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.
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Preventing Heart Disease and Stroke
Cardiovascular disease is one of the biggest killers in developed nations, accounting for around a third of all deaths. The scary thing about these deaths is though that they’re almost all sudden and premature. They’re also preventable for the most part. What can you do to reduce your risk of falling victim to this killer disease?
The first step – as obvious as it may sound – is to take responsibility for your health. For many people, this is impossible to accomplish. Ignorance and misinformation is your biggest enemy: you can’t fight against something when you do not know about its existence. Educate yourself, be aware of your own personal risk-profile and know what sort of moves you need to make to deflate it. Diabetes for instance, increases the risk of heart disease quite radically.
According to experts, age is the most influential risk factor though. The older one is, the more at-risk he/she is in regards to heart disease and stroke. The sad thing is that there is not much you can do about this risk factor, but simply being aware of it is indeed very important. Genetics is the next most important step. While obtaining a proper genomic profile is out of reach for just about everyone, studying family health history can go a long way towards providing an accurate-enough idea regarding genetic predisposition. Knowing your risk profile will allow you to manage it, by doing your best to avoid risk factors over which you do indeed have actual control.
Not smoking and staying away from second-hand smoke will allow you to drastically lower your risk of cardiovascular problems. Not only do you tackle heart disease this way, you will also stave off lung disease, stroke, and various problems of the peripheral vascular system. Smoking is notoriously bad for everything concerning the blood vessels, and its malicious effects reverberate throughout the organism in a huge number of shapes and forms. The actual risk reduction attributed to not smoking is an estimated 36%, as far as heart disease is concerned.
Keeping your blood pressure at a healthy level is another measure you should absolutely take. High blood pressure is called the “silent killer” because its symptoms are undetectable in most people. It ravages the delicate lining of your blood vessels and in time, it leads to various problems, including stroke and heart disease. The interesting thing about monitoring blood-pressure is that according to experts, it is best done at home. Some people experience what’s known as “white coat hypertension” which means that their blood-pressure spikes when it’s measured at the doctor’s. Others exhibit abnormally low blood pressure when in the presence of medical personnel. The bottom line is that in regards to practical data, home blood pressure readings are most relevant. For this purpose, it is recommended that you use upper-arm devices and not finger or wrist units.
Monitoring blood lipids (cholesterol) is another practice you should make routine, especially if your overall risk profile is high. In regards to cholesterol, we’re talking about a balancing act between LDL (bad) and HDL (good) cholesterol. What you want in this regard is to lower your LDL levels as much as possible, while raising your HDL at the same time. Cholesterol levels are influenced by the following factors: age, amount produced by the liver, and amount absorbed from the intestinal tract (most of which is secreted and released into the intestines by the liver). The ideal cholesterol ratio is total amount/HDL=3. Diet therapy can be used to correct cholesterol levels to a certain degree. Drug therapy is usually needed for more severe imbalances.
Obesity is a major contributing factor in the onset of heart disease and stroke. This problem can be tackled in several ways: on one hand, you will have to monitor and limit your calories. On the other, you will have to introduce/re-introduce exercise into your daily routine. Obesity, which has taken near-epidemic proportions, has lead to an explosion in diabetes. Diabetes itself is a cardio-vascular disease, and it increases one’s risk of heart attack to a level similar to that experienced by people who already had a heart attack. How can you decrease your caloric intake? Portion control is a good step in the right direction, as is the use of so called “slim drinks” such as water, tea and coffee.
The introduction of exercise is not only easy, it delivers benefits on multiple health-fronts. In addition to its cardio vascular benefits, it is one of the best treatments for anxiety and depression. In order to have a tangible impact on body-weight, exercise should always come hand-in-hand with proper diet changes. How do you know whether or not your body-weight is a problem in regards to heart disease and stroke? High waist-to-hip ratios tell the story pretty well. In order to be certain you aren’t over the mark in this respect, make sure your waistline stays under 37 inches (if you’re a man) and under 35 inches (if you’re a woman).
Limiting your intake of alcoholic beverages is always a good idea as well. Proper reduction in this regard has been linked with a significant (11%) drop in heart disease risk. Keeping with this line of thought, it has to be noted that the impact of daily physical exercise is apparently only a relatively mild 3% reduction in this sense.
Choosing your medication wisely is also a big part of the overall heart disease and stroke control package. People are often driven to taking various alternative medicines by powerful marketing mechanisms which push such products to the forefront. Believing that something is healthful because it’s natural, is fundamentally wrong. Mind you, that with rare exceptions, alternative medicines and vitamins have not been proven to help with cardiovascular diseases in any shape or form.
Last but not least, we have to bring stress into the picture. Stress is a major factor in the development of various cardiovascular conditions, and – if severe enough – it can indeed lead to heart attacks and sudden death. Exercise is a great way to deal with stress, as is proper sleep and a generally well-balanced life.
Always try to stay well informed and on top of the constantly changing medical recommendations and developments. Never before has healthcare seen such rapid evolution. New concepts, new solutions and new advice come up all the time. Select your sources of information wisely, be objective and heed scientifically-backed advice only.
Heart disease prevention isn’t a simple matter of exercising more or flipping some kind of switch somewhere. To effectively address the issue, one needs to go through a lifestyle change, covering everything from nutrition, to an array of supplements that have been scientifically proven to promote heart health.
Diet is where prevention really begins. Without proper diet, none of the other measures one can take are as efficient as they should be. Eating well is unfortunately not something everyone can afford, but as much as possible, try to stick to these guidelines for optimal nutrition and heart health.
Eating more fish will cut your heart attack and stroke risk, while providing essential nutrients such as high-quality protein and omega 3 fatty acids. At least two servings of fish per week are recommended by the American Heart Association. Keep in mind though that fish may be contaminated with heavy metals such as mercury, and therefore nuts and seeds would be a better alternative. I recommend eating at least 30 grams or a quarter cup of nuts and seeds per day, as well as a tablespoon of freshly ground flax seeds, and an omega-3 rich algal oil supplement.
Adding plant-foods to your diet is always a good idea. Beans, fruits, whole grains, as well as foods and vegetables, all fall into this category. Such foods provide fiber as well as a host of vitamins, trace elements and essential nutrients.
As a general direction, one’s diet should be aimed towards lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and promoting HDL (good) cholesterol. The above said foods can in fact trigger a modest increase in HDL cholesterol levels, but to lower LDL cholesterol, it is recommended that one steer clear of trans fats. Snack foods, animal products (including meat and dairy), refrigerated dough, frozen pizza, baked goods and various fast foods are all rich in trans fats. They should obviously be completely cut from a healthy diet.
Saturated fat – which comes in the shape of fried foods, sweets, hard margarine, salad dressing and deserts – should be avoided to a certain degree as well. In fact, in this regard, you should make sure that you do not get more than 7-10% of your calorie intake in this form. Sometimes fats simply cannot be avoided. What you can do in such cases though is to use fats with high monounsaturated and polyunsaturated content. Peanut oil, olive oil and canola are such fat sources. Make sure though that you do not use too much of such “good” fats either.
Salt is one of the great enemies of the cardio vascular system, and its threat is even greater given its ubiquitous nature. Cutting back on salt is a must for everyone looking to follow a heart health-promoting diet. Packaged foods are sodium bombs, so steering well clear of them makes perfect sense in this regard.
Last but not least, you should focus on protein, more precisely on a diverse range of protein-rich foods, mostly various beans and nuts. Protein is the building block of living matter, so you need it. You just need to make sure you get high quality protein and you get it fat-free as much as possible.
High quality, healthful food is also much more enjoyable for most people, so in this regard, sticking to your diet should in fact be easier indeed.
While we’re never the advocates of taking supplements just for the heck of it, if you’re really looking to boost your cardiovascular health, you may want to consider including some supplements in your daily routine. What you need in this regard are supplements the bioactive components of which have a positive impact on as many heart disease risk factors as possible. Obviously, there are scores of such compounds and supplements out there, but you should only limit yourself to those that have solid, medically recognized, evidence-based research backing them up. While taking such supplements, you should always keep a close eye on your cholesterol levels. This way, you will be able to curtail a regimen if its impact turns out to be harmful in anyway, while fine-tuning your dosage for optimal response.
Algal oil is perhaps the best heart supplement. A superb omega 3 source, its health-promoting effects reach way above and beyond the cardiovascular system. Omega-3 oil fights diabetes too, which – in turn – represents a major heart disease risk factor. Unlike most heart health-oriented supplements, it also protects against coronary artery disease, and various afflictions of the joints, due to its anti-inflammatory effects. Apparently, taking just 300mg of an EPA and DHA oil per day, is enough to trigger some of its positive effects. For better results, specialists recommend a doses of 2,000-3,000 mg per day.
Lecithin is another supplement with a wide range of benefits. The bioactive compounds which lend it its “punch” are the choline and the phospholipids which are found in abundance in lecithin. According to a number of studies, lecithin supplementation induces a small drop in the levels of bad cholesterol, so it’s fair to say that as far as heart disease is concerned, its effects are quite limited. Choline promotes cognitive function and memory though, while acting as a precursor to an important neurotransmitter.
Phytosterols (plant sterols) have been shown to reduce bad cholesterol levels too. Apparently, phytosetrols act by deceiving the digestive system, prompting it to eliminate dietary cholesterol. According to some 41 trials which matched phytosterols against placebo, a reduction of 10% in bad cholesterol levels was registered. Phytosterols are currently recommended by the American Heart Association and the National Cholesterol Education Program, as efficient for the lowering of bad cholesterol levels, above and beyond what other similar-purpose medications can accomplish.
Policosanol is a compound which is also used to reduce circulating cholesterol levels. It is obtained from sugar cane wax, and – according to a surprisingly large number of studies – it impacts bad cholesterol levels in rather spectacular fashion: a daily dose of just 5-40 mg, used over a period of 30 days, has lowered LDL levels by 24%.
Lycopene is yet another natural compound which exerts spectacular preventive effects over a large variety potential diseases and ailments. Most handily derived from tomatoes, lycopene is a powerful antioxidant, and as such, it fights free radical damage. A high concentration of lycopene in one’s bloodstream has also been linked with a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease. By extension, it has been found that men with low lycopene levels in their system are 3 times more prone to developing some kind of coronary problem or stroke.
Hawthorn extract is a vasodilator and as such, it is highly efficient at reducing blood-pressure. This characteristic has been proven in a group highly vulnerable to various cardiovascular events: diabetes patients.
In addition to the above, arginine, niacin, garlic and L-carnitine have also made the list of benefic cardio vascular supplements, for various reasons.
People prone to developing various heart and coronary artery conditions are always advised to keep a close watch on various physiological indicators. Cholesterol levels and blood pressure should always be monitored, together with blood glucose. Fortunately, the development of a wide range of medical gadgets and instruments has made the monitoring of these factors simple, from the comfort of one’s own home.
Type 2 Diabetes – Prevention and Recovery
Known in medical terms as Diabetes Mellitus Type 2, this form of diabetes is by far the most common, constituting about 90% of all diabetes cases. Though generally considered a disease, Type 2 Diabetes is better defined as a metabolic disorder, characterized by insulin shortage, insulin resistance and high blood-sugar levels (hyperglycemia).
Diabetes Type 2 can be brought about by a number of factors, such as lack of exercise stemming from a sedentary lifestyle, but its most important risk factor by far, is obesity.
A late bedtime at 12:00 am and later on weekdays may also be a risk factor.
The symptoms of this condition range from the mild to the severe, and they cover an impressive spectrum of ailments, such as frequent urination, unusually intense thirst and weight loss which is difficult to attribute to anything else. Sores that do not heal are also in the symptom-profile. From their onset, the symptoms move towards increased severity slowly but surely.
While the condition isn’t life threatening in and of itself, it is extremely dangerous in that it can potentially lead to a number of severe long-term complications, such as stroke and heart disease, kidney failure, blindness and amputations. Fortunately, besides being preventable and treatable, in some cases, Type 2 Diabetes can be cured too, through radical lifestyle and nutrition-related changes. Obviously, besides the above said obesity and lack of exercise, genetic predisposition also plays a part in the triggering of the disorder.
How do you prevent/treat Type 2 Diabetes, once its onset has been confirmed through blood tests such as the oral glucose tolerance test? Attaining and maintaining normal body weight is always extremely important. Regular exercise and proper nutrition comes next. In most cases, these measures are enough to trigger a drop in blood sugar levels. When the desired result isn’t accomplished though, metformin can be prescribed. Insulin injections are also in the books further down the line, together with the regular checking of one’s blood sugar levels. In some cases, when obesity is an obvious factor, more extreme measures, such as bariatric surgery may also come into the picture.
As obesity has gained ground in the general population since the 60s, so has diabetes. The disorder usually begins in middle- and older age, but youth diabetes rates have also been increasing lately.
What sort of lifestyle promotes diabetes though, and what exactly counts as obesity in this regard? A body mass index greater than 25 is a problem and so is a high waist-to-hip ratio. As said above, lack of physical activity stemming from urbanization is also a major factor, which contributes to increasing the diabetes risk factor directly as well as indirectly (by promoting obesity and excess body fat).
Diet-wise, sugar-sweetened drinks represent a major risk factor, one to which children and young people are especially vulnerable. Certain types of fats, like trans fatty acids and saturated fats, also contribute to diabetes, as do white rice and some organic pollutants. Smoking is a major diabetes risk factor as well.
Genetics plays a major role in one’s likelihood to develop the disorder. Many genes are apparently involved in the diabetes pathway, each of them adding a little to one’s overall risk. According to scientists, in this diabetes gene-pool, there are currently around 36 different genes involved, accounting for about 10% of the inheritable component of the condition.
Certain types of medications and certain health problems also predispose people to Type 2 Diabetes. Acromegaly, hyperthyroidism and testosterone deficiency are some of the conditions which may lead to this disease.
Prevention-wise, nutrition and exercise represent the most efficient and accessible paths. Taken together, these factors can reduce one’s risk of developing the disease by over 50%. Exercise is especially benefic, because it exerts its effects in a double-pronged manner. On one hand, even without inducing weight-loss and cardiovascular changes, it’s quite efficient at staving off diabetes. On the other, it triggers responses in the body which do in fact lead to weight loss and increased cardiovascular fitness. Exercise alone can reduce diabetes risk by about 28%.
Diet-wise benefits are much murkier from a scientific perspective though. While proper diet can indeed lead to weight loss, promoting a normal body weight, thus reducing diabetes risk, evidence is scarce in this regard. Limiting the intake of sugary drinks is a rather obvious approach. Other than that, the intake of dark green leafy vegetables (such as spinach and kale) has been proven to reduce diabetes risk as well. I recommend at least 120 grams or two cups per day.
Management of Type 2 Diabetes is a three-pronged effort, focusing on cardiovascular fitness, lifestyle changes and the keeping of blood sugar levels in a normal range. In regards to the cardiovascular aspect, microalbuminuria, high cholesterol and hypertension are all targets.
It has been found that treating gum disease will have a positive impact on the management of the disorder too.
Recognized by the WHO as a global epidemic, Type 2 Diabetes affected close to 6% of the world’s adult population in 2010. While the disease wreaks havoc in developed and developing nations, it is uncommon in the underdeveloped world. In general, women seem to be at greater risk than men, a peculiarity which could perhaps be attributed to the role testosterone apparently plays in the suppression of the disease. Children used to fall completely outside at-risk groups in the past. Nowadays though, with the prevalence of sugary drink consumption and the rise of obesity in this group, diabetes has reared its head among the young too.
The bottom line about diabetes prevention and treatment seems to come down to exercise, proper nutrition and an overall healthy lifestyle. After all, these are the factors one can indeed manipulate in his/her favor in this regard. Aerobic exercise as well as anaerobic exercise seem to work well. Alcohol consumption should be avoided too, since alcohol interacts with diabetes medication and it adversely affects the functioning of the liver. Direct links between alcohol and diabetes have surprisingly not been confirmed yet and according to several health authorities, moderate consumption is OK as long as one’s blood sugar levels are kept under control.
The genetics-linked aspect is beyond one’s personal control, so that is nothing more than lottery in this regard.
The treatment and management of diabetes is possible through several avenues, provided it’s Type II diabetes we’re dealing with. Type I is characterized by the complete inability of the pancreas to secrete insulin, and this condition can only be countered through the administration of insulin from outside sources. The Type II variant of the condition and prediabetes in particular, can be countered, reversed, or in the worst case: properly managed.
As said above, lifestyle changes have the biggest impact on the evolution of the disease. Beyond that, quite an impressive range of medication exists too, but there’s quite a bit you can do about diabetes before you reach the stage when prescription medication is indeed required. Lifestyle changes have been credited with a much bigger impact on diabetes than prescription medications.
Diabetic diet is one of the most straightforward ways to move against type II diabetes. Unfortunately, there isn’t really scientific agreement on what constitutes a proper and effective anti-diabetes diet. There is however agreement on which macronutrient has to be targeted to defeat high blood glucose. Carbohydrate is the main culprit here. How big a reduction in carbohydrates an effective anti-diabetes diet should feature is debated though. The recommendations in this regard are mainly aimed at the share of one’s total calorie intake originating from carbohydrates. According to some sources, this share should be within the 20-45% range. Other sources mention limits as wide as 16-75%.
Despite all the confusion in this regard, a few general guidelines can be put forth: the diet should be low in refined carbohydrates and sugar, and it should contain plenty of dietary fiber. Avoiding carbohydrates with a high glycemic index isn’t as straightforward though as one may think. In some cases, when hypoglycemia is present, the opposite is in fact recommended.
Diet-wise, medical authorities have long been warning people not to buy into some of the hype surrounding special diabetes products. That said, there are some products out there the benefits of which are scientifically backed. Maitake mushroom is one such product. It has been proven to disrupt the high blood sugar pathways by inhibiting alpha glucosidase. Reishi mushrooms, Cordyceps and Agrocybe Cylindracea have also been identified as potent blood sugar blasters, though the exact mechanisms by which they act are unknown.
Specific diet types, such as the vegan diet, has also been shown to carry some anti-diabetes benefits.
Other avenues to explore in this regard are those of dietary supplements and complementary and alternative medications (CAMs). Before wading into this subject, we need to caution you that CAM therapy should never be used as replacement for a conventional medical approach.
Some of the most popular CAM-based therapies include garlic, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, chromium, coenzyme Q10 and alpha-lipoic acid. The latter, also known as lipoic acid, or simply ALA, acts as a sort of vitamin. It exerts its effects as an antioxidant, disrupting a process caused by free radicals known as oxidative stress. High blood sugar levels are major triggers of oxidative stress. The direct link between such high glucose levels and ALA is unclear though. ALA can be found in various foods, such as broccoli, spinach and liver. It is also available in concentrated form, in various capsules and tablets. The downside of ALA is that it may lower blood sugar levels too much. Thus, constant monitoring is a must when it comes to sustained ALA use.
Chromium is a trace element which is found in scores of foods, like various meats, fish, animal fats, tea and brewer’s yeast. It can of course also be acquired as a supplement, in the form of pills. The science behind the benefits of chromium for diabetes sufferers is very shaky though.
Like ALA, Coenzyme Q10 also acts as an antioxidant. Available in various capsule and pill presentations, Q10 is also included in a number of anti-wrinkle, topical cosmetic products, due to its cell-rejuvenating proprieties. Research regarding its effects upon high blood sugar levels is insufficient though, to say the least.
Garlic (Allium sativum) is a cheap and highly accessible “remedy,” used for an impressive number of diseases world over. The chemical compound, which is responsible for the strong taste and odor of garlic, allicin, is a mild antibiotic. While there are a handful of studies claiming major diabetes-benefits stemming from garlic consumption, a lot more information needs to be gathered in this regard.
Another trace element, magnesium has been linked to Type II diabetes, in that its levels in the bodies of diabetes-suffers are significantly lower than normal. The logic behind magnesium supplementation is that correcting this deficiency may in fact positively impact the disease. Low levels of magnesium have indeed been shown to promote insulin resistance and to interrupt insulin secretion in the pancreas. While such mechanisms may suggest a positive impact of magnesium supplementation on diabetes, further controlled studies are required to confirm this link. Magnesium is of course widely available as a supplement.
Omega 3 fatty acids have some actual medical literature backing their benefits, and indeed, several national health authorities have included them in their regular intake recommendations. While the benefits of Omega 3s on hardening arteries, heart disease and stroke are accepted, it isn’t certain whether these same effects are present in populations at higher risk, like diabetics, too. Research has also shown that Omega 3s have no effect on fasting blood glucose levels. Omega 3 fatty acids are available as supplements. They can also be acquired from foods like walnuts, wheat germ, soybeans and algae oil.
Currently, there are a number of ongoing studies, targeting various diabetes CAM therapies. One such study is focused on chromium, another has taken aim at Gingko biloba, while a third one is taking a closer look at the effects of yoga.
The monitoring of blood glucose levels is one of the main facets of proper diabetes management. Monitoring is important for several reasons: the action of hypoglycemic agents varies wildly from one formula and one person to another. These lowering effects can last as little as 2 hours, or as much as 24.
Home glucose meters are the go-to solution for most diabetes sufferers, due to their relatively low cost, availability and simplicity in use. There are more than 20 such blood monitoring devices available on the market, and not every one may suit every diabetes patient. The exact type of blood glucose meter best suited for an individual patient is determined by the physician. Training in the use of the said meter is also provided by qualified medical personnel.
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.