The gym bunny's soundbite, ‘no pain no gain’ turns out to be something of a big, fat lie. It seems that ‘no pain, a considerable raft of benefits’ is closer to the truth (although less catchy).
Welcome to Zone 2 cardio: gentle long runs, bike rides, even brisk walks that have almost mystical heart-building, fat-burning, life-enhancing properties.
Something of a revelation to devotees of hard, intense exercise, Zone 2 is one of this year’s key fitness talking points. The consensus is that getting around 3 hours of Zone 2 cardio per week has enormous positive effects on longevity and general health. It's linked to lower rates of a whole raft of diseases including type 2 diabetes, dementia, stroke and heart disease.
Zone 2 training means exercising at a level of exertion where your body is working, but not very hard – at this level your body is able to use fat as fuel rather than carbohydrates. As you work harder and move up into Zone 3 and beyond you will switch to using carbohydrates, a quite different state in which your heart, lungs and muscles are under stress and will need time to recover. (You know this switch is happening when breathing becomes harder and you are gasping or panting.)
Dr Richard Blagrove, senior lecturer in physiology at Loughborough University, says elite athletes will be doing 90 percent of their training in this way right now, laying down an “aerobic base” before they build to more intense modes of exercise for competition later in the year. For the rest of us, Zone 2 can be transformative.
How can you tell you’re in Zone 2?
Zone 1 is pretty much watching TV on your favourite sofa; Zone 5 is being chased by a pack of wild, hungry hyenas.
Zone 2 is when your body is working, but not very hard. Technically this is 60-70 percent of your maximum heart rate, but an easier way to check is the Talk Test. If you’re in Zone 2 you should be able to hold a fully realised conversation. If you were to call someone during a Zone 2 workout, you should be able to use complex sentences, not just sentiments such as “Help!” or “Taxi!”
The point at which you reach Zone 2 will depend on your individual level of fitness. For those who are at the extreme end of sedentary, simply moving about the house performing chores can be a Zone 2 workout. The important thing is to keep going and not stray up into the zones that will put more stress on the body.
Each session needs to be sufficiently prolonged for the benefits to accrue. Experts recommend an hour to 90 minutes. The minimum time to feel the complete benefit of Zone 2 is 45 minutes.
Zone 2 means letting go of the Personal Best obsession, but when you do, the reward is a calming, life-enhancing hour of your life with a rich array of health benefits.