Maximize Your Aerobic Workout

Author:
Daniel Millrood, MEd., MSPT
I am always entertained when fitness buffs debate which piece of high-tech exercise equipment is the best, when I know I still get a great workout from an old stationary bike I saved from the trash collectors. In a tribute to the person who abandoned good ol’ Nellie for a newer machine that promised a better workout, and those who gave up on exercise altogether, I would like to provide my easy recipe for obtaining the best training results.
Definition of Aerobic Exercise Your body is a complex yet very efficient machine that runs on three different engines. All three engines use different fuels that we get from our diet.. Like a car that is shifting gears, different engines will kick in when we want the body to accelerate or slow down.
• Engine one: used when lifting weights. It is responsible for quickly providing a large amount of energy to your muscles in a very short amount of time. This engine is relatively small and runs on a protein called creatine phosphate. Engine one does not require oxygen; therefore, it is anaerobic..
• Engine two: used during a half-mile run. It is very similar to engine one, except that it takes a little more time to rev up. That’s because engine two is larger and runs on the sugar glucose instead of creatine phosphate. Again, like engine one, it does not require oxygen to run.
• Engine three: used when running a marathon. If engine one is a Mini and engine two a Mustang, then engine three is the Mack Truck of engines. It provides the most energy to your muscles but takes the longest to get started. Engine three runs on the carbohydrate glycogen and does require oxygen to produce energy; therefore, it is aerobic.
Aerobic exercise is defined as exercise that primarily uses engine three. This includes brisk walking, jogging and other, more-intense types of exercise performed for more than 10 minutes.
Typical Training Goals of Aerobic Exercise Programs
Why do you choose to perform aerobic exercise? If your answer is weight loss, aerobic exercise is an excellent choice. It burns more calories over a longer period of time. Other responses might be to improve overall health and cardiovascular fitness. With engine three, your heart and lungs work harder to increase the blood circulation.. Aerobic exercise may help prevent obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and depression. It can also turn your day around; if you’re blue, go for a run or bike ride, and you may find yourself feeling better. Some of you may also want to do regular aerobic exercise to increase performance in endurance sports, like triathlons. The training benefits of an aerobic exercise program are many. However, in order to achieve your desired goals, you must understand the important factors in any aerobic exercise program.
Determinants of Your Aerobic Exercise Program
Your aerobic exercise regimen must be tailored to meet your specific training goals, while also considering your current fitness level. Frequency, duration and intensity of exercise are the three factors involved in starting engine three and setting you on the aerobic highway. Remember, aerobic exercise means working out hard enough and long enough to boost your muscles’ need for oxygen and get your heart and lungs pumping; and you have to do it frequently enough to have long-term results, whether better endurance or a trimmer waistline. The questions to ask are: How many times per week should I work out? For what period of time? At what level of intensity?
Let me give you a few examples. If you are sedentary and you want to start an aerobic exercise program, you should begin with a low-intensity activity, like walking. Starting out slowly allows your heart and lungs to become conditioned so you can gradually work out more often and for longer periods of time. On the other hand, if you are already exercising on most days of the week but aren’t reaching your fitness goals, you may want to increase your training intensity while maintaining your typical workout time frame and cutting down on the number of days you exercise. In this case, exercising less often may help you avoid the over-training and injuries that can come with longer, tougher workouts. In another example, a fit person with a tight schedule can try exercising just three days per week, while boosting the intensity and duration of each workout.
The Importance of Heart-Rate Monitoring
Because the intensity of a workout is measured by how hard it works your heart, it is vital to monitor your heart rate while you exercise.
During aerobic exercise, your body is using oxygen to burn fuel, supplying energy to your muscles. As your muscles require more energy, your heart and lungs must work harder to provide the necessary oxygen supply. Therefore, your heart rate will give an accurate measure of your aerobic workload during prolonged, steady exercise. Performing aerobic exercise without monitoring your heart rate is like lifting weights without knowing how much weight you are lifting.
In order to determine your baseline exercise tolerance and create a program that is based on progressive, short-term goals, you must monitor your heart rate. Attempting to gauge your exercise intensity based on “how you feel” (perceived exertion) is very inaccurate. Many factors can affect how you feel on any given day, and you may think you are exhausted even when you haven’t reached true physiological fatigue. When you first start heart-rate monitoring, you will be surprised at the intensity you thought you were achieving, versus what the heart-rate monitor actually tells you.
Baseline aerobic exercise capacity
In order to determine your baseline aerobic exercise capacity, subtract your age from 220; the result reflects your maximum heart rate, the greatest number of times your heart can contract in a minute. If you have never monitored your heart rate before, you should start off your next exercise session at 55 percent to 65 percent of your maximum heart rate. For example, if you are 20 years old, your maximum heart rate is 200 (220 - 20), so you would exercise for 20 to 30 minutes with your heart rate between 110 and 120 beats-per-minute.
The next step is to take stock of how you felt while exercising at this level. Was it a breeze or were you begging for it to end? You would then base your short-term exercise goals on the answer to that question.
Heart-rate monitors
So how do you measure your heart rate? The least expensive method is to take your pulse as you exercise. You can count your pulse beats for 15 seconds, then multiply by four. This requires concentration, plus a little math, while trying to keep your rhythm. Since many people aren’t able to perform this juggling act, I highly recommend using an electronic heart rate monitor. The device, which you can buy at almost any sporting store, consists of a chest band and wristwatch display. Heart-rate monitors range significantly in price, depending on special features. The most basic model, which provides continuous heart-rate readouts, may cost about $75. Fancier models can cost up to $300 or $400, based on special features. Some, for example, will calculate your average heart rate for each workout session, while others can link up with your computer so you can save your data and review your progress. I use my old stationary bike (Nellie) and the most basic monitor. The rest I can do with pencil and paper.
Proper Nutritional Support
Whether you are a beginner or a pro on the exercise circuit, you have to give your aerobic engine the right fuel at the right time. If you do not replenish your fuel tank from workout to workout, or if you use up all the gas while exercising, your training intensity will be limited. Also, if there are no carbohydrates for fuel, then your body may start to break down muscle tissue for energy. Remember, carbs are not evil but a necessary part of a balanced diet. Without them, you may feel drained and have difficulty in achieving exercise goals. Fatigue can also lead to injuries in your joints, connective tissue or muscles. If you are dieting while exercising, decrease your total calorie count slowly. You’ll be less likely to crash and binge, and may be more likely to keep any shed pounds from coming back. Again, it is important to have a well-balanced diet that includes carbohydrates, fats and protein, as well as vitamins, minerals and fiber. If you eat well you will be able to work out harder and longer while reducing the risk of over-training or injury. Starving yourself will only slow down your progress.
Liquid and gel fuels
During prolonged exercise sessions, your body may also run out of fuel that is stored for on-demand energy production. Energy gels, which contain glucose (sugar), and sports drinks, which provide a mix of sugar and salts, will give you an extra boost to get you through. However, for shorter or less intense workouts, be aware that sports drinks and energy gels contain about 75 to 100 calories, so make sure that whatever you consume does not negate the workout you just performed. For the neighborhood speed-walk or the average gym workout, the safest bet is always water.
In fact, the importance of drinking water during your workout cannot be overemphasized. Your body uses fluids to cool and maintain core temperature during exercise, and if you run low you can become dehydrated, overheat and perhaps become sick.
Cross-Training
As you gradually increase the intensity of your aerobic workout, you can add some extra calorie-burning potential through strength training. Larger muscles have higher energy demands and require more oxygen as you pedal, run or walk. They also use up more calories while you’re merely sitting around. So resistance training, whether done with free weights or exercise machines, is a necessary component of a well-rounded exercise program. If you’re like most people and want to shape and tone rather than attain a bodybuilder’s physique, you will probably get results from resistance training one or two times a week. Start off slowly, using lighter weights, but as you get stronger, it’s important to increase your resistance and to continue to perform a sufficient number of sets. Ideally, you would perform about three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions of a given exercise. It is also best to vary your routine. One common flaw I see in the gym is the workout with no variety in resistance, sets or repetitions. Mixing things up - by changing the amount of weight you use, or opting for free weights instead of your usual equipment — is good because it provides a new challenge for your body, and you’ll be less likely to become bored. The ultimate goal of any training program is to keep both your body and mind active. If you are not stimulated mentally, then you won’t be physically motivated.
By adding resistance training to your workout, you will improve your muscle tone and fitness. However, it is important to realize if your goal is weight loss, replacing fat tissue with muscle will help you slim down but not necessarily help you shed pounds quickly. That’s because fat weighs less than muscle. On the other hand, when you increase your body’s ratio of muscle to fat, that increases your overall metabolic rate. On top of that, muscle takes up less space than fat does, so even if your bathroom scale doesn’t change much at first, you may still see a difference in the shape of your body. It is also important to remember that as you increase your muscle mass, you must increase your caloric intake. If you try to speed up your short-term goals by severe dieting and increased resistance training, you will end up not only slowing your progress, but also increasing your risk of injury.
Rest and Recuperation
More is not always better. Listen to your body. I believe you can achieve excellent results from the three-times-a-week aerobic and two-times-a-week resistance-training routine. I also believe that occasionally your body will tell you to cut your routine back. This is especially true if you consistently increase your intensity levels without having a well-balanced diet. Over-training can eventually derail you, since you can’t train very well if you’re injured or burned out.
Good night’s sleep
The importance of proper sleep cannot be underestimated either. Sleep is divine; enjoy it. If you attempt to increase your training goals while not getting enough sleep, you’re struggling against yourself. It is more difficult to increase your training intensity if you are chronically sleep-deprived. In fact, you’ll rarely get in a good workout on only a few hours of sleep. As with an inadequate diet, poor sleep will limit your ability to achieve your fitness goals and increase the risk of injury.
Training Environment
Do you like loud music, trees and grass, or lots of spandex and treadmills lined up in a row? Most people need to be inspired in order to feel the burn. If you don’t like where you’re working out, you aren’t going to stay there. The more stimulated you are, the more you will want to work out.
Summary
Here are my recommendations-to the good soul who left Nellie on the curb, and to all others looking to make the most of their workouts:
• Monitor your heart rate, set short-term goals and gradually increase your average heart rate during your aerobic workout from 60 percent to 90 percent.
• Maintain a balanced, nutritious diet. Don’t starve yourself while you’re increasing your caloric output.
• Allow yourself sufficient rest and recuperation and get plenty of sleep. I recommend an average of seven to eight hours of sleep-per-night for maximum exercise performance.
• Inspire yourself by working out in an environment you enjoy. Train smart, train hard, eat and sleep well, and you will reach your goals sooner than you think.

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