Over the years, many people have asked me what the best form of exercise is. My standard answer is, “Whatever you feel you will most likely do is the best exercise for you.”
This is because if you like it, you are more likely to continue doing it. Most of us are aware of the need for a fitness program that combines cardiovascular fitness with weight training and flexibility. Most of us understand that if you exercise your heart muscle, then you strengthen your heart. However, there is still confusion on what one needs to do in order to strengthen the heart and how to determine if what you are doing is having a positive long term effect.
Consider how you feel when you walk up a flight of steps. Do you feel breathless or feel yourself needing to take in more air? Your body is indicating that you need oxygen. Aerobic means “with oxygen,” and aerobic fitness, also referred to as cardiorespiratory, pertains to how well your body is able to take in oxygen and put it to use. Activities that involve large muscle groups in dynamic movement for prolonged periods of time are considered aerobic. Your cardiovascular system (heart and blood vessels) and your respiratory system (lungs and air passages) work together during longer-duration activities to supply working muscle and organs with the oxygen they need. Examples of aerobic activity include walking, jogging, running, dancing, swimming, rowing, hiking, and team sports such as basketball, soccer and hockey.
Improved cardiovascular endurance typically leads to the ability to perform regular daily activities with less difficulty. This enables you to feel more in control and gives you more energy to do your daily tasks. Does anyone really want to feel exhausted playing with their kids, walking across campus, walking through the grocery store, or just walking to church? In addition, low levels of cardiorespiratory fitness are associated with higher risk of premature death from all causes, and specifically cardiovascular disease. All of us would like to live a healthier life and have more energy to get through the day. Improving your cardiorespiratory health is one way to do this.
The components of a safe aerobic workout should include a warm-up, followed by the main portion of the workout, called the endurance phase, and completed with a cool-down.
The warm-up activities may include light calisthenics or lower-level activities similar to what you will be including for the conditioning phase. For example, if your conditioning phase includes higher intensity lap swimming, then swim laps at a slower pace to warm-up.
The endurance phase is the main portion of the workout. You can use four workout principles to determine the cardiovascular benefit of the activity. These are: frequency, intensity, time and type (FITT).
The recommended frequency for cardiorespiratory endurance conditioning is between three to five days per week. If you perform vigorous aerobic activity, then three days per week may be enough. However, if you perform lower intensity aerobic activity, exercising five days would be better. You should notice an increase in heart rate and breathing when performing vigorous activity, as it is putting a stress on your heart.
As your intensity increases, so do the potential health benefits. However, check with your physician prior to starting your activity program to determine how you should begin. Your starting level is determined by your age, medical concerns and current fitness level.
There are a variety of methods to determine your exercise intensity. One method is to monitor your perceived level of effort, which is also referred to as perceived exertion. Although this is subjective (i.e., you determine how easy or hard you are exercising), a numerical scale can help guide you to the appropriate level of activity. A scale of 0 to 10 is often used, with 0 being when sitting at rest and 10 being your highest level of effort possible. Vigorous intensity is considered at a level 7 or 8.
Another method, called the talk test, can also be used to establish exercise intensity. If you are exercising at a level where you feel yourself breathing heavier (but not gasping for air) then you are likely exercising at a moderate intensity — approximately 5-6 on the 10-point scale.
Heart rate monitoring can also be helpful for determining your exercise intensity level. However, it can be a little more challenging than perceived exertion or the talk test as there are different formulas that can be used. In addition, one needs to calculate their training heart rate which requires one to take their own pulse. Purchasing a heart rate monitor can alleviate this issue if you struggle with finding your pulse. The easiest formula for calculating exercise intensity is (220 minus your age) multiplied by 60 percent-90 percent.
The percentage you start with depends on your current fitness level. If you fall into the low fitness classification, then starting at the lower intensity level (60 percent) makes sense. If you fall into the fair to average fitness level, then starting at a moderate level (70-75 percent) may work for you. Those individuals that could be classified with a good to excellent fitness level can engage in high-intensity exercise at 85 percent or higher.
Take Sally as an example. Sally is a 40-year-old woman who jogs sporadically (maybe a couple times per week a couple of weeks and three times the next), but does not have an optimal exercise plan. Sally falls into the fair to average fitness classification. Her exercise heart rate range would be calculated as follows: 220 minus 40 equals 180, which multiplied by 70 percent-75 percent equals 126-135 beats per minute. So, in order for Sally to improve her heart health with exercise, her heart rate should be in the 126-135 bpm range while exercising. If lower, she’s really not benefiting her heart.
The duration of each exercise session is determined by your current fitness level and the amount of time you can commit. If you are a beginner, find an activity you can do for at least 10 minutes with no stopping. As the exercise becomes easier, increase the duration of each cardiorespiratory session by a couple of minutes until you reach about 30 minutes per session. This may take a number of weeks or months depending on your initial fitness level. Your target should be completing 60-150 minutes of exercise per week. If your goal is to lose weight, stay at the high end of this scale, or exercise longer than 150 minutes.
If you fall into the fair to average fitness level, moderate intensity exercise 30-90 minutes per day with a target of 200-300 minutes per week is recommended. Once again, If you are working on weight loss, stay at the high end of the scale. If you are a regular cardiorespiratory exerciser, focus on moderate to high intensity activity for 30-90 minutes per day with an overall target of 200-300 minutes per week.
If you have trouble figuring out which fitness level you fall into, talk with a physician, an exercise physiologist or other trained professional who has experience with conducting safe fitness assessments. Getting started on the right track with your cardiorespiratory exercise can help you be safe and give you great results. We all want to breathe easier when walking up steps or doing daily functional activities. Now you have the information needed to get you there.
Mary Ganzel is senior program director at the Albany Area YMCA. She has a master’s degree in exercise physiology from the University of Kentucky and has worked in the fitness industry for more than 25 years. She’s been certified through multiple national organizations over the years as a personal trainer, exercise test technologist, health promotion director, group exercise instructor, Cycle Reebok instructor and Pilates instructor through Cooper Institute, American College of Sports Medicine, American Council on Exercise, Aerobic Fitness Association of America and the Young Mens Christian Association.