Zone 2 Training For Mental Performance And Creativity

by Jun 25, 2021Exercise, Resilience0 comments


This is an action-oriented, non-technical (well…less technical) article about improving your mental performance and creativity through Zone 2 Aerobic Training.  If you’re interested in taking a much deeper dive into the science and specifics of Zone 2 training for overall lifespan, healthspan, injury and disease recovery and improving athletic performance I have included list of resource links at the end of the article.

The Quick And Dirty

1. Zone 2 aerobic exercise 3 x per week can improve mental performance and creativity.

2. Zone 2 refers to a specific heart rate zone where the body and brain use fat (from the body) instead of sugar as a main source of fuel.

3. One benefit of training the brain to use fat instead of sugar is a heightened state of alertness, focus and reduced mental fatigue.

4. It improves brain detoxification (while you sleep) which helps with attention and concentration.

5. The quick and dirty way to calculate Zone 2: Subtract your age from 180. This will get you your zone 2 target heart rate (roughly).

6. For example, I’m 44 so my Zone 2 is 180-44=136. There are some additional factors to consider that you can read about in the article below.

7. In Zone 2 you should be able to have a conversation that consists of short sentences without getting out of breath.

8. Using these two guidelines will help you to get into Zone 2.

9. The advice for metabolic health and mental performance is 60 minutes of Zone 2 training, 3 times per week.

10. The most common zone 2 exercises are: jogging / fast-walking, biking, hiking, rowing, and using the elliptical machine.

11. You will need a heart monitor to track your heart rate while you are exercising. There are two suggestions below in the resources section.

If you’re ready to take your health and performance to the next level (yeah, this is the cheesy pitch), click this link to learn more about my  Peak Performance Group Training Program where you can work one-on-one with me as well as interact with other performance-minded entrepreneurs, artists and professionals.

If you’re not ready or interested, no problem.  You can also subscribe to this blog (if you’re not already) to receive premium health and performance content delivered to you each week.

The Nitty Gritty:

It’s rare in the fields of medicine, health, fitness and performance to have one recommendation that almost everyone approves of.  Enter Zone 2 training.  From a medical perspective cardiologists are suggesting it for heart health.  Primary care doctors are suggesting it for weight loss, prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes.  Neurologists for dementia.  Oncologists for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation.  The list goes on.

I’ve been in the fields of medicine, health, wellness and performance coaching for over 20 years.  Rarely have I seen a recommendation that is wholeheartedly supported by a majority of practitioners and which has almost no controversy. These findings also support the idea that good overall wellness is a major part of improving mental performance and creativity. Taking the time to improve your overall health actually adds to the success of your business or creative endeavor!

What is Zone 2 Training?:

Zone 2 is a form of low-to-moderate intensity training that is performed within a certain range of heart beats-per-minute (bpm) that is specific to the individual person depending on age and conditioning.  This is not quite right though.  The benefits of Zone 2 training actually have less to do with the specific heart beat range and more to do with what type of fuel your muscles and brain are using during the exercise.  I won’t get too granular here but the basic idea is that in higher levels of intensity, the muscles and brain are using glucose (sugar) as fuel.  This happens in the form of a sugar called lactate (lactic acid).  Lactate is a great fuel for intense activities like sprinting, weight lifting, etc.  It’s not a great fuel for longer endurance activities like running, cycling, etc. because it gets used up quickly.  Also, one of the byproducts of lactic acid is excessive hydrogen which makes the muscle cell acidic and contributes to soreness, fatigue and reduced coordination for fine motor skills.

Fat is actually a better fuel to use for these longer endurance activities and is the fuel that is used almost exclusively during Zone 2 training.  This is good because fat utilization has amazing benefits for the brain, heart, blood vessels and almost every aspect of your physiology.  It is also good for those who are trying to lose fat mass because when we are Zone 2, our body mobilizes fat from our fat stores to be used as fuel.  This is especially important for people who have a lot of fat stored around their organs.  This condition called visceral adiposity contributes to systemic inflammation, inefficient metabolism, and a whole slew of health issues.

So, what does the heart rate have to do with fuel use in the muscles and brain?  Exercise physiologists noticed that when a person is in their Zone 2 heart rate, they are also producing less of that acidic lactate.  They also noticed that as people engaged in Zone 2 training regularly, their body became much better at using fat as fuel, they had higher stamina and fatigued less quickly.  The effects of the Zone 2 Training continued on even when they weren’t exercising.  This brings us to the mental performance side of things, but first here’s how to calculate your Zone 2.

How Do I Calculate My Zone 2?:

Ok, even though I said there is little to no controversy with Zone 2 training, there is some as it relates to what that specific zone is and how to calculate it.  There are at least 5 methods I know of including finger poke blood tests for lactate, intense exercise to determine maximum heart rate, and a bunch of convoluted formulas to figure it out.  Here is the easiest way I have learned to calculate your Zone 2.  I have been using it for myself and my clients for a while and it seems to deliver the desired results.  A more detailed explanation of how to calculate it is in the resources section at the end of this article.

Basic Zone 2 Calculation: 180 – Your Age.  This will give you the middle Zone 2 value. If you are injured, recovering from illness or out of shape, subtract 5.  If you are highly conditioned then add 5.   There are more modifications that you can find in the resources section at the end of this article. In addition to finding your ideal aerobic heart rate, another indicator you can use is how easily you’re able to talk during the exercise. If you are able to carry on a full conversation without much sign of exertion or breathlessness you are probably not in the zone. On the other hand if your conversation is only small clipped words like “ok, uhu, yeah,” and that’s all you can manage, you are also not in the zone. Ideally you should be able to have a conversation that consists of a sentence or two before needing to stop to recover you breath. Using these two methods will help you find you find the training zone that will lead to improve mental performance and creativity.

Zone 2 Training for Mental Performance and Creativity:

Ok, this is where things get exciting.  We have already discussed that Zone 2 has positive benefits for preventing and even treating some diseases.  It’s used by a whole variety of professional athletes from tennis players to ultra-endurance racers.  What we haven’t discussed yet is the juice of this article.  Zone 2 training actually has a very positive effect on mental performance.  This is extremely important for those who rely on the power of their intellect and are pushing their mental edge for much of the day.  People whose efforts are focused on science, medicine, teaching, technology, computer programming, finance, entrepreneurship, art and music all fall into this category.  Burnout is so common in these fields that it has actually become a cliche and it’s expected that people involved in these fields will hit a wall at some point.  What if burnout was avoidable?  What if it was possible to become immune to stress and burnout?  Zone 2 training is one part of a comprehensive approach I use in my practice to help people overcome and develop an immunity to burnout.

Mental Benefits of Zone 2 Training:

1. Increased clarity which helps with strategy and organization.
2. Improved ability to focus intensely on a single task.
3. Able to maintain attention for longer periods of time.
4. Higher alertness without the need for excessive stimulants.
5. Increased levels of creativity and problem solving.
6. More restful sleep so you feel fully recharged in the morning.
7. Fewer distractions from muscle soreness and joint pain.
8. Mood stability and improved emotional resilience.

How Does Zone 2 Training Help With Mental Performance?

1. Your brain becomes better at using your fat for fuel.  This means you can be in a fasted state for longer periods which creates the ideal environment for alertness and focus.
2. Improves the health of blood vessels, especially the really tiny ones (capillaries and arterioles) where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged.  This allows for more oxygen to be delivered to your brain and muscle cells.
3. The energy factories of your body (mitochondria) become more efficient at creating energy so you have more energy for focus, concentration and problem solving.
4. Improves deep slow-wave and REM sleep which are important for both physical and mental performance.
5. Improves detoxification of your brain at night through an important process that occurs in the micro-glial lymphatic system (the detox system of the brain) which happens when you are in slow-wave deep sleep.
6. Reduces fatigue and burnout.

How do I do it?

First an annoying disclaimer…if you are uncertain whether or not low to moderate intensity exercise is appropriate for you please consult your trusted health provider.

For general health and mental performance it’s most common to do 3 sessions of Zone 2  for 60-90 minutes per session spread throughout the week.  The minimum effective dose (MED) seems to be 60 minutes per session.  This is usually done every other day.
1. Step 1 calculate your Zone 2 using the guidance provided above.
2. Choose an exercise where you can get into your Zone 2 quickly and maintain it without your heart rate falling below or above your Zone 2 for 60-90 minutes.  This is easiest done in a gym using equipment like a stationary bike, treadmill, elliptical machine or rowing machine.  My favorites are the rowers and the elliptical Arc Trainers.
3. Do this three times per week.
4. Bonus!  If you do this in a fasting state before your first meal of the day, you will have the added benefit of enhancing fat utilization which is helpful for optimizing the brain’s use of fat as a fuel as well as reducing stored fat in the form of visceral adipose tissue (organ fat).

I really cannot emphasize enough how effective this form of training is for enhancing mental performance and improving overall health, energy and resilience.  I encourage you to try this for at least 6 months before evaluating the benefits, though most of my clients experience a noticeable change in 2-4 weeks.  The key is to make it a routine, something that you don’t have to think about.  It is a pillar of health that other things revolve around because its one of those activities that by doing it, improves almost every aspect of your life, at least where it concerns mental performance.

If you ready to take your health and performance to the next level (yeah, this is the cheesy pitch), click this link to learn more about my  Peak Performance Group Training Program where you can work one-on-one with me as well as interact with other performance-minded entrepreneurs, artists and professionals.

If you’re not ready or interested, no problem.  You can also subscribe to this blog (if you’re not already) to receive premium health and performance content delivered to you each week.

Be well,

Joshua Graner
Health, Wellness and Performance Consultant

Summary of Main Points:

– Regular Zone 2 aerobic conditioning can improve mental performance and creativity.
– Exercise is often very nuanced with recommendations that vary depending on activity, goals and conditioning.
– It’s rare to have an exercise recommendation that is so universally accepted and supported by physicians, athletic trainers, competitive athletes and experts in longevity.
– Zone 2 is an important type of training that improves overall health across all spectrums of performance from couch potato to hard charger.
– It can be used to improve health during chemotherapy, as a way to address and even reverse type 2 diabetes, a means to recover from chronic disease, to normalize body weight and composition.  It is also used by the most highly trained athletes in the world to improve stamina and endurance and to recover from intense bouts of exercise and competition.  In fact many endurance athletes like runners, cyclists and triathletes use zone 2 as 60-80% of their training.
– It is also flexible because it can be done while fast-walking, hiking, running, cycling, rowing, etc.  It can be done indoors and out though most experts believe that using a machine like a stationary bike, rowing machines, elliptical machine or treadmill is the preferred method due to the consistency of the movement and the ease of monitoring.
-This kind of training is a form of good stress that creates positive adaptive changes in the nervous system and helps to improve your immunity to stress, fatigue and burnout. See my article on stress resilience, Riding The Redline to learn more.


  1. Dr. Peter Attia Podcast – Discusses the specifics of Zone 2 training
  2. Dr. Maffetone Technique for calculating target heart rate
  3. Article on benefits of Zone 2 training (Comprehensive) 

These are my two favorite heart rate wearable that I actually use.  Note: I don’t get a kickback from these companies so my advice is based purely on my experience.

  1. Garmin Venu2
  2. Whoop