What is aerobic exercise?

Contents

Aerobic exercise: the health benefits

‘Aerobic’ exercise refers to exercise that requires the consumption of substantially more oxygen than at rest. It is of a light to moderate intensity, and can be undertaken for a prolonged duration (many minutes to several hours) without excessive fatigue. Examples of aerobic exercise include walking, jogging, swimming or cycling at a steady pace. Another example would be dancing or ‘aerobics’ classes.

Regular exercise causes your body to make adjustments that result in improved health and physical functioning. Continuing with regular exercise enables your body to maintain these benefits. Regularly doing the right types of exercise at the correct intensity, and for an appropriate duration, results in the most benefit.

The benefits of aerobic exercise can be broadly categorised as either ‘fitness’ (physical capacity) or ‘health’. Fitness and health are linked, and most forms of aerobic exercise will help you achieve both.

Fitness — including increased cardiorespiratory fitness and endurance (stamina)

Regular aerobic exercise improves your cardiovascular fitness by increasing your capacity to use oxygen. It does this by increasing your heart’s capacity to send blood (and hence oxygen) to the muscles. This is mainly achieved through an increase in the size of the heart’s pumping chambers (ventricles), which means that your heart doesn’t have to beat as fast to deliver the same amount of blood. This is evident in a slower resting heart rate, and a slower heart rate for the same exercise intensity.

As you get ‘fitter’, particular activities (such as walking or jogging at a specified speed) will become easier.

You’ll also be able to undertake the activity for longer (known as endurance), and/or at a higher intensity (e.g. jogging at a faster speed). The same applies to activities such as cycling or swimming, but it should be noted that fitness tends to be specific. So jogging will provide only limited benefits to your swimming fitness and vice versa. However, a side-benefit you may notice is that you also have increased stamina for the everyday activities of life, not just for exercise.

Other fitness improvements occur in the exercising muscles, and are specific to those muscles being used in the mode of exercise (e.g. walking, running, cycling, or swimming). These include an increased capacity for the muscles to take up and use the additional oxygen being delivered by the heart.

Reduced risk of certain health problems

Regular aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer and breast cancer. It can lower blood pressure and improve your blood cholesterol by reducing the levels of LDL-cholesterol (so-called ‘bad’ cholesterol) and increasing the amount of HDL-cholesterol (so-called ‘good’ cholesterol). It can also reduce anxiety, stress and depression, as well as instilling a general sense of well-being. Regular aerobic exercise has even been shown to have the potential to increase your lifespan.

Low-impact aerobic exercise such as swimming is valuable for improving general health and fitness in people who have arthritis or other conditions that limit their ability to do weight-bearing exercise.

Importantly, whereas fitness tends to be quite specific, many health benefits can be gained from any form of aerobic exercise. Additionally, the health gains can be achieved from relatively moderate amounts of exercise — moving from a lifestyle involving no exercise to one that involves some exercise can lead to substantial improvements in health.

Weight control

Aerobic exercise burns up energy (calories). Regular sessions of 30 to 60 minutes of low to moderate intensity aerobic exercise (at around 55 to 70 per cent of maximum heart rate) can be an important part of a weight loss or weight management programme that is also mindful of the energy (calories) consumed as food.

However, many of the health benefits associated with aerobic exercise occur independently of weight loss. Evidence from large studies has shown that active, overweight people do not have a greater risk of many diseases than inactive people who are not overweight. From a health perspective, it is of course best to be both active and a healthy weight, but if weight reduction is a problem, it doesn’t mean that the exercise is having no benefit.

Improved bone and muscle health

Your risk of osteoporosis (excessive bone thinning as you age) can be reduced by regular weight-bearing aerobic exercise such as brisk walking.

By stimulating the growth of tiny blood vessels in your muscle tissues, aerobic exercise has also been shown to lessen the pain experienced by people who have fibromyalgia or chronic low back pain, as the oxygen supply to the muscles is improved and waste products are removed more efficiently.

Social benefits

Regular aerobic exercise can have social benefits too, whether you walk with a friend, play tennis with workmates, or form a social cycling team. Exercising with friends can also be the most effective way of ensuring that you do it regularly.

Aerobic exercise precautions

As with any form of exercise, be aware of over-exercising, either by doing aerobic exercise too hard, for too long or too often. This approach can lead to injury, and abandoning of your fitness programme. Remember to build up gradually from your current activity level, and not to progress too rapidly. If you are new to regular aerobic exercise, several weeks of low to moderate intensity aerobic exercise are usually advised before introducing more vigorous aerobic exercise sessions.

If you have existing health problems, are at high risk of cardiovascular disease, or have muscle, bone or joint injuries, check with your doctor before undertaking an aerobic exercise programme. Also, men aged over 40 years and women aged over 50 years who have not exercised regularly in the recent past should check with a doctor before undertaking a programme of vigorous physical activity.

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Last Reviewed: 11/01/2010

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1. Blair SN Morris JN. Healthy hearts and the universal benefits of being physically active: physical activity and health. Ann Epidemiology 2009; 19: 253-6. Abstract available at: http://www.annalsofepidemiology.org/article/S1047-2797(09)00035-0/abstract
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Available at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/guidelines/cholesterol/atp3xsum.pdf (accessed 2010, Jan 18)
3. American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM s Guidelines for exercise testing and prescription, 8th Edition, 2009
4. US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, The President s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Physical activity and health: a report of the Surgeon General. Washington (DC): US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General, 1996. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/sgr/summary.htm

5 ways exercise improves your quality of life

Exercise not only helps you live longer — it helps you live better. In addition to making your heart and muscles stronger and fending off a host of diseases, it can also improve your mental and emotional functioning and even bolster your productivity and close relationships. Read on for five ways in which exercise can improve your quality of life.

1. Wards off depression: While a few laps around the block can’t solve serious emotional difficulties, researchers know there is a strong link between regular exercise and improved mood. Aerobic exercise prompts the release of mood-lifting hormones, which relieve stress and promote a sense of well-being. In addition, the rhythmic muscle contractions that take place in almost all types of exercise can increase levels of the brain chemical serotonin, which combats negative feelings.

2. Enhances sex life: Both libido and performance benefit from moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise. The Harvard Health Professionals Follow-Up Study found that men who exercised 30 minutes a day were 41% less likely than sedentary men to experience erectile dysfunction. Exercise helps women, too: in one study, 20 minutes of cycling boosted women’s sexual arousal by 169%.

3. Sharpens wits: Physical activity boosts blood flow to the brain, which may help maintain brain function. It also promotes good lung function, a characteristic of people whose memories and mental acuity remain strong as they age. While all types of physical activity help keep your mind sharp, many studies have shown that aerobic exercise, in particular, successfully improves cognitive function.

4. Improves sleep: Regular aerobic exercise provides three important sleep benefits: it helps you fall asleep faster, spend more time in deep sleep, and awaken less during the night. In fact, exercise is the only known way for healthy adults to boost the amount of deep sleep they get — and deep sleep is essential for your body to renew and repair itself.

5. Protects mobility and vitality: Regular exercise can slow the natural decline in physical performance that occurs as you age. By staying active, older adults can actually keep their cardiovascular fitness, metabolism, and muscle function in line with those of much younger people. And many studies have shown that people who were more active at midlife were able to preserve their mobility — and therefore, their independence — as they aged.

To attain all the effects listed above, aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate exercise, five days a week. And to read more about the health benefits of exercise, buy Starting to Exercise, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

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As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

7 Heart Benefits of Exercise

Understanding just how physical activity benefits your heart can be strong motivation to get moving to get moving more. Here’s what to know.

  1. Exercise lowers blood pressure.

    Exercise works like beta-blocker medication to slow the heart rate and lower blood pressure (at rest and also when exercising). High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease.

  2. Exercise is key to weight control.

    Especially when combined with a smart diet, being physically active is an essential component for losing weight and even more important for keeping it off, Stewart says—which in turn helps optimize heart health. Being overweight puts stress on the heart and is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

  3. Exercise helps strengthen muscles.

    A combination of aerobic workouts (which, depending on your fitness level, can include walking, running, swimming, and other vigorous heart-pumping exercise) and strength training (weight lifting, resistance training) is considered best for heart health. These exercises improve the muscles’ ability to draw oxygen from the circulating blood. That reduces the need for the heart—a muscular organ itself—to work harder to pump more blood to the muscles, whatever your age.

  4. Exercise can help you quit smoking.

    As smokers become more fit, they often quit. And people who are fit in the first place are less likely to ever start smoking, which is one of the top risk factors for heart disease because it damages the structure and function of blood vessels.

  5. Exercise can stop or slow the development of diabetes.

    Johns Hopkins research has shown that when combined with strength training, regular aerobic exercise such as cycling, brisk walking, or swimming can reduce the risk of developing diabetes by over 50% by allowing the muscles to better process glycogen, a fuel for energy, which when impaired, leads to excessive blood sugars, and thus diabetes.

  6. Exercise lowers stress.

    Stress hormones can put an extra burden on the heart. Exercise—whether aerobic (like running), resistance-oriented (like weight training) or flexibility-focused (like yoga)—can help you relax and ease stress.

  7. Exercise reduces inflammation.

    With regular exercise, chronic inflammation is reduced as the body adapts to the challenge of exercise on many bodily systems. This is an important factor for reducing the adverse effects of many of the diseases just mentioned.

Aerobic Fitness

To strengthen your cardiovascular system, you should do prolonged aerobic exercise (ideally reaching 20 to 60 minutes of activity) intensely enough to increase your heart rate.

One of the most effective ways to gauge how hard you are working during exercise is to monitor your heart rate. Your heart rate is measured in beats per minute (bpm), and you can check it by taking your pulse periodically during your workout. Check either your radial pulse at your wrist or your carotid pulse at the side of your neck. Start with zero to count the pulse beats for 10 seconds and multiply that number by six to determine your heart rate. An efficient alternative to checking your pulse is to use a heart rate monitor, which displays your heart rate throughout your workout.

In general, to increase your aerobic fitness you should exercise intensely enough to reach your target heart rate range. Your target heart rate range is 60% to 80% of your maximum heart rate. A general formula to determine your maximum heart rate is 220 minus your age. (For example, if you are 50 years old, your maximum heart rate is 170 and your target heart rate range is 102 to 136.) Check your heart rate as you exercise and try to keep it within your target heart rate range.

In addition to checking your heart rate as you exercise, be sure to monitor how you feel. Aerobic exercise should be challenging, but you should not feel out of breath or so fatigued that you have to stop your workout.

Aerobic Exercise

What is aerobic exercise?

Aerobic exercise provides cardiovascular conditioning. The term aerobic actually means “with oxygen,” which means that breathing controls the amount of oxygen that can make it to the muscles to help them burn fuel and move.

Benefits of aerobic exercise

  • Improves cardiovascular conditioning.
  • Decreases risk of heart disease.
  • Lowers blood pressure.
  • Increases HDL or “good” cholesterol.
  • Helps to better control blood sugar.
  • Assists in weight management and/or weight loss.
  • Improves lung function.
  • Decreases resting heart rate.

Exercise safety

It is recommended that you talk with your physician before you start an exercise program. Ask what, if any, limitations you may have. People who suffer from diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, arthritis, pulmonary conditions, or other health conditions may need additional safety guidelines for exercise.

Note: If you develop symptoms during exercise including, but not limited to, unusual shortness of breath; tightness in the chest; chest, shoulder, or jaw pain; lightheadedness; dizziness; confusion; or joint pain, you should stop exercising immediately and contact your physician.

What are some examples of aerobic exercise?

Lower impact aerobic exercise includes:

  • Swimming.
  • Cycling.
  • Using an elliptical trainer.
  • Walking.
  • Rowing.
  • Using an upper body ergometer (a piece of equipment that provides a cardiovascular workout that targets the upper body only).

Higher impact aerobic exercise includes:

  • Running.
  • Jumping rope.
  • Performing high impact routines or step aerobics.

How often and for how long should I do these exercises?

The American Heart Association recommends that everyone reach a minimum of 30 minutes of some form of cardiovascular exercise 5 to 7 days per week. This can be broken up into 10-minute time periods. This means that taking 3 walks of 10 minutes each would let you reach the recommended minimum guideline for reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. You would also burn the same number of calories as you would if you walked for the full 30 minutes at 1 time.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends a minimum of 3 sessions of 30 minutes of the total should be made up of moderate to vigorous exercise to improve cardio-respiratory fitness and help manage weight.

It is appropriate to do aerobic exercise every day. There is no need to rest in between sessions unless you are at an extreme level of training, such as preparing for a marathon, or if you experience reoccurring joint pain. If joint pain is a limiting factor, it would be appropriate to alternate less painful exercises with those that may cause joint pain or discontinue the painful exercise altogether.

Explanation of intensity

The intensity is determined by how hard you are working. The intensity of the exercise is determined by what your goals are, what limitations you have, and your current fitness level.

Heart rate and exercise

Your heart rate increases in direct correlation with the intensity of the exercise. Heart rate levels can vary significantly from one person to another based on fitness level, genetics, environment, and exercise tolerance. If you wish to train based on heart rate, contact your health care provider to determine what the appropriate range is for you. Some medications, most often blood pressure drugs, control heart rate, making it impossible to determine exercise intensity in this way. Ask your physician to determine if you are on any of these medications.

Monitoring intensity in other ways

How can you know if you are working at the right intensity? Using an RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) chart can help you to determine the appropriate intensity. The scale uses a 1 to 10 rating system. One is very light, such as walking to the refrigerator for a glass of milk. Ten would be a very significant level, representing maximal exercise. Ten would be indicative of not being able to take another step without fear of collapse. It is not recommended for anyone to work at a rate of 10 without strict supervision by a healthcare provider. Moderate intensity is the level of exercise that is most recommended, and can be determined by a rating between a 3 and a 5.

Warming up and cooling down

Every session of aerobic exercise should include a warm-up and cool-down. The warm-up period should not include static stretching, but should instead be a gradual increase in pace and intensity of the exercise. This allows the body to increase blood flow to the muscles and decreases the likelihood of a muscle or joint injury. The warm-up should last between 5 and 10 minutes. The cool-down session should last a similar amount of time as the warm-up, with the pace gradually decreasing. Stretching exercises would be appropriate after aerobic exercise.

Progression of aerobic exercise

Progression to higher intensities of exercise should be based on individual exercise tolerance. There are 3 methods for challenging aerobic fitness:

  • Increase speed.
  • Increase the resistance.
  • Increase the duration.

Any of these methods, or a combination of these methods, will improve aerobic fitness. Increasing intensity should be done very gradually. You should challenge yourself for only a few minutes at a time.

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What Counts as Aerobic Exercise? Here’s Everything You Need to Know About How to Get the Cardio You Need

Types of Aerobic Exercise and How to Get Started

Now that you are aware of all the reasons that aerobic exercise should be part of your healthy lifestyle, how should you get started?

Before beginning any exercise program, especially if you have heart or other health issues, talk to your doctor. If you’re not doing much aerobic exercise at all currently: “Start with a lighter volume of aerobic exercise and gradually work your way toward some specific goals,” advises Tripps. Over time, as you improve your aerobic fitness, you will be able to increase your exercise intensity.

As the names would imply, the difference between moderate-intensity exercise and high-intensity exercise is in the intensity of the workout, or the degree to which you’re pushing yourself.

RELATED: 9 Tips to Help You Start Working Out (and Actually Stick With It)

How to Do Moderate-Intensity Aerobic Exercise

As you get started toward the recommended 30 minutes of moderately intense aerobic exercise five days per week, aim to exercise at a level that just lets you keep up a conversation during the activity. If you can get out three or four sentences in a row without gasping for air, it’s a sign that you’re maintaining an intensity that is truly aerobic, meaning aerobic metabolism is supplying the vast majority of your body’s energy, Jonesco says.

At this intensity, your heart rate should be roughly 60 percent of your maximum heart rate. To find your max heart rate, subtract your age from 220. Multiply that number by 0.60 to obtain your target heart rate for moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, he says.

How to Do High-Intensity Aerobic Exercise

If you’re healthy and have already built up a base level of aerobic fitness, you can shoot for a higher target heart rate, up to 80 or even 90 percent of your maximum heart rate, Jonesco says.

At this intensity, you will likely be able to say a couple of words before needing to gasp for air. You may not be able to talk at all. Keep in mind, however, that intensity predicts duration, so you won’t be able to keep up this intensity for very long.

However, high-intensity interval training — alternating between bouts of all-out effort and low-intensity recovery — is a great way to improve cardiovascular health when you’re short on time, he says

Examples of Aerobic and Cardio Exercises

Whatever your preferred exercise intensity, it’s also important to choose activities that you enjoy and will stick with over the long term. Walking, biking, hiking, dancing, and gardening are all great forms of aerobic exercise that you can easily integrate into your day. After all, aerobic exercise can greatly improve your health even if you perform it in shorter segments throughout the day.

For example, in one European Journal of Applied Physiology study, exercisers who broke their aerobic workouts into 10-minute bouts throughout the day improved their arterial stiffness, a marker of cardiovascular health, even more than those who performed the same amount of daily aerobic exercise, but all at once. (5)

The thinking has also changed somewhat on whether there’s a threshold minimum workout duration required to reap cardiovascular health benefits from aerobic activity. HHS’s new physical activity guidelines eliminated the long-standing recommendation that exercise had to last at least 10 minutes to count toward your daily total. (4) The new guidelines emphasize that small bouts of activity throughout the day can add up to big health benefits.

According to Neal Pire, CSCS, exercise physiologist and the national director of wellness services at Castle Connolly Private Health Partners in New York City: “Any time or form of exercise is better than none, whether it’s 1, 5, or 30 minutes.”

With additional reporting by K. Aleisha Fetters and Nicol Natale.

Endurance exercise is one of the four types of exercise along with strength, balance and flexibility. Ideally, all four types of exercise would be included in a healthy workout routine and AHA provides easy-to-follow guidelines for endurance and strength-training in its Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults.

They don’t all need to be done every day, but variety helps keep the body fit and healthy, and makes exercise interesting. You can do a variety of exercises to keep the body fit and healthy and to keep your physical activity routine exciting. Many different types of exercises can improve strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance. For example, practicing yoga can improve your balance, strength, and flexibility. A lot of lower-body strength-training exercises also will improve your balance.

Also called aerobic exercise, endurance exercise includes activities that increase your breathing and heart rate such as walking, jogging, swimming, and biking.

Endurance activity keeps your heart, lungs and circulatory system healthy and improves your overall fitness. As a result, people who get the recommended regular physical activity can reduce the risk of many diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

How much do I need?

Building your endurance makes it easier to carry out many of your everyday activities. If you’re just starting out on an exercise routine after being sedentary, don’t rush it. If you haven’t been active for a long time, it’s important to work your way up over time.

Start out with 10-15 minutes at a time and then gradually build up. The AHA recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes (2 1/2 hours) of moderate to vigorous activity per week. Thirty minutes a day five days a week is an easy goal to remember. Some people will be able to do more. It’s important to set realistic goals based on your own health and abilities.

Making Progress

When you’re ready to do more, you can build on your routine by adding new physical activities; increasing the distance, time, or difficulty or your favorite activity; or do your activities more often. You could first build up the amount of time you spend doing endurance activities, then build up the difficulty of your activities. For example, gradually increase your time to 30 minutes over several days to weeks by walking longer distances. Then walk more briskly or up hills.

Examples of endurance exercise:

  • Walking briskly
  • Running / jogging
  • Dancing
  • Swimming
  • Biking
  • Climbing stairs at work
  • Playing sports such as tennis, basketball, soccer or racquetball

What if I’m recovering from a cardiac event or stroke?

Some people are afraid to exercise after a heart attack. But regular physical activity can help reduce your chances of having another heart attack.

The AHA published a statement in 2014 that doctors should prescribe exercise to stroke patients since there is strong evidence that physical activity and exercise after stroke can improve cardiovascular fitness, walking ability and upper arm strength.

If you’ve had a heart attack or stroke, talk with your doctor before starting any exercise to be sure you’re following a safe, effective physical activity program.

Aerobic Exercise & Heart Health

There is no one best exercise for everyone. The benefits to your heart are similar as long as the type of exercise satisfies some basic requirements and you follow the recommended program goals, as prescribed by your doctor or exercise physiologist.

Your aerobic exercise program should have four goals:

  1. It is aerobic. It uses large muscle groups repetitively for a sustained amount of time
  2. You perform it for 30 to 60 minutes, three to five days a week
  3. It meets the cardiovascular goals your doctor or exercise physiologist has prescribed for
    you
  4. It is something you will enjoy doing for an extended period of time

Safety First!

The type of exercise you choose is a personal decision, but you should take certain factors into consideration to reduce the risk of injury or complications and make exercise more enjoyable.

  • Always speak to your doctor first before starting any new exercise program
  • Chose a type of exercise you are more likely to stay with over the long-term
  • Perform your activity at a level in which you can carry on a conversation or speak clearly while exercising. This “talk test” provides a general rule of thumb to help you determine if a particular activity is too strenuous for you. It is especially helpful if you have not been given a “heart rate (pulse) zone” to stay in during exercise.

Exercise Options

Let’s look at some of the common types of aerobic exercise. See which one is best suited for you.

Walking

Walking is one of the simplest and most available aerobic exercises. You can vary the intensity to match your fitness level. Other than walking shoes, it does not require any special equipment. You can walk almost anywhere: outdoors or indoors (malls, indoor tracks, or a treadmill). This makes walking easy to continue throughout the year. Walking is a good choice for starting their first exercise program or find other exercises too hard on their joints.

Cycling

Cycling is another type of aerobic exercise with wide appeal and value. You can use a stationary or regular bike. Cycling may be ideal for individuals who, due to arthritic or other orthopedic problems, are unable to walk for an extended period of time without pain or difficulty. A program that combines walking and cycling may provide cardiovascular benefits without inducing the limiting pain as quickly. Cycling is also a good choice for people who are greater than 50 pounds overweight. It helps the heart without the mechanical stress on the back, hips, knees and ankles that walking can cause. One drawback – if you cycle outdoors, exclusively, the weather may limit your activity.

Ski Machines, Stair Climbers, Steppers, Ellipticals

These types of machines can provide a good aerobic workout and each has its own unique strengths and drawbacks. First, exercise on these machines may be too strenuous to be enjoyable and provide optimal benefit for the beginner or person of low fitness level, even at the lowest settings. To determine if this type of machine is within your capability, give the machine of your choice a trial run at the store or fitness center.

You should be able to pass the “talk test” while exercising at a moderate pace. People with knee or hip problems should avoid stair climbers and steppers as these machines can put extra stress on these joints. Ski machines require above-average coordination to master. The advantage to the machines is that they are indoor activities that can be pursued regardless of the weather.

Swimming Activities

Swimming is an excellent aerobic exercise, but considerations should be made before starting a program. For the exercise beginner, low-fit, or non-swimmer it might be a difficult activity to maintain the appropriate intensity for the recommended 30 to 60 minutes. Also, because the focus of swimming is on the smaller upper body musculature and swimming is a less efficient activity than cycling or walking, one can easily exceed their target heart rate range with swimming. Therefore, those with heart conditions, should address a swimming program with their physician before starting. Water aerobics and water walking are good alternatives for those with joint pain. The buoyancy provided by the water eases stress on the joints.

Jogging, Aerobic Dance

These can be safe and beneficial exercise for the highly fit person. Both can be done indoors, which makes them year-round activities. Anyone with orthopedic problems or who experiences symptoms such as chest pain or shortness of breath should not engage in these activities.

Remember to check with your doctor or cardiac rehabilitation instructor before starting any exercise program.

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The 4 most important types of exercise

Strengthening, stretching, balance, and aerobic exercises will keep you active, mobile, and feeling great.

Updated: August 20, 2019Published: January, 2017

Exercise is key to good health. But we tend to limit ourselves to one or two types of activity. “People do what they enjoy, or what feels the most effective, so some aspects of exercise and fitness are ignored,” says Rachel Wilson, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. In reality, we should all be doing aerobics, stretching, strengthening, and balance exercises. Here, we list what you need to know about each exercise type and offer examples to try, with a doctor’s okay.

1. Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise, which speeds up your heart rate and breathing, is important for many body functions. It gives your heart and lungs a workout and increases endurance. “If you’re too winded to walk up a flight of stairs, that’s a good indicator that you need more aerobic exercise to help condition your heart and lungs, and get enough blood to your muscles to help them work efficiently,” says Wilson.

Aerobic exercise also helps relax blood vessel walls, lower blood pressure, burn body fat, lower blood sugar levels, reduce inflammation, boost mood, and raise “good” HDL cholesterol. Combined with weight loss, it can lower “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, too. Over the long term, aerobic exercise reduces your risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, breast and colon cancer, depression, and falls.

Aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity. Try brisk walking, swimming, jogging, cycling, dancing, or classes like step aerobics.

Marching in place

Starting position: Stand tall with your feet together and arms at your sides.
Movement: Bend your elbows and swing your arms as you lift your knees.
March in a variety of styles:

  • March in place.
  • March four steps forward, and then four steps back.
  • March in place with feet wide apart.
  • Alternate marching feet wide and together (out, out, in, in).

Tips and techniques:

  • Look straight ahead, and keep your abs tight.
  • Breathe comfortably, and don’t clench your fists.

Make it easier: March slower and don’t lift your knees as high.
Make it harder: Lift your knees higher, march faster, and really pump your arms.

2. Strength training

As we age, we lose muscle mass. Strength training builds it back. “Regular strength training will help you feel more confident and capable of daily tasks like carrying groceries, gardening, and lifting heavier objects around the house. Strength training will also help you stand up from a chair, get up off the floor, and go up stairs,” says Wilson.

Strengthening your muscles not only makes you stronger, but also stimulates bone growth, lowers blood sugar, assists with weight control, improves balance and posture, and reduces stress and pain in the lower back and joints.

A physical therapist can design a strength training program that you can do two to three times a week at a gym, at home, or at work. It will likely include body weight exercises like squats, push-ups, and lunges, and exercises involving resistance from a weight, a band, or a weight machine.

“Remember, it’s important to feel some muscle fatigue at the end of the exercise to make sure you are working or training the muscle group effectively,” Wilson says.

Squat

Starting position: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, arms at your sides.
Movement: Slowly bend your hips and knees, lowering your buttocks about eight inches, as if you’re sitting back into a chair. Let your arms swing forward to help you balance. Keep your back straight. Slowly return to the starting position. Repeat 8-12 times.

Tips and techniques:

  • Shift your weight into your heels.

  • Squeeze your buttocks as you stand to help you balance.

Make it easier: Sit on the edge of a chair with your feet hip-width apart and arms crossed over your chest. Tighten your abdominal muscles and stand up. Slowly sit down with control.
Make it harder: Lower farther, but not past your thighs being parallel to the floor.

3. Stretching

Stretching helps maintain flexibility. We often overlook that in youth, when our muscles are healthier. But aging leads to a loss of flexibility in the muscles and tendons. Muscles shorten and don’t function properly. That increases the risk for muscle cramps and pain, muscle damage, strains, joint pain, and falling, and it also makes it tough to get through daily activities, such as bending down to tie your shoes.

Likewise, stretching the muscles routinely makes them longer and more flexible, which increases your range of motion and reduces pain and the risk for injury.

Aim for a program of stretching every day or at least three or four times per week.

Warm up your muscles first, with a few minutes of dynamic stretches—repetitive motion such as marching in place or arm circles. That gets blood and oxygen to muscles, and makes them amenable to change.

Then perform static stretches (holding a stretch position for up to 60 seconds) for the calves, the hamstrings, hip flexors, quadriceps, and the muscles of the shoulders, neck, and lower back.

“However, don’t push a stretch into the painful range. That tightens the muscle and is counterproductive,” says Wilson.

Single knee rotation

Starting position: Lie on your back with your legs extended on the floor.
Movement: Relax your shoulders against the floor. Bend your left knee and place your left foot on your right thigh just above the knee. Tighten your abdominal muscles, then grasp your left knee with your right hand and gently pull it across your body toward your right side.
Hold 10 to 30 seconds.
Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.

Tips and techniques:

  • Stretch to the point of mild tension, not pain.

  • Try to keep both shoulders flat on the floor.

  • To increase the stretch, look in the direction opposite to your knee.

4. Balance exercises

Improving your balance makes you feel steadier on your feet and helps prevent falls. It’s especially important as we get older, when the systems that help us maintain balance—our vision, our inner ear, and our leg muscles and joints—tend to break down. “The good news is that training your balance can help prevent and reverse these losses,” says Wilson.

Many senior centers and gyms offer balance-focused exercise classes, such as tai chi or yoga. It’s never too early to start this type of exercise, even if you feel you don’t have balance problems.

You can also go to a physical therapist, who can determine your current balance abilities and prescribe specific exercises to target your areas of weakness. “That’s especially important if you’ve had a fall or a near-fall, or if you have a fear of falling,” explains Wilson.

Typical balance exercises include standing on one foot or walking heel to toe, with your eyes open or closed. The physical therapist may also have you focus on joint flexibility, walking on uneven surfaces, and strengthening leg muscles with exercises such as squats and leg lifts. Get the proper training before attempting any of these exercises at home.

Standing knee lift

Starting position: Stand up straight with your feet together and your hands on your hips.

Movement: Lift your left knee toward the ceiling as high as is comfortable or until your thigh is parallel to the floor. Hold, then slowly lower your knee to the starting position.

Repeat the exercise 3-5 times.

Then perform the exercise 3-5 times with your right leg.

Tips and techniques:

  • Keep your chest lifted and your shoulders down and back.

  • Lift your arms out to your sides to help you balance, if needed.

  • Tighten your abdominal muscles throughout.

  • Tighten the buttock of your standing leg for stability.

  • Breathe comfortably.

Make it easier: Hold on to the back of a chair or counter with one hand.

Make it harder: Lower your leg all the way to the floor without touching it. Just as it is about to touch, lift your leg up again.

Disclaimer:
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Aerobic and Anaerobic Exercise: Understanding the Differences

Learning the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise can help you get the most out of your fitness goals. Matching your goals to the type of exercise that will help you reach them is key. Understanding the benefits of each and utilizing these types of exercises will not only improve your knowledge but also your body. Learn the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise below:

Aerobic Exercise

Fitness that is considered aerobic is determined by the oxygen circulating in your cardiovascular system. Active.com explains, “During aerobic exercise, there is sufficient oxygen intake needed to sustain the current level of activity without using additional energy from another energy source. , anaerobic exercise, oxygen consumption is not sufficient to supply the energy demands being placed on your muscles. Therefore, your muscles begin to break down sugars, resulting in higher lactic acid production.” In layman’s terms, aerobic exercises are the ones that get your heart pumping and speed up your breathing.

Examples: Cross-country skiing, jogging, or swimming.

Benefits: According to fitness19.com, aerobic exercise helps you lose weight and burn fat, improves your mood, strengthens the heart and lungs and reduces your risk of diabetes.

Anaerobic Exercise

To contrast, anaerobic is the kind of exercise sometimes referred to as “resistance training.” It is when you subject your muscles to work against above-average resistance to strengthen them.

Fitness19.com elaborates, “Oxygen is not present with anaerobic exercise. When we exercise anaerobically glycogen is used as fuel. Once all the glycogen has been depleted (usually in about two hours) you can expect to hit the proverbial wall. Endurance athletes avoid this performance buster with carbo loading before exercise (which when converted to sugar gives more energy) and supplements during exercise to sustain energy.”

Examples: weightlifting, sprinting, or yoga.

Benefits: builds strength, improves sports performance, builds muscle tone, and burns fat. Consider your fitness goals. If you are looking to lose weight, more aerobic exercises will help you achieve weight loss. If you are trying to tone muscles, anaerobic exercises are the way to go. In the end, the best fitness regiments are the ones that include both types of exercise, helping your cardiovascular system to stay strong and your body to look fit.

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