LISS Cardio Thoughts

The need for fun, effective LISS cardio

High intensity cardio, as practiced in interval training, has three exercises that are cheap, (subjectively) fun, and effective: jump roping, kettlebell swinging, and burpees (burpee-ing?). I can’t think of many improvements to be made here. However, there isn’t really a good way to make these exercises low intensity to the degree that they could conform to all the percentages of VO2 max one might wish to do low intensity steady-state (LISS) cardio at (particularly the lower percentages). While you can make them a little less intense, they are always sort-of intense by their very nature.

So some form of LISS exercise needs to be chosen. There are problems with many options that one might immediately think of.

Problems with running

Running would be great if it didn’t put so much stress on your body: you don’t need to buy fancy equipment, you can do it anywhere (even on business travel, e.g.), and you never get going so fast that you can’t stop safely. But alas, running causes unavoidable problems if it is done with enough regularity (and even more so if one is overweight, since the impact forces are larger). Treadmills share all of running’s problems, and have the disadvantages of being expensive and not portable.

Problems with swimming

Swimming is an excellent form of cardio exercise. No joint stress whatsoever, full-body cardio, and a variety of strokes to switch things up for variety. But unfortunately pools are not portable in the least, and pools large enough for dedicated workouts are generally outside the means of individuals to purchase and maintain. This means some form of gym membership is mandatory, and I don’t like gym memberships. They tend to be expensive (especially compared the lifelong amortized costs of even nice equipment for, e.g., cycling), there are all sorts of philosophical problems I have with commercial gyms that misinform people (not that all of them do), and, most importantly, getting to and from the gym is wasted time, and adds a barrier to exercise. You can’t just do it on a whim; unless you live right next to a gym, a gym visit is likely to cost you at least half an hour in structural time loss (and maybe more if traffic is bad). This makes all gym-based forms of exercise inconvenient (it is just a question of degrees).

Even if you pay to use the pool at a local gym, you still have to deal with other people in the pool. Speaking from experience, there are a wide range of people who go to pools to exercise. Usually there are fast lanes and slow lanes, but even so, you may find your workouts limited by people around you. (This is mostly a problem for very fit people who need to go faster than other swimmers to get the same cardiovascular load). Moreover, you can usually only use the pool at predefined times, which may or may not correspond to when you want to work out. This may not be a problem if you work out on a consistent schedule that matches the pool’s open hours. I tend to do my cardio workouts late at night when I probably wouldn’t be able to use a gym pool.

The biggest problem with pools, of course, is that there are many areas that simply don’t have them (outside pools in Canada aren’t really a thing during winter months, e.g.). Especially if you live an a rural area or even in less urban suburbia, there may not be any pool that is close enough to be usable.

Problems with cardio machines

Cardio machines (like elliptical machines and cycling machines) have quite a few advantages:

  • You never have to contend with environmental risks like traffic, road debris, and so forth.
  • You never have to deal with bad or unsafe weather.
  • Since you never have to brake, it is impossible to hurt oneself due to locking wheels with improper brake application, skidding out on gravel, and so forth.
  • It is safe to listen to music and podcasts (or even to watch TV and whatnot) since you do not have to maintain situational awareness regarding traffic and the like.
  • If you have the machines at home, exercise becomes convenient, and you have fewer excuses.

However, their fatal flaw is that they are incurably boring. You don’t get to zoom around outside and have the air in your face. Exercise needs to be at least tolerably interesting for it to be sustainable, and in my experience, inside cardio is not sufficient if it is the only form of cardio one does. (Using some form of inside cardio during really bad weather is fine since it won’t be a large component of your overall exercise: using a progressive resistance trainer for your bicycle, for example).

Problems with inline skating

Skates are an attractive proposition since they don’t take up much space and are cheap, relatively speaking. They allow for joint-friendly cardio outside. Earlier this year I was very gung-ho about inline skates, but I’ve become less so as I’ve gotten better and started trying to exercise with them more.

As a form of exercise, skates are just fine. Their problem, in my experience, is that stopping requires a lot of practice and skill, and is more complicated than braking with levers as on bikes: you have to skate on one foot and drag the other, or do slides to stop (like hockey players). If I had flat exercise environments wherein I could guarantee I would never have to do emergency braking, skates would be sufficient, and likely cheaper than all alternatives. Unfortunately, big hills are ubiquitous where I am, and after spending some time practicing stops when going down hills fast, I have become convinced that skates are not the best exercise solution for most people. Braking on inline skates (especially at high speeds where there is less margin for error) is simply more dangerous than braking on bikes and the like; no matter how good you get, this will always be so. Moreover, braking when it has rained is more disadvantageous than simply having less traction: since the ground is actually used as a friction surface in all stopping techniques for skating, braking in the rain is quite a bit less effective.

I don’t think skating is terrible or anything like that (it’s loads of fun). But it is more realistic to view it as a form of pleasurable risk-taking than a superior exercise solution. Why? Because the harder you push yourself in a workout, the more dangerous skate braking becomes: as your control lessens and exhaustion sets in, you can no longer brake safely. Some people may never work out hard enough for this to be a problem (especially if they are skating for fun rather than exercise), but it is a limitation that is there.

Cycling as a workable solution

Formalizing the above discussion

In the above sections, various form of cardio were dismissed for different reasons. More formally:

  • Running was primarily eliminated since LISS cardio needs to not cause damage to one’s body over time.
  • Swimming was primarily eliminated since LISS cardio needs to be cost-effective and, more importantly, convenient. Swimming may still be an excellent form of exercise for some people, depending upon cost and local availability. I am convinced that the bother of going to a gym will always make it somewhat suboptimal, though. YMMV.
  • Cardio machines (elliptical machines and cycling machines) were primarily eliminated since they are boring. Exercise that is outside has a tendency to be more interesting, and so is exercise engaged in while moving at at least moderate speeds.
  • Inline skating was primarily eliminated since braking when skating is not as safe as braking in other forms of exercise (like cycling); it is an avoidable source of risk. It also doesn’t work very well in the rain.

Cycling

Cycling gets through all of the above: cycling does not put undue stress on your body (especially if you ride a recumbent of some variety); cycling can be cost-effective and convenient since you can amortize purchases across many years and you don’t have gyms involved; cycling is not terribly boring since you do it outside (in different locations) and at speed; and braking when cycling is safe (especially if you use disc brakes with consistent wet-weather performance) and does not become harder as you get more tired.

“Cycling” would include such things as diamond-frame road bikes, recumbent bikes, recumbent trikes, and even velomobiles. All of these things involve the legs turning cranks to generate forward motion.

The Elliptigo as another workable solution

Note that I don’t own an Elliptigo, have never seen one in person, and have absolutely no connection to the company. I also think they are somewhat overpriced for what they are (although I do understand that they are probably priced high since they have low throughput relative to most bike manufacturers). However, as described below, I do think the Elliptigo design offers some clear advantages.

Working out more of the body

One disadvantage that cycling has is that it very much targets upper leg muscles, and little else. I am a big fan of workouts that don’t isolate muscle groups; I think that the compound lifts (squat, deadlift, bench) are superior in weightlifting, and that full-body movements (pushup, pullup, burpee) are superior in bodyweight exercise.

Now, the heart doesn’t really care. As aerobic exercise, cycling is fine. But it would be better if it worked out the whole body more, or even just the legs more evenly. This is exactly what the Elliptigo does: it provides a more balanced leg workout, and also works out core muscles. Working out the upper body is difficult for any sort of vehicle, since the arms are used for steering purposes. It’s sort of unavoidable.

Comfort

I won’t bother taking a side on whether or not upright bikes – particularly road bikes with drop bars – are actively harmful or not (in terms of causing neck and back problems). What is incontrovertible is that recumbent bikes and trikes are more comfortable; they have cushier seats, more support, and a more relaxed posture.

The Elliptigo has no seat since you are standing straight, but it is definitely also going to be more comfortable than upright bikes. There won’t be any neck or back strain from being hunched over (to one degree or another), and the standing position means no aches caused by a seat (which arise when riding upright bikes for extended periods of time).

Improving visibility

Upright bikes have reasonably good visibility, with the rider positioned high enough to both see and be seen.

All forms of recumbent bicycle, however, have lower visibility. Some recumbent bicycles aren’t too much lower than upright bikes (e.g., the Lightning P38); however, most recumbent tricycles are substantially lower than upright bikes. While it is arguable exactly how much risk being low to the ground entails, it is definitely not a good thing in terms of safety.

The Elliptigo wins this category by a large margin. Being able to see over cars gives an Elliptigo rider a great deal more visibility.

Cross-training running

If you don’t play any sports that involve running (or do triathlons, run marathons, etc.), cross-training running is not really a variable of interest. But for people that do, the Elliptigo very closely mimics the running motion (which is good for building appropriate muscular endurance), except without any impact. Have a look at this video:

I do not think the Elliptigo marketing about cross-training cyclists is entirely appropriate: cross-training is not magic, and since the Elliptigo stride pattern and cycling don’t overlap much, one would only share the cardiovascular adaptations. But for running, it is clear that Elliptigo cross-training is huge: one gets to practice running without the impact forces that make running harmful. It fixes running’s only downside, in other words.

Other considerations

When selecting a form of exercise, one might also think about:

  • How fun the exercise is: pleasure (as a psychological benefit) has lots of positive health associations. Exercise that might be suboptimal for other reasons might come out on top for you if you find it particularly fun for some reason. Inline skating, e.g., ought to be considered more seriously (despite its braking issues) if you find it particularly fun.
  • Whether or not the exercise has a social component: can it it be done in groups? Working out on a cardio machine in your house cannot be made social, e.g.
  • Whether or not the exercise is well-suited to transportation purposes: would you be able to double-up your time by working out when you commute or run errands? Visibility, wind resistance (drag), top speed, required effort, capacity to carry luggage, and storage factors (e.g., can you lock your vehicle somewhere? Fold it and bring it into your workplace or a store?) are all relevant variables.
  • Social acceptability: is the exercise common, and does it have positive connotations? This one doesn’t hold any weight for me, but some people will be uncomfortable doing something uncommon or “uncool.”
  • Cost: some forms of exercise are more expensive than others. Cost can be deceptive, since some things that appear to be very expensive up front (like buying an indoor elliptical machine) will work out to not be super expensive in the long-haul if you use the equipment a long time, and some things that appear to be cheap up front (like a $20/mo. gym membership) can be very expensive over many years. These things aren’t always inversely related: some things are expensive up front and expensive over time too.
 


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