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Exercise is one of the cornerstones of good health, and the fitness industry provides a constantly increasing number of activities from which you can choose. While you may not hear the term “aerobic exercise” as often as you once did, this type of activity remains the key to a healthy heart.
What Is Aerobic Exercise?
Aerobic exercise is continuous physical activity using large muscle groups for a sustained period of time (a minimum of 10 minutes). “Aerobic” means “requiring oxygen,” and aerobic exercise increases your body’s oxygen demand and your heart rate.
“When performing aerobic exercise, you will feel your breathing speed up, your heart rate increase, and your body temperature rise. Aerobic activities include swimming, cycling, dancing, speed walking, stair climbing, and running,” says Pamela Geisel, MS, CSCS, a performance specialist at the Tisch Sports Performance Center at the Weill Cornell-affiliated Hospital for Special Surgery.
The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week (five 30-minute sessions) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise a week (three 25-minute sessions), or a combination of the two.
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WHAT YOU CAN DO
To improve your cardiovascular fitness:
- Choose an activity you enjoy; if you find an activity boring or unpleasant, you’re not likely to stick with it.
- Set aside a regular exercise time.
- Get an “exercise buddy”—someone who will exercise with you and help you stay motivated.
How Aerobic Exercise Helps Your Heart
Geisel explains that, during aerobic activities, your body’s demand for oxygen increases, resulting in an increase in your heart rate in an attempt to meet the oxygen requirement. This increases the blood circulation throughout your body and results in a higher volume of blood being returned to your heart. This extra “load” causes adaptations in your cardiovascular system that are beneficial for your overall heart health. These benefits include a stronger heart muscle, lower blood pressure, lower resting heart rate, improved cholesterol levels (a decrease in LDL and an increase in HDL), improved blood flow, and a decreased risk for cardiovascular disease.
In addition, aerobic exercise enhances the function of your respiratory system since it improves lung capacity, as well as improving weight management, insulin sensitivity, and bone health. Aerobic exercise also decreases stress and anxiety.
Geisel notes, “It is also a great social opportunity—you can catch up with old friends or make new ones. Arrange a tennis match, join a walking club, or take a class at the YMCA or senior center.”
Is It Aerobic?
You don’t have to exercise to the point of exhaustion to achieve aerobic exercise—but a leisurely stroll around the block doesn’t boost your heart rate enough to gain aerobic benefits. Since you can do a variety of exercises at different speeds, how can you tell if your activity is aerobic? There are three common ways to determine if you are performing aerobic exercise, according to Geisel.
1. Check your heart rate. Moderate intensity is considered 50 to 70 percent of your heart rate maximum. Vigorous intensity is considered 70 to 85 percent of your heart rate maximum. You can calculate your heart rate maximum by subtracting your age from 220; for example, if you are 60, your heart rate maximum is 160 (220 minus 60). “Just keep in mind that your heart rate zones can differ based upon genetics, environment, fitness level, and other factors. I recommend seeing a fitness professional to help tailor some specific heart rate zones for you,” advises Geisel.
2. Use the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE). The Borg RPE scale is a tool that measures your intensity on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 feeling like you are lying in bed and 10 feeling like you are sprinting from a bear. Moderate intensity is often considered a 4-6, and vigorous intensity is often considered 7-9.
3. Take the “talk test.” This “test” doesn’t require any math; it’s an easy way to figure out if you’re moving fast enough to gain aerobic benefits.
“With moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, you should be working hard enough that you are able to speak a sentence but unable to sing a song. With vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise, you should be working hard enough that you are able to speak a few words but unable to speak a full sentence,” explains Geisel.