If you shy away from aerobics because you think it means buying an
expensive gym membership and spending hours a week exhausting yourself,
then you could be missing out on what is actually an ideally inexpensive
and time-efficient whole-body workout. Aerobic exercise is defined
simply as any type of movement that gets your heart pumping and increases
your oxygen intake. If you've recently taken the dog for a run, washed
the windows, or gone dancing you've already given yourself some of
the benefits of aerobics.
"When you exercise
aerobically, you use large muscle groups, such as your
legs and arms, and you increase your breathing and your
heart rate," says Edward Laskowski, M.D., a physical
medicine and rehabilitation specialist and co-director
of the Sports Medicine Center at Mayo Clinic, Rochester,
The benefits of aerobic
A stronger immune
Reduced risk of
Weight loss and
Getting these benefits from aerobics takes
less effort than you may think. You've probably noticed
how just a brisk walk around the neighborhood wakes your
body up, making you feel healthier and happier. Similarly,
regular exercise of this type can improve overall health
The body continually burns calories to fulfill such basic physical needs
as breathing, circulation and organ function. This rate of calorie-consumption
is known as resting or basal metabolic rate. For any activity beyond
this, the body needs more energy -- energy it gets by burning glycogen
?X the stored form of carbohydrates ?X and fat.
Aerobic exercise likewise burns calories.
Although a fat calorie is the same about of energy as a
glycogen calorie, you can vary your exercise to focus on
burning one or the other. To burn fat, choose a low- to
moderate-intensity activity that can be done over a longer
time, such as swimming, power walking, or dancing.
Short-term, higher-intensity activities
(anaerobic exercises), such as sprints or lifting weights,
tend to burn glycogen. These short, intense activities,
don't burn fat as effectively. They're also more stressful
on the body and increase your risk of injury or of overstressing
your cardiovascular system.
"The benefits of aerobic exercise for the heart are well known," says
Dr. Laskowski. "Aerobic exercise challenges the heart, which is a muscle,
in a positive way and stimulates it to grow stronger and more efficient. But
your whole body also benefits."
The benefits of aerobic exercise include:
- Increased life span. The link between
exercise and increased life span was first scientifically
proven in the Harvard Alumni Health Study, the results
of which where published in 1986, in the New England
Journal of Medicine. Further studies have supported this
- Improved immune system. People who
exercise regularly are less vulnerable to minor viral
illnesses, like colds and flu. It's thought aerobic exercise
helps activate the immune system, preparing the body
to fight off infection.
- A more efficient heart. The healthier
your heart is, the more blood it can pump with every
beat and it therefore doesn't need to beat as fast during
rest or exercise. A stronger heart is one of the reasons
aerobics can help you live a longer, healthier life.
- Weight maintenance. Aerobic exercise,
combined with a healthy diet and appropriate strength
training, can help you maintain a healthy body weight.
- Lower risk of disease. The risks of
heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes
and some forms of cancer are all increased by excess
weight. As you lose excess weight, the risk decreases.
In addition, weight-bearing aerobic activities, like
walking, can reduce the risk of osteoporosis and its
complications. If you have arthritis or a condition that
limits your ability to bear weight, you can use low-impact
aerobic exercises, such as cycling or swimming and pool
exercises, to improve your health without straining your
- Improved muscle health. Aerobic exercise
stimulates the growth of tiny blood vessels (capillaries)
in your muscles, which enables the body to deliver oxygen
to your muscles more efficiently and better remove irritating
metabolic waste like lactic acid. This can ease chronic
muscle-pain conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic
lower back pain.
- Increased stamina. You might be tired
during and right after your workout, but over the long
term, regular exercise will increase your stamina and
- Improved mental health. Aerobic
exercise releases endorphins, the body's natural painkillers,
which also reduce stress, depression and anxiety.
"For overall fitness, aerobic exercise,
which increases stamina and endurance, should be combined
with resistance training for increased strength and stretching
for increased range of motion and flexibility," says
Before beginning any exercise program,
talk with your doctor about developing an exercise routine
that's right for you. This is especially important if
you're over 40, overweight, smoke, drink, have a sedentary
lifestyle or a chronic health condition.
Don't think you have to spend hours in
the gym to see any effects. At least 30 minutes of activity
is enough for most days of the week. At first, try not
to overdo it. It may take a few weeks to build up to 20
or 30 minutes of continuous activity. Don't worry about
the financial investment, either. Often a good pair of
athletic shoes is all you need.Remember to always start
your workout with a warm-up. Take a brisk walk for five
to ten minutes then stretch out your muscles for five to
ten minutes more before starting your main session of exercise.
"Don't stretch when your muscles
are cold," Dr. Laskowski says. "Stretch when
your muscles and joints are warmed up. This is when they
are more elastic and more receptive to stretching. A good
routine for a runner might be to walk for a bit, then stretch
those muscles that you will use in running. After you run,
If you only have time to stretch once,
use the warm-up period to ease into your exercise and then
stretch after your exercise, Dr. Laskowski says.
"Despite the benefits of physical activity that we know about and that are
published in the news and magazines, the majority of Americans don't exercise
regularly," Dr. Laskowski says. According to the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC), more than 60 percent of all Americans don't get enough
exercise. About 25 percent don't exercise at all.
We can all find excuses for not exercising,
but they usually come down to perceived lack of time, ability,
or even money. Furthermore, there's a popular misconception
about the intensity and type of aerobic exercise needed
to produce health benefits. Lack of motivation, though,
is perhaps the biggest block. If you don't like your exercise
routine, it's hard to stay on it. The best way to become
physically active is to first find something you like to
do, says Dr. Laskowski.
"If you don't like the activity and
it doesn't fit into your lifestyle, you probably won't
do it," he says. "There is no one ideal piece
of exercise equipment."
"Exercise prescriptions are often
too rigid, and people become discouraged if they aren't
able to keep a specific schedule," says Dr. Laskowski. "The
new concept from the American College of Sports Medicine
and the CDC is to encourage people to accumulate physical
activity throughout the day. The more that is accumulated,
Use any opportunity to increase your physical
activity: walk or bike to work -- or park a little farther
away than usual and walk the rest of the way -- use the
stairs instead of the elevator, take a brisk walk on your
lunch break, put a little more energy into the house work.
Make the activity fit your lifestyle. Dr. Laskowski suggests,
for example, putting a treadmill or a stationary bicycle
in front of the television or behind a stand for a magazine
or book in order to combine your workout with something
you normally do, but do sitting down.
"Three 10-minute bouts of activity
can be as effective a cardiovascular workout as one 30-minute
session," says Dr. Laskowski. "The goal is to
average burning about 2,000 kilocalories a week from your
accumulated activity. This is equivalent to about 30 minutes
of activity most days of a week."
Even if you have an illness or condition
that limits your ability to exercise you don't have to
miss out on aerobics altogther. Talk to you doctor about
what alternatives are right for you. If you have arthritis,
for instance, pool exercises can give you the benefits
of increased activity without placing stress on your joints.
The flexibility of this type of exercise means almost anyone
can enjoy the benefits of aerobics.