The health benefits of aerobic exercise are among the best documented medical facts. Everyone knows aerobic exercise is good for the health on a number of levels, but few people really understand why and how cardio exerts its benefits. As matter of fact, many people don’t even know what sets aerobic exercise apart from anaerobic exercise. Some of the most obvious facts are well known of course, but not everything is black and white in the world of physical activity for health benefits.
What is aerobic exercise/cardio?
It is a form of exercise built upon aerobic metabolism, during which the oxygen needs resulting from muscular contraction are adequately met for a reasonable amount of time. This is very important, because this is where the difference between cardiovascular exercises and anaerobic workouts is made. In layman terms, aerobic exercise is a sort of physical strain of moderate intensity, which can be performed for a reasonably long time, without muscle exhaustion leading to failure. During such activity, repeated muscle contraction burns fuel (muscle glycogen and fat) into energy, using oxygen. The oxygen amount used up this way is replenished by the lungs efficiently enough to allow the person doing the exercise to keep going.
By contrast, anaerobic exercise takes the above detailed equation to the extreme, and eventually it tips it right over. Short-distance sprinting and the lifting of weights are perfect examples in this regard. Anaerobic activity is so intense that it burns up the fuel and oxygen so fast, the body is physically incapable of replenishing it quickly enough to allow the subject performing the workout to persist. If pushed far enough, anaerobic workouts will completely exhaust the muscles, leading to failure (the subject will just drop the weight for instance, incapable of further resisting it).
The reason why it’s important to know the differences between the two types of workouts is that every aerobic exercise can cross over into anaerobic territory, provided it’s performed with enough intensity. Jogging along is aerobic, but breaking into a sprint is anaerobic. If you’re looking to reap the benefits of aerobic exercise, you need to pay attention to keeping the intensity at a proper level. Where exactly is this “proper” level though? The goal in this respect can be different, depending on the types of benefits one is looking to get from his/her cardio.
To help us properly answer this question, we have to introduce the VO2 Max variable, which represent the maximum volume of O2 (oxygen) one’s organism can take up at maximum effort. The reason we’re calling VO2 Max a variable, is that it varies from one person to another, with fit people and performance athletes at the upper end of the spectrum, and couch-potatoes at the lower. One can also increase his/her personal VO2 Max through exercise, though at any given moment, we can in fact consider VO2 Max a constant for a given person.
As said above, aerobic exercise is fuelled by fat reserves, glycogen reserves or a combination of them. How much of these fuel types is used up, depends on the intensity of the exercise. 65% of VO2 Max is where the maximum fat uptake occurs. If you’re looking to lose fat, this is what you should aim for. Depending on the duration of the aerobic activity at this intensity level, fat may make up as much as 40-60% of the burnt fuel. Ramping up the intensity to around 75% of VO2 Max tough will be counterproductive as at this level, glycogen is the fuel primarily used.
What are the advantages of proper aerobic exercise?
As said at the beginning of this article, quite a bit of research has been done in this regard, so we know a LOT about the various benefits.
First of all, the human body adapts to the strains brought about by regular aerobic exercise. It does so in a number of ways. The heart responds by getting stronger and pumping more blood, through the increasing of its stroke volume. The actual mass and diameter of the heart increases too, as does the efficiency of the pumping. This way, the heart needs to beat fewer times to pump the same amount of blood through the veins. The resting hart-rate is lowered. For well-conditioned athletes, this rate can be as low as 40 beats per minute, while for a regular Everyday Joe, it is in the 70-80 range.
Downstream from the heart is essentially the entire organism, and it too is going to reap a number of benefits off your cardio training. In response to the added strain, mitochondria inside the muscles will increase in number and activity, by as much as 50%, over just a few days’/weeks’ time. This enables the muscles to burn still more fat and to respond even better to additional aerobic stimuli. This way, intra-muscular glycogen will be preserved. All these changes contribute to lending the muscle an increased ability to deal with and to regenerate from high-intensity exercise.
Hand-in-hand with improving the efficiency of the heart, cardio exercise improves the overall circulation as well. The number of red blood cells is increased too, making the blood a more efficient carrier of oxygen. The muscles involved in breathing are strengthened too, including the lung, the capacity of which is increased as well.
Better mental health is one of the direct results of proper and regular aerobic exercise. Cognitive capacity is boosted, depression is staved off and stress is alleviated/eliminated.
Diabetes risk is also radically reduced. All the above-said benefits combine to give aerobically fit people a certain degree of protection against cardiovascular diseases. Bone grown and bone density are also positively influenced, typically by high-impact aerobic exercise, such as skipping rope or jogging.
Given the ability of cardio exercise to streamline the burning of fat into energy by the muscular system, aerobic exercise is indeed the answer to obesity, in more ways than one.
According to some studies, aerobic exercising may have a role in cancer prevention too. Colon cancer is one of the most thoroughly-studied variants of this deadly disease from this perspective. According to scientifically collected and verified data, proper exercising may reduce the incidence of colon cancer by as much as 30-40%.
Despite the fact that it is indeed nature’s gift for human health on so many levels, aerobic exercise can have a few downsides too, under certain circumstances. These drawbacks aren’t really significant though when we’re looking at the benefits with which they’re associated. One such disadvantage is the risk of developing repetitive, overuse injuries, through activities like long-distance running. Also, the fat-loss benefits of cardio aren’t really consistent, unless the exercise itself is. Those whose aim to build muscle, will find that aerobic exercise isn’t just ineffective in this regard, it may even be counterproductive under certain circumstances.
Having read all the above, we bump into the inevitable question:
How much cardio is recommended for the best possible benefits?
According to the Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health, about 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per day should be enough for the average adult to gain most of the benefits listed above. These guidelines represent lifestyle advice though, meaning that the activity they recommend should be accumulated through the day, as part of one’s daily routine and not in a single go.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, one’s recommended daily dose of aerobic exercise should be in the 20-60 minutes range. It should be continuous activity rather than a sum of smaller exercise periods accumulated through the day. Such exercise should be performed three to five days a week and it should be accompanied by resistance training.
The type of aerobic activity most handily available to the vast majority of people is walking. It is also a form of working out which is free from the handful of potential downsides we discussed above. Naturally, walking is what we recommend for your aerobic exercise needs, as its health benefits/required effort ratio is through the roof. Walking differs from running not just in speed, but in actual mechanics as well. Unlike running, which sees both feet leave the ground at certain times, when walking, only one foot is off the ground at a time. Also, with walking, there are periods of double support.
Walking, like any brisk, aerobic exercise, can improve a number of physical health indicators, such as energy, weight, stamina, lung and heart capacity and life expectancy. Walking as a cardio exercise can also address a number of risk factors concerning very specific diseases, like high blood pressure, strokes, diabetes, osteoporosis, bowel cancer and coronary heart disease. The cognitive benefits of walking are also numerous and well-documented. Reasoning, concentration, memory skills, learning abilities are also all improved by this simple and most accessible form of exercise. Apparently, over the long-run, walking can also stave off or delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Despite all the above listed benefits, walking is less popular nowadays than it’s ever been. Due to the availability of many forms of transportation, people don’t actually have to walk as much these days. To counter this trend, and its obviously negative effects on public health, authorities world-over have embarked on campaigns to encourage people to walk. Residential areas are nowadays set up to provide ample space for people to walk. Above and beyond that though, those interested in walking their way to a healthier life, can choose from a wide range of walking variants used as sports or ways to exercise.
Scrambling is a sort of activity which involves the use of both hands in addition to the legs, as those exercising this way ascend the side of steep terrain features.
Nordic Walking or Pole Walking, is a hiking variant which sees the practitioners cover larger distances, while using two walking poles designed in a manner similar to ski poles. Power walking takes advantage of the upper end of natural walking intensity, allowing for speeds of up to 7-9 km/h.
For most people, walking remains a form of recreation though, a means of escaping an ever more urban modern world. Enjoying nature and the great outdoors is an added benefit with a sort of appeal of its own.
Strength Training and its Importance for Overall Health
The importance of exercise and of being physically active has long been recognized as the factor with perhaps the greatest impact over one’s health and quality of life, regardless of age and gender. There are more ways to be active, but strength training is the most obvious answer when it comes to racking up all the benefits of an active lifestyle in the most straightforward fashion. Strength training carries so many benefits on so many levels health-wise, it would be quite impossible to document them all in anything less than a novel-length analysis. Still, relatively few people do regular strength training, for reasons that cover everything from petty excuses to very valid worries and considerations. According to the Sporting Goods manufacturers’ Association, only about 15% of Americans engage in strength-training at least once a week, a number which is indeed nothing short of abysmal.
When it comes to strength training, most people think: weights. Working out with weights is indeed one of the most effective ways to secure the benefits of strength training – if done properly. Nonetheless, this sort of activity can be physically taxing and therefore unsafe for some, boring for others, and downright intimidating for some people. The bottom line about it is that it really is not for everyone. Having an aversion towards rusting piles of iron is no excuse to cut strength training from your life though. No-weight strength training is not only real, it can be the answer to the all the above listed problems/woes. Weightless workouts are based on the clever (yet usually extremely simple) use of one’s own bodyweight, to provide resistance against which the muscles can work, and eventually grow. This is the future of strength training for the masses: it requires a bare minimum equipment-wise (or nothing at all) and it can be performed everywhere, from a hotel room to a park. The only hurdle to overcome is the one tied to one’s willpower and ambition, or lack thereof.
What exactly are the benefits of strength training in general and of weightless strength-training in particular?
As said above, these benefits are too numerous to properly cover, and some of them belong in the realm of advanced science. Here’s a brief rundown of some of them though:
- With age, one’s lean muscle-mass naturally dwindles, giving birth to a series of health issues and ramifications. Proper strength training can slow this process of atrophy, it can stop it completely and in some cases it can even reverse it. Indeed, one can’t be too old to start strength training. In the words of one of founding fathers of modern bodybuilding, and ex-governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, you are too old NOT to start strength training.
- The way strength training works goes way above and beyond the stimulation of various chemical processes involved in muscle growth. It has a known, though not yet fully understood hormonal aspect as well. It has been known for some time that squats for instance stimulate the production of what some call “youth hormone,” which in the case of men, is at least partly comprised of testosterone.
- The above said testosterone/growth hormone stimulation and the stress the bones are subjected to leads to increased bone density, thus preventing osteoporosis.
- Easier bodyweight management comes with the turf, with every one of the above detailed benefits. Increased testosterone, muscle-mass growth and a revved-up metabolism all lead to less unwanted fat and thus a much more manageable body weight profile.
- Various chronic conditions become easier to manage as well. Back pain, heart disease, diabetes, depression and obesity have all been shown to respond well to proper strength training. It is important to note in this regard though that patients suffering from any of the above problems should consult their doctor in regards to any exercise regimen they want to embark on.
- One’s quality of life can be improved dramatically through strength training. This doesn’t just mean overall strength (which some studies have shown can be increased by as much as 300% in young women). Older people can improve their balance and thus reduce the risk of falling. This will lead to increased independence far into one’s elder years.
- According to other studies, regular strength and aerobic training can improve one’s mental abilities, including learning and thinking skills.
As said above, the good news for those who feel intimidated by weight training, or put off by the lone pursuit of body-building excellence in the weight room, is that muscle building only requires some sort of resistance. Muscle fibers can’t tell the difference between pushups and bench-presses. In this regard, bodyweight exercises are indeed as efficient as weight lifting, within certain limits of course. Just about the only drawback of weightless workouts is the fact that past a certain point, one can no longer increase resistance.
For the rank-and-file person though, who’s in the fitness game primarily for the above-listed health benefits, body weight-based exercises will more than suffice. What’s more, such exercises help one build practical strength, meaning that one will find it easier to perform tasks linked to everyday life. According to some experts, those who pamper their physique with such exercises, will attain a more shapely, toned appearance.
How should you perform bodyweight exercises?
The first step – and this can’t be stressed enough – is to obtain your doctor’s permission to work out this way. This is especially required of those who suffer of any of the above mentioned chronic conditions, or are over 40 years old.
Next is to actually warm up to the exercises you have planned. In this respect, some light stretching or even a brisk walk for a few minutes, will do. It will get the juices pumping and the muscle fibers warmed up to activity, and that will reduce the possibility of injuries.
Setting the number of repetitions (reps) that will yield the best possible results isn’t advanced science either: all one is required to accomplish is to choose a resistance level which will allow him/her to perform 12-15 reps of the given exercise with proper form. Proper form isn’t as important in the case of weightless exercises as it is when lifting, but it will actually further reduce injury proneness, so it is something definitely worth considering. According to research, a single set of 12 reps with proper resistance can be a sufficiently efficient muscle-builder.
It is important to give individual muscle groups a full day of rest after a workout, to regenerate. It is at least as important to actually listen to the signals your body is sending you. If the exercises do not result in a pleasant and adrenaline-inducing pump, you’re not getting the most out of them, and you may have overworked your muscles. Such fatigue will often lead to nagging injuries, which will in turn further ruin the value of your workouts. If any pain occurs during an exercise, you should obviously stop and discontinue doing that exercise until the pain no longer appears, or in some cases, indefinitely.
While the Department of Health and Human Services recommends working exercises targeting each major muscle group into a program spanning over at least two days each week, we recommend doing the same over three days each week. This approach will still allow for plenty of rest-days for optimal results.
When can you expect results?
Results are usually quick to appear. Obviously, we’re not talking about having Mr. Olympia level figures built here. Rather, as soon as your muscles react to the strain by building new fibers and by upgrading their neurological pathways, strength increase will occur. It will obviously take longer to attain visually perceptible results. Strength-increase and eventually muscle-growth will occur, regardless of the sort of shape you’re when you begin exercising.
A no-weight workout program
In order to provide you with a smooth path into the world of weight-free workouts and better general health, we’ve devised a basic plan that simply cannot go wrong, provided you stick to it and you pay proper attention to form.
This is one of the most basic muscle-building exercises out there. According to some, those who do not do this exercise, aren’t serious about building muscle. Pull-ups and chin-ups work the muscles of the back (particularly the latissimus dorsi) and the biceps.
For pull-ups, all you will need is a bar that supports your body weight. Grab that slightly wider than the width of your shoulders, and hang on it, before pulling yourself up until your chin is above the bar. At the peak of the movement, you pause for a second, after which you lower your body in a controlled manner, all the way, until you reach your initial position. The difference between pull-ups and chin-ups is in the direction in which your palms are facing on the bar. If your palms face forward (overhand grip), you’re doing pull-ups. If they’re faced towards you (underhand grip), you’re doing chin-ups. Chin-ups do a better job of isolating the biceps.
As far as form is concerned, you need to make sure you’re not cheating by lowering yourself only halfway down. Try to keep your movement under control at all times, and avoid swinging. If you find that you’re unable to perform a single proper pull-up, try hanging on the bar as long as possible.
Sit-ups are the A in the ABC of abs. They are aimed at working the abdominals, and they are more or less indispensable when it comes to building a six-pack. Sit-ups work the entire abdominal muscle group, but you need to know that this exercise is more focused on the upper abs. Performing it sideways, to the left or right, will work the respective inter-coastal muscles, adding more definition to the six-pack too. The tricky thing about sit-ups is that most people fail to do them right. The catch is that sit-ups shouldn’t be done with a straight back. For maximum effect, you should do them in a curling-into-a-ball sort of manner. It is important to focus on muscle contraction all through the movement, pausing for a second at the peak.
Arms would normally be crossed over the chest, with the knees bent and the feet flat on the ground.
Push-ups are the staples for the working of pectoral muscles. As for the sit-ups, one doesn’t need any kind of equipment to perform this exercise. Besides working the chest, push-ups engage most of the muscles of the body, to varying degrees. They work the abs, the shoulders, the triceps, as well as the muscles of the thigh and one’s core in general.
The starting position for the push-up is that of the high plank, with palms on the ground, directly under one’s shoulders and with the toes ground into the floor. With your core braced, lower your upper body towards the floor, until your chest touches the floor. Arms need to be kept with the elbows close to the body, although different push-up types may call for different positions in this regard. At the bottom of the motion, you should pause for a second and then push yourself back up. Make sure you do not forget to breathe during the exercise and you do not let your lower back arch or sag.
As said above, there are around 15 different ways to perform push-ups, isolating various sections of the targeted muscle groups, so there’s plenty of room to play around.
While the pull-ups work the upper section of the muscles of the back well, the lower back takes a bit of extra effort to engage. This is what back-arches are for. Their primary target is the lower back, but they also work the gluteus maximus and the core in general.
A proper back-arch starts from a face-down position, with your arms at your hips and your thumbs sticking out. You then raise your shoulders and upper body, while making sure that your feet stay in contact with the ground at all times. Your head faces down. As you reach the peak of the movement, you keep your palms facing outwards and you hold the position for a second before lowering your chest towards the floor, in a controlled movement.
Squats are primarily used to target the legs, but as one of the base exercises and the most foundational natural movements, they really work most of the major muscle groups of the body. Despite their staggering complexity in terms of muscle engagement, squats are among the simplest exercises to perform.
You will start out with your feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart, and with your toes pointing slightly outward. Looking straight ahead, you push your hips backward and you bend your knees as you lower your body. During the entire time, your weight rests on the balls of your feet and your heels. Your knees should be kept in line with your feet too. The bottom of the movement should see your hip joints lower than your knees. Anything less than that is considered a partial squat. Your core should be kept tight throughout the exercise.
Now that you have the tools and the knowledge you need to start working out without weights, all that’s left to do is to actually start. Remember, you should always talk to your doctor about the risks involved in any exercise regimen.