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Basic Aerobic Exercise Principles


Aerobic exercise uses large muscle groups rhythmically and continuously and elevates the heartrate and breathing for a sustained period. Common examples include walking, jogging/running, swimming, rowing, stairclimbing, bicycling, cross-country skiing, step and dance exercise classes, roller skating, and the more continuous forms of tennis, racquetball and squash.

Care and consideration should be used in selecting types (modes) of aerobic exercise. Depending on your goals, physical condition and injury/illness history, different types may prove to be preferential for your particular situation. However, in general, it is a good idea to "cross train". i.e., alternate between and among several appropriate exercises. This strategy reduces the chances of overuse injuries, imposes a more balanced conditioning stimulus and may enhance enjoyment. Specifically, it is important to alternate forms of high impact exercises (running, dance exercise, tennis, racquetball, squash) with low/moderate impact aerobic exercises (walking, swimming, stairclimbing, step classes, rowing, cross-country skiing). Prudent advice is no more than every-other-day for high-impact activities; perhaps less if you are overweight, deconditioned or you have an injury history or current problems with feet, ankles, knees, hips or low back.

Although aerobic exercise is not technique or concentration intensive, proper technique is still very important to optimize your efficiency and prevent injuries. The way you observe everyone else performing an aerobic exercise may not be the right way (e.g., "straight arming" and leaning over on the stairclimbing machines). Obtain quality technique from an exercise physiologist/trainer.

How long?

How long you perform aerobic exercise will depend on your goals, schedule, and physical condition: 10 to 60 minutes is an acceptable range of time. If your goal is body fat loss and you are appropriately conditioned, then longer is better: at least 30 minutes with 40 to 60 minutes preferred. Recent research shows that aerobic fitness levels can improve with as little as 10 minutes duration - as long as exercise is performed often: 2 to 3 times a day, 5 days a week. To balance general fitness, health, body composition, and scheduling concerns, 30 minutes is optimal for many people.

How hard?

The intensity of your aerobic exercise is measured in 3 ways:

  1. Your exercise heartrate is the most precise and can be taken manually with your index and middle fingers on the thumb side of your wrist or the groove of your neck near the jaw bone. Heart rate monitors are also a good way to observe your beats per minute to keep the exercise in the proper target heart rate zone
  2. The so-called "talk test": you should be able to talk comfortably while you are exercising (this test is very good to keep you from working too hard).
  3. Your perceived exertion level: simply put, how hard the exercise feels to you.

You and your exercise physiologist/trainer can determine which method is best for you. However, we can't emphasize enough that there is no real need to "knock yourself out". Moderate intensity is almost always appropriate and always more enjoyable. Low to moderate intensity is an especially good idea when starting out after a layoff or recovery from illness/injury or if you are significantly overweight.

How often?

2 to 7 days a week. Under ideal conditions, 2 workouts a week will allow you to maintain your fitness levels, but for nearly everyone 3 to 5 sessions a week would be better. If fat loss is your goal, then 6 to 7 low impact workouts a week (nearly every day) would be optimal. The more often you perform aerobic exercise the more important it is to cross train as discussed above. It is always important to gradually increase your duration, intensity and frequency. It is especially important if you are deconditioned, overweight, elderly or are rehabilitating from an injury or illness. If in doubt, go easier, shorter, slower and enjoy yourself.

Warmup and cool down is important to reduce discomfort and the chance for injury. Warmup for aerobic exercise by performing the exercise at a very low intensity and gradually build up over 2 to 10 minutes at the end of your workout. Do not stop and stand abruptly without cooling down. You run the risk of getting dizzy and/or passing out.

It is a common misconception that aerobic exercise tones/firms muscles. Actually it accomplishes very little toning/firming. In a typical aerobic workout, your active muscles perform hundreds of repetitions with a relatively low load/resistance placed on them; which is an ineffective toning/firming stimulus. Resistance exercise (weight training) is where real toning/firming of muscles occurs. Another misconception is that one must exercise aerobically at a low intensity to lose fat. Recent research has shown that we may exercise at any intensity for effective fat loss.

If your goal is to lead a balanced lifestyle and enhance your health and well being, keep in mind that it is very important to perform aerobic exercise regularly even if the intensity is low or the duration is short. The bottom line for health and well being enhancement is to get some frequent aerobic activity - period; try to enjoy it and take it easy so you will want to keep it up.

Because aerobic exercise is repetitive, it often does not require a high degree of concentration (although attention to technique is important). So it may be a good idea to read, listen to music or educational tapes, watch TV or converse with a companion (remember, if you can't talk because you are out of breath, it is probably too hard) to enhance your enjoyment.

Keeping an accurate log of your workouts is a good way to see at a glance how far you've come in your pursuit of fitness. Your progress will keep you interested and motivated.

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