Aerobic Training 101

What is Aerobic Training?

Aerobic training is a form of specifically planned exercise involving repetitive movement of the body’s skeletal muscle, stimulating the body’s metabolism to consume oxygen for energy production.

Aerobic training involves increased energy production over a prolonged period, using large muscle groups and increasing cardiac output and respiratory rate. Common means of aerobic exercise include walking, running, swimming, cycling, sports, and dancing, among many others.

This form of exercise has been regarded as one of the cornerstones of health and well-being in the general population for decades, often prescribed by physicians and other health care professionals to help prevent a host of chronic diseases.

Many governing bodies provide recommendations for how much aerobic training we should be doing. The position statements by the American College of Sports Medicine, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Heart Association, and more, encourage people to aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity.

This time is advised to be divided into 30-minute sessions, five days per week for the moderate intensity; an example of the vigorous intensity activity could be 25 minutes on three separate days. The most common ways to determine exercise intensity will be discussed below. First, we’ll discuss who can enjoy the benefits of aerobic exercise.

Who is Aerobic Training for? The Many Benefits of Aerobic Training

Aerobic training is named for its use of oxygen for energy. There are other, anaerobic metabolic systems that handle short, intense bouts of activity, but it’s our aerobic energy system that allows us to produce energy over long periods. Over time, aerobic training increases the capacity of our cardiopulmonary systems to take up more oxygen from the air we breathe, and to deliver it more effectively to our working muscles.

The improved capacity of our heart and lungs (and their supporting vessels) greatly reduce the risk of many of the common cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, such as high blood pressure, peripheral vascular disease, congenital heart disease, heart failure, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and many more. This is significant because these conditions are among the leading causes of death and disability worldwide.

But the benefits of aerobic exercise don’t stop at these body systems. To summarise, here is a non-exhaustive list of just some of the areas in which aerobic training has positive effects:

  • Improved body composition (more lean mass and less body fat)
  • Enhanced functional capacity for daily activities
  • Reduced risk of Type 2 Diabetes
  • Improved mental health and self-esteem
  • Reduced arthritis and osteoporosis
  • Decreased risk of several cancers
  • Improved symptoms in many neurological disorders

To this end, aerobic training is recommended for people from all walks of life, from children to older adults, and for many individuals with a range of chronic conditions. Of course, for higher risk populations, exercise should be tailored and prescribed by a health professional.

Next, we’ll move on to how the mechanisms of aerobic training work, before informing you exactly how to determine the right way to train for you.

How Aerobic Training Works in Your Body

Regular aerobic exercise enhances the oxygenated nutrient delivering ability of the heart and lungs in several ways. Aerobic training remodels the heart muscle, improving its ability to collect more blood in its chambers, and pump out a higher volume of blood with each contraction. Along with decreasing the resistance in the blood vessels (reducing the blood pressure), this increases what is called the cardiac output.

For the lungs, aerobic training strengthens the respiratory muscles that aid in breathing, as well as lowering residual volume – meaning that fewer breaths are needed to deliver the same amount of air. This decreases dyspnea, or the feeling of shortness of breath, and improves the efficiency of respiration – getting oxygen into the areas of the body that need it.

As mentioned previously, the aerobic energy system uses carbohydrates and fats as fuel in the presence of oxygen. This system has an enormous capacity, allowing us to perform everything from a long work day as a labourer, to superhuman feats like ultra-marathons. This system is not able to deliver energy as quickly as anaerobic pathways used in short, intense efforts like a 100m sprint – but it does come without the waste products that build up in the muscles, creating fatigue and that ‘burning’ feeling.

Being aware of the mechanisms by which aerobic training affects our bodies, let’s explore what parameters of training we should be aiming for.

How Much (and How Hard) Should I be Training?

Again, the recommendations of many of the governing bodies in health are that adults should aim to undergo at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week. This can be broken up however you like; however, a higher frequency is preferred. For example, it would be better to exercise for 25 minutes on six days, than for 90 minutes twice a week.

That being said, if you’re just getting started, you can break sessions up into as little as 10 minutes at a time. And while 150 minutes a week is a great goal, studies show that any exercise will result in some level of benefit compared to no exercise at all. So, start small and build up over time.

Speaking of progression, there is an optimal way to increase your aerobic exercise over time. The first measure to increase is frequency, or the total separate days on which you train. For example, if you start by walking for 30 minutes on three days a week, the first way you should try to improve would be to add a fourth day.

The next measure to increase is duration, or the length of an individual bout of exercise. To continue the example, after increasing to four or five days per week, you could increase your walks from 30 minutes to 40. If you walked at a moderate pace for 40 minutes, four days a week, this would take you past the recommended 150 minutes, and you would be able to enjoy all of the health benefits mentioned above.

Finally, you can up the intensity. Intensity can be measured in several ways, including a percentage of your maximal heart rate, a percentage of heart rate reserve, or by calculating your maximal oxygen uptake – although this requires specialised equipment and professional technicians to obtain.

For the above recommendations, moderate intensity is classified as a workload of anywhere between 55-70% MHR (max heart rate). MHR is calculated as 220-age. For example, if you are 40 years old, your max heart rate would be 180 beats per minute. So, 55-70% of 180 would be a heart rate training zone of 99-126 bpm. For a vigorous workout, it’s 70-90% MHR, so for our example, 126-162 bpm.

For those without a heart rate monitor or smart watch to observe your heart rate as you exercise, simply use the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) method. This is a scale from 1-10, one being complete rest, 10 being absolute exhaustion. Moderate intensity should feel like a 3-4 on this scale, and you should be able to hold a conversation while exercising. Vigorous intensity is a 5-6, and holding a long conversation should be too difficult due to the exertion.

Remember, training at vigorous intensity is only required for 75 minutes per week to receive the same benefits as 150 minutes of moderate activity. So, if you can push yourself, go for it and you’ll get the job done in half the time!

One method of performing vigorous intensity exercise is through high intensity interval training, or HIIT for short. This form of training is growing in popularity for its effectiveness, although it is not for the faint of heart. Rather than regular steady state exercise in which you attempt to keep you heart rate in the aforementioned zones, HIIT sessions involve short bouts of high effort activity interspersed with active rest breaks. An example of this type of session is provided below.

So, with a plan for adding some aerobic training into your routine, the next thing to consider is just what type of activity you’d like to try!

Aerobic Training Modes and Equipment

There are countless ways to do your aerobic training. The easiest and most accessible is walking or running, which require nothing but a decent pair of shoes, and are easily adjustable depending on your ability. Other outdoor activities include cycling, a great low impact alternative with all the cardiopulmonary benefits of running without the mechanical stress to the joints; swimming is another great option involving the upper body musculature.

If you prefer to do your aerobic activity indoors, all manner of cardio machines exist to cater to every taste. Treadmills, ellipticals, rowing machines, stair climbers, and ski ergometers are just some of the options available at any well-equipped gym, or available to rent or buy for home use. Modern versions of these machines most often have the added bonus of being able to monitor your heart rate, not to mention provide entertainment options should you require a happy distraction from your exercise.

If you’re interested in making your exercise a social experience, you can try team sports, dance classes, or an assortment of group exercise classes available at many gyms and fitness centres. Some examples include spin class, step class, Zumba or body combat.

Of course, these are just a few of the many options available to you in order to achieve your desired amount of aerobic activity. Finally, we’ll provide some of the risks to be aware of when starting an aerobic exercise program, before providing you with a couple of examples of aerobic workouts you can try.

Risks and Precautions for Aerobic Exercise

While aerobic exercise is recommended as appropriate and safe for the general population, if you have any health conditions which may affect your ability to exercise, it is imperative that you receive approval from your doctor to undergo an exercise program. In addition, there are many health and fitness professionals who are qualified to prescribe exercise for higher risk populations.

Any exercise session should always start with a short warm up of light activity and active stretches, and should finish with a cool down and some static stretches for any tight muscles and to avoid soreness.

Different modes of exercise have varying degrees of difficulty to learn how to perform them safely, reducing your risk of injury. Take the precautions necessary to allow you to safely and effectively undergo your preferred type of training. Elements outside your control also need to be accounted for in your planning, be it air quality in your local area, weather, neighbourhood safety, or accessibility to different activities and programs.

Lastly, be aware that aerobic exercise is just one part of an overall healthy lifestyle, including resistance exercise, proper nutrition, and good sleep habits. With these precautions in mind, here are two examples of a beginner program you can try to start you aerobic training journey.

Example Beginner Aerobic Training Programs

These are two programs spanning four weeks. The first is a simple walking or jogging program which progresses the frequency and duration each week. Remember to stay within 55-70% of your max heart rate. The second is a high intensity interval session you can perform two to three days per week. This will involve short bouts of maximal effort with active breaks in between.

Week General Aerobic Training: Walk / jog moderate intensity HIIT Session: Stationary bike / rowing machine / other
1 3 days x 20 mins (60 mins total) 10 secs max effort / 50 secs moderate x 10 rounds
2 4 days x 20 mins (80 mins total) 10 secs max effort / 50 secs moderate x 15 rounds
3 4 days x 30 mins (120 mins total) 20 secs max effort / 40 secs moderate x 15 rounds
4 5 days x 30 mins (150 mins total) 20 secs max effort / 40 secs moderate x 20 rounds

We hope this article has helped explain the ins and outs of aerobic training, so you know the benefits and just how to get started adding some aerobic exercise into your routine.

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