The lowdown on Zone 2 workouts to level up your fitness

Think fast and hard is the only way to get fit? There’s mounting evidence that slow and easy Zone 2 workouts are the sweet spot you want to be in.

If “feel the burn”, “go hard or go home” and “super sweat sesh” are part of your everyday workout lingo, we’ve got news for you.

HIIT (high-intensity interval training) might have been celebrated over the past few years as the best way to lose fat, develop strength and get fit, but that was before the buzz around Zone 2 workouts.

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What is Zone 2 training?

Exercise physiologists categorise exercise intensity into five different zones based on a percentage of your maximum heart rate.

Zone 2 training means exercising at a level of exertion where your body is working, but not intensely.

“Zone 2 refers to the heart rate range you are aiming to work at, which is a low but steady intensity, using primarily your aerobic energy system,” Tailored Health exercise physiologist Alex Marriott says.

“These workouts are often considered long, relatively easy exercise sessions, done at an intensity you can maintain for a long time or at least an hour.”

Think a long and slow run, a brisk walk or a bike ride where you can maintain the exercise and hold a conversation.

What are the pros of Zone 2 workouts?

Fat loss

Exercise physiologist Alyssa Petrofes says at Zone 2 level, your body uses fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates.

When the body uses fat for energy, it generally results in the physiological process of fat loss.

However, Alyssa notes that as you start working harder and move up into Zone 3 and beyond, your body will switch to using carbohydrates for energy instead.

“This will put your heart, lungs and muscles under more stress, which means you’ll need more recovery time,” she says.


“Zone 2 makes exercise tolerable; it’s the sweet spot, a pace you can maintain for a long time, and it really helps your relationship with exercise because it makes it something you enjoy,” Alex says.

For elite athletes, Zone 2 workouts form the majority of their training as they lay down an “aerobic base” before building up to more intense exercise.

How long should Zone 2 workouts be?

Alex recommends aiming for at least 45 minutes per session, or longer if you can, two or three times a week.

“It’s important to consider that an hour is a long time to exercise, even for Zone 2,” he says.

“If you are not ready for it, a gradual build over a few weeks or months is important if you’re new to exercise and Zone 2 training.”

Do you need equipment for a Zone 2 workout?

You don’t need any special equipment to enjoy a Zone 2 workout if you’re walking or jogging outdoors, for example.

But you can also use indoor equipment such as a rowing machine or an elliptical trainer with great effect.

“As long as your heart rate is elevated for a long time in the heart rate range required, you’re doing a Zone 2 workout,” Alex says.

What is the ideal heart rate for Zone 2 workouts?

The ideal heart rate depends on your age, the medication you may be taking and your overall heart health, Alex says.

“For the most part, you can calculate it as a percentage — around 60 to 70 per cent of your maximum heart rate, which can be loosely predicted as 220 minus your age,” he says.

“For a 40-year-old, this is 108bpm to 126bpm (beats per minute).”

What does science say about Zone 2 workouts?

In Zone 2, your exercise intensity is at a level in which you’re stimulating your cells’ mitochondrial function the most.

Adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, is the source of energy for use and storage at the cellular level, which skeletal muscle needs for muscle contraction.

You can meet your body’s demand for ATP using only fat and oxygen in your mitochondria.

Along with helping to create a more sustainable exercise routine, Zone 2 workouts can help prevent us from becoming injured through overtraining or from burning out if we go too hard and fast.

These workouts are also linked to improved blood glucose regulation and lower rates of chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes, dementia, stroke and heart disease.

A 2021 Korean study published in the international Healthcare Journal found it could also improve strength and cardiorespiratory function.

“In terms of the impact on your body, physically it protects your joints and muscles, and mentally it’s good because you’re not dreading it,” Alex says.

Zone 2 workout tips for beginners

Start slow

Alex says it’s important not to rush into Zone 2 workouts but to gradually increase your loads over time to make sure your body is ready for the demands of long exercise.

“Your muscles, bones, tendons and other tissues need to be prepared for long exposure to exercise,” he says.

“Start at a distance you can tolerate that causes minimal or no discomfort in your muscles and joints, and progress gradually over time until you can comfortably complete one or more hours at a steady heart rate.

“For most of my clients, we can start pretty comfortably at 20 to 30 minutes and progress five minutes per week until they’re at the time they desire.”

Forget ‘no pain, no gain’

Changing from a sedentary lifestyle to one that incorporates even a modest amount of Zone 2 training can bring substantial benefits to your health, Alyssa says.

“It’s part of my job to debunk people’s beliefs that exercise needs to be something that is painful,” she says.

Instead, Alyssa recommends finding something that is fun and enjoyable to do.

“Just make sure to check in with your health professional if you haven’t done any physical activity for a while,” she says.

It seems the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop was right all along — slow and steady really can win the race.

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Originally written by Liz McGrath, January 2023. Updated by Melissa Hong, May 2024.