
Which takes us back to LIT – and why a good old-fashioned jog is often the best medicine. “What very wired, largely sedentary people really need is low-intensity, steady-state work – the longer walks, cycle rides, rowing or runs,” says Worthington.
Indeed, LISS – or low-intensity steady-state training – has evolved into a burgeoning fitness trend, thanks to the likes of Vertue and her fellow Aussie, the Instagram star Kayla Itsines. “LISS puts healthy demands on your cardiovascular system in a way that’s easier for your brain to cope with, but doesn’t strain your nervous system,” explains Vertue. It also comes with endorphin-fuelled psychological benefits. And a recent University of Bath study found LISS as effective as HIIT for weight loss.
Finishing my LIT class feeling invigorated, I’m convinced I’ll be seeing far more post-workout glows rather than red-faced ones in the changing rooms. “A lot of fitness has become about how hard we can push our bodies,” concludes Vertue. “But it shouldn’t come at a cost to our health.”
NO PAIN, ALL GAIN Lauren Clark takes it easy with a low-intensity training workout