The fitness industry evolves through constant changes, or some may say trends. This can mean more opportunities to keep our routines fresh. Understanding any trend and how it supports our bodies and overall health is critical in finding the right fit. But sometimes, amongst the many new methods lies a tried-and-true approach that has yielded undeniable long-term results.
One such method is Zone 2 (also known as steady-state, base, or aerobic) training, which many call the most underappreciated and best solution for fat burn. Zone 2 training isn’t a new concept; it is an oft-overlooked target zone of exercise, usually found in the shadows of its trendier counterpart – HIIT training. High-intensity interval training is a workout with bursts of higher exertion (up to 95% of your target heart rate). Zone 2, on the other hand, requires a measured and consistent pace, maintained for a minimum of 45 minutes, that gets you to about 60 to 70% of your maximum heart rate. Zone 2 is low-impact and focuses on endurance. And if sustained for enough time and at the ideal heart rate, Zone 2 training is more effective at fat loss than most other exercises. This is because, at this pace of aerobic endurance, the body taps into fat as its fuel source, as opposed to HIIT, which burns carbohydrate stores.
Looking at longer-term data, the general recommendations of heart doctors, high-level athletic trainers, and longevity researchers, we see that Zone 2-type physical exercise has been prescribed for decades.
How Do I Know if I’m in Zone 2?
To illustrate this answer, let’s describe a Zone 2 workout. You’re on a walk or a bike ride, and you’re moving consistently. You are not stopping; instead, you push through, sustaining a pace at which you can have a casual conversation. You’re slightly out of breath but have no problem maintaining this pace. Even if your body and instincts tell you that you can push harder, you must be disciplined to stay where you are. When sustained over the longer-term – ideally 45-60 minutes – your body develops more mitochondria and improves mitochondrial efficiency. And these forty-five minutes are not cumulative. You can’t break them up into segments throughout the day. They must be consecutive.
You are training your cells to do what they do best.
A workout that sustains a comfortable conversation means something different to everyone. So, the best way to track your output is by using a heart rate monitor. By maintaining 60-70% of your maximum heart rate and having a device to guide you, you can start to experience what Zone 2 feels like. And if you begin to push harder, you can reference your device, note that you are leaving optimal pace, and pull back.
Consistency is the key to Zone 2 success. Beginners can start at 20 minutes but will need to eventually build up to 45 to 60 minutes, where the greatest effects kick in. At this moderate rate of exertion, upward of an hour is physically doable, but some say the mental component is the true challenge. After all, we are often encouraged to be gym warriors, or if we are working toward a goal, we have been conditioned to believe that more is more – no pain, no gain, right? Taking a measured, slow and steady approach can seem counterintuitive to physical improvement. But the benefits are proven and offer gains in Zone 3 and Zone 4 training. Notably, higher-zone training does not yield performance improvements in the lower zones.
While Zone 2 seems like an “easy” alternative to the more aggressive Zone 3 and 4 workouts like HIIT training and Tabata, it is anything but. Yes, your exertion is different, but sustaining a level and balanced pace for a minimum of 45 minutes can be challenging. This is especially true for those used to bursts of intensity and all-out speed. By keeping your heart rate in Zone 2, you’re building endurance and improving a foundation of health. Consider it an opportunity to tap into those stubborn fat stores, which will fuel your body. If your mind wanders, this is an ideal place to listen to podcasts, audiobooks, and your favorite music. You can even carry on a conversation at this pace, so it is a more social form of exercise in some respects. Just make sure you find a partner who maintains the same speed and has the same goals.
Indoors or Outdoors? Where Is Best for Zone 2?
While we are huge proponents of outdoor exercise, especially with the great Florida weather year-round, there is an argument for using a controlled environment like a treadmill or a stationary bike to monitor your Zones. If you rely on conversation to determine your pace or can’t readily measure your heart rate, you can quickly dip out of Zone 2 and into Zones 3 and 4. Even a slight incline in terrain can cause this if you are not vigilant. By setting your indoor bike or treadmill at a pace that ensures you stay in Zone 2, you can rule out the anomalies of an outdoor workout. If indoor is not an option, any form of exercise is preferred. You can use a fitness watch or pace meter to determine your output and heart rate.
Find Your Zone
The Benefits of Lower Intensity Training
Zone 2 training can help you achieve metabolic health. Learn more from Dr. Allison Hull at her Well Being Program Discovery session, January 24, 2023RSVP for Event
Why Is Zone 2 Good for the Body?
For so many reasons! By reaching 60 to 70% of the maximum heart rate and sustaining it, your body develops endurance. And with this endurance comes the ability to oxidize or burn fat more efficiently over time. Fat (versus carbs) becomes the furnace fuel that your cells rely on.
Fitness trends can often be extreme but building a fitness base is a foundation for doing more on the other end. Measured and consistent output can help you avoid burnout and injury and ensure you focus on fitness for the longer term.
Some of the most compelling physical benefits of Zone 2 training include:
- Lower resting heart rate
- Lower blood pressure
- Improvement in higher Zone training
- Improvements in insulin resistance
- Greater metabolic flexibility
- Greater endurance
All of this can lead to improved quality of life and increased longevity. The latter alone is worth understanding more about Zone 2 training.
Of course, we exercise to see results physically, but what’s happening inside the body is most fascinating. Literal changes in our mitochondria – essentially the way our cells are changing.
The research and the results are proven, but it isn’t until we feel and sustain this moderate aerobic exertion ourselves that we realize the best-kept secret in fitness may have been in front of us all along. With a slight calibration of our current workouts, we may find that the fat loss, cardiovascular change, and longevity results we’ve been looking for are within grasp.
Medical Director and Creator of ‘Well-Being: A Tribe Planted with Purpose’
Well-Being seeks to restore whole health. We target the areas of nutrition, cognitive training, emotional, and physical wellness. We aim to create sustainable behavior change through physical awareness to better understand our choices and empower your life with purpose.
About Allison Hull, DO
Allison Hull, DO is a practicing, dual board-certified adult internist and pediatrician. As founder and CEO of Well-Being, Dr. Hull has been empowering patients, employees, and community organizations to optimize their health, prevent disease, and mitigate chronic conditions. As creator of an award-winning corporate wellness program, Dr. Hull is a visionary seeking to transform the culture of companies and the lives within them. Her background and expertise in human nutrition coupled with her passion for behavior change, has created the foundation for Dr. Hull to effectively educate each member of the Well-Being Tribe so they in return can impact the lives around them.