If you want a stronger heart, a leaner body, lower cholesterol, improved sleep, nothing beats aerobic exercise. You can strengthen your entire cardiovascular system—heart, lungs and blood vessels—through regular aerobic activities. A stronger, more efficient heart pumps out more blood with each beat. Therefore, it beats less often, saving wear and tear on that vital organ.
Aerobic workouts will also enable your lungs to take in more air each time you breathe and help your body to extract oxygen more efficiently. Oxygen is what gives us energy, so if you are aerobically fit, you have more stamina. You can get through your workouts, as well as everyday tasks, with less effort and more energy. No more huffing and puffing on the stairs, no more telling the kids to go ahead, you’ll catch up and no more being tagged out on the company softball team because you ran out of gas before you reached the base. Being aerobically active also lowers blood pressure and increases that good guy cholesterol, the HDL kind.
Aerobic activity is the “primo” calorie burner of exercises. Burn more calories and you’ll lose fat. If weight loss is your major goal, be sure to include lots of aerobic activity in your workout plan.
On the emotional and social side, studies have shown that being aerobically fit can reduce depression and make you better able to cope with stress. Your body increases production of those natural mood elevators called beta-endorphins, producing a better frame of mind. And being fit boosts self-esteem and your sense of well-being. It also improves your ability to have more fun and to enjoy activities. Your quality of life gets a jump start. Not only will you look better, you’ll feel great. There are lots of reasons to be aerobically active. We can’t think of any reasons why not to.
Before you choose a sport or activity for aerobic benefits, be sure that it truly is an aerobic activity. Aerobic exercise is any activity you do that:
- Is steady and nonstop
- Puts you into your “target heart rate zone”
- Lasts a minimum of 12 minutes
- Uses the big muscles in the lower body
Some examples of aerobic activities are walking, jogging,running, cycling, rowing, cross-country skiing, skipping and hiking. Examples of activities that are too stop-and-go or too fast or too slow to be considered aerobic are softball, golf, downhill skiing, strength training and horseback riding. Find a sport or activity that you enjoy. If you find stationary cycling boring, ride a bike outdoors. You will probably stay on your bike longer, see some great scenery and benefit from the fresh air. Choosing an activity that you enjoy also means doing something that easily fits into your day such as walking at lunch time or after dinner.
Start slowly. Gentle exercise pays off in the beginning. Your body will adapt and profit from the smallest increase in activity. By starting at an easy pace, you will enjoy your new activity more.
Exercise in your “target heart rate range.” Exercising in this range will ensure that your exercise is at an intensity that you can maintain for an extended period of time, without becoming breathless. It also makes sure that you are challenging yourself enough to see results (refer to Target Heart Rate in this section for more detail.) If you exercise with others, ensure they have similar fitness levels. Sometimes, with the best of intentions, fit friends push us too fast too soon because it is so easy for them. You may end up injured. Likewise, if they aren’t as fit, they’ll be holding you back. Combine moderate levels of activity with more vigorous exercise. For example, if you jog, use a combination of walking and jogging to start. As you progress, walk less and jog more. Stay committed. We all get lazy and skip a day or even a week of exercise. When you don’t exercise regularly, do not feel bad about it. Just get back to it as soon as possible.
Always warm up and cool down. If you decide to jog at a moderate intensity for 15 to 45 minutes the best warm up is a very slow jog for about five minutes. And the best cool down is a five-minute fast walk. Some people like to finish their warm up by stretching the muscles that will be used in the chosen activity. To date, there is conflicting research as to whether warm up stretching helps prevent muscular injuries. However, there is no controversy over cool down stretching. To maintain or increase your flexibility, your muscles must be stretched after every workout. After your workout, your muscles are warm and fatigued and in an ideal state for stretching. Follow the rules of safe stretching. 1) Never stretch cold muscles. Warm up or gently exercise first, then stretch. 2) Hold the position. Do not bounce. A stretch should last 8 to 20 seconds. 3) Never stretch to the point of discomfort. If you feel you could hold the stretch indefinitely without pain, then you are not over stretching. Progress cautiously. In the early stages of an aerobic pragram, you should try to increase the length of your workouts by no more than a couple of minutes at a time. If it hurts, do not do it. If you are in pain your body is telling you something is wrong. Slow down or seek the advice of a medical or fitness professional. Beware of over-training. When overdone, exercise can jeopardize your health and fitness. If you feel fatigued, lethargic, irritable, heavylegged, lose your appetite or develop sleep problems, you need to slow down. Listen to your body. It will tell you when you have had enough.
Getting Results and Staying Motivated
Take the following aerobic fitness test to determine and track your aerobic fitness:
Find a flat, level mile. Use a high school track or measure one mile on a road with your car. Warm up by walking or jogging slowly for about five minutes, then start your aerobic pace and time your-self as you cover the mile without going faster than the aerobic pace (or heart rate) you have been practising. This test will tell you how many minutes it takes you to cover one mile, while training in your target heart rate zone.
- Repeat this test every two to three months to track your progress. Each time, your heart rate and your breathing level should be the same. But the time it takes to cover a mile should go down (or up) as your fitness level goes up (or down). Different types of activities take different lengths of time to show results. You have to walk a long time to get the same benefits you would get from a short session of cross-coun-try skiing. This is not because it takes more effort to ski.Even if walking is done with lots of effort and cross-country skiing done with little effort, the difference is still seen. It’s the number of muscles involved in an exercise that matters. For the fastest results, choose activities like cross-coun-try skiing, rowing and jogging or any other activity that involves the whole body. Swimming, which uses primarily the upper body, and stationary cycling, which uses mostly lower body muscles, are excellent aerobic activities but do not produce the quickest results. You should feel more energy and stamina within a few weeks of starting your aerobic program. Stairs will not seem so challenging and you may feel less fatigued at the end of the day. Weight loss results will really depend on your eating habits, your genetic make up,whether or not you lift weights and your commitment to your program. Lifting weights in addition to your aerobics is always a good idea especially if weight control is an issue for you because the body burns more calories when it has more muscle. If you do include weight training along with aerobics, then quit weighing yourself on a scale. Your body weight may stay the same or even increase, but your clothes will be looser and your body firmer and toned. Throw away the scales, we did.
- Exercise aerobically as often as possible. Aim for a minimum of three 30-minute exercise sessions per week. Some experts recommend six 12-minute exercise sessions per week. Bear in mind, the fat burning benefits don’t really kick in until after about 12 minutes of exercise in your target heart rate zone. We believe that if you’ve made the effort to get dressed and committed to workout, it should be for at least 20 to 30 minutes. For aerobic exercise, unlike weight training, rest days are not necessary. Determine what works best for you, get into a routine and stick to it. Monitor your aerobic progress by measuring how your body responds and adapts to exercise. For example, check your resting heart rate in the morning after a good night’s rest. As your physical fitness improves, your resting heart rate should decrease. The more efficient your heart becomes as a pump, the less it has to beat when it’s at rest.
- Keeping track of your heart rate recovery time can also show improvements in your overall fitness level. Take your pulse immediately before your cool down period. Cool down for about five minutes (refer to Cool Down in this section) and then count your pulse again. Compare the two numbers. The greater the difference between the two numbers, the better your level of aerobic fitness. Keep track in your exercise log or journal.
- To prevent exercise boredom, have a variety of exercise video tapes on hand, use the TV and radio at home, sign up for fitness classes at a local community centre or join a gym on a monthly basis. You can also change your exercise routine based on the weather. Cycle, walk and in-line skate in the summer and cross country ski and snowshoe in the winter. (Refer to Keeping Motivated in this section for more tips on staying motivated to exercise).