Valued Readers – Please take a look at what I’ve written here. Let me know in the comments: Does it make sense? Does any of this sound too preachy, judgemental, sexist, or redundant? Does any of this seem incomplete or too indepth? The target audience is people who do not currently exercise or just want to learn about exercise. I’m not worried about syntax or spelling errors, as much as content. Maybe show it to someone who should be exercising and see what they think. Let me know! Thanks!
Aerobic Exercise for Health and Weight Loss
So far, we’ve discussed problems with the Western Diet, eating better, sleeping, de-stressing your life, how to lose weight by hacking industry secrets, and maintaining your weight loss. All along, I kept mentioning exercise. If you take all the advice I’ve given you up until now, you could probably skip this whole “exercise” thing and be OK. But I’ll give you about a 30-50% chance of keeping your weight off for more than a year. If you want to be one of the 3-5% of dieters who maintain a weight loss for over 5 years, you’ll want to keep reading.
Aerobic and strength training exercise is of vital importance to keeping your weight in check and staying healthy. Without exercise, your heart becomes lazy, your muscles weak; it makes your genes work against you. Look at exercise to hedge your bets on living a long, healthy life free of heart disease and the host of debilitating illnesses that inflict nearly everyone as they age. Exercise isn’t about losing weight, it’s about having a body that’s resistant to weight gain and aging. It works. It really works. But maybe you have to see it to believe it.
You’ll recall from a previous discussion that the official recommendations for exercise are:
- Moderate aerobics – 2 ½ hours per week, or
- Vigorous aerobics – 1 hour 15 minutes per week, and
- Strength training – 2-3 times per week
The moderate and vigorous aerobics may be combined for 2 ½ hours per week. Also acceptable is 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous activity alone. Best practice is a minimum of 30-60 minutes per day of some type of aerobics exercise with a couple days focused on strength training.
Insulin sensitivity, that is, the body’s ability to sense and store glucose, is the holy grail of metabolic health. Some say that resistance to insulin is the start of a long, slow decline into poor health (Freeman, 2018). Along with diet, exercise is the best method to increase insulin sensitivity and stave off disease (Buresh, 2018). The recommended amounts of exercise almost guarantee increased insulin sensitivity, the problem is, nobody wants to exercise.
How Many People Exercise?
According to a large survey less than 20% of Americans get the recommended level of exercise. When you look at people older than 24, the number drops even further to about 15% (Jaslow, 2013).
Let’s do some math. 50% of adults are on a diet. 80-85% don’t exercise. 95% of diets fail. I’m not a statistician, but those numbers don’t look surprising. Why don’t more people exercise? When surveyed, these are the most cited reasons (The Heart Foundation, 2018):
- Can’t afford it.
- Don’t like to exercise alone.
- Don’t like to sweat.
- Embarrassed around opposite sex.
- No motivation.
- Too boring.
- Too busy.
- Too old or unfit.
- Too tired.
- Tried and quit.
I get it. Exercise takes a very low priority for most people. Plus, people seem to think that they move around enough in their life and don’t need to go out and intentionally move more. But I think the underlying theme is that people just don’t see why they need to. None of the respondents answered, “Don’t care about insulin sensitivity,” or “My bones are strong enough.” They just gave excuses. This tells me most people don’t know what benefits we get from exercise. So, I’ll tell you.
Benefits of Regular Exercise
Big Medicine Industry Insider Secret: If people would exercise to the minimum recommendations, they would (Warburton, 2006):
- Enjoy longer life.
- Delay the onset of 40 chronic conditions/diseases (e.g. cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, obesity, depression and osteoporosis).
- Enjoy better cardiovascular fitness.
- Have stronger bones.
- Sleep better.
- Have less stress.
- Maintain their weight.
Minimum Effective Dose
Scientists have established that burning an extra 500 calories, or about an hour of exercise, weekly is effective for health benefits associated with exercise.
“A volume of exercise that is about half of what is currently recommended may be sufficient, particularly for people who are extremely deconditioned or are frail and elderly (Warburton, 2006).”
Getting started with an exercise program is like planting an oak tree: The best time was 30 years ago; the second-best time is today.
Aerobic exercise is done for cardiovascular conditioning. Also called “cardio” or “endurance training,” aerobic means “with oxygen.” Your breathing and heart rate will increase during aerobic activities leading to numerous health benefits including weight loss and weight stability.
The best exercise program is the one you will do, week after week, year after year. Looking at aerobic exercise specifically, it takes no special equipment other than comfortable clothes and good shoes. The movements are not difficult. You can buy DVDs and follow along at home or join an organized aerobics class. Yoga studies are really popular now, and even yoga is easy to do at home. The hardest part is just getting started.
Many people make the mistake of jumping into an exercise program without thinking. They end up hurting themselves or not seeing any results and quit. Or they join a gym only to find out the people there are big, sweaty jerks and they feel intimidated, or you find it gets to be too expensive, not enough equipment, too crowded, inconvenient, etc.
Aerobic exercise has its share of problems. Aerobics classes like Zumba or Jazzercise are popular now, and great if they fit your schedule. But sticking with it for long seems to be the killer. Changes in instructors, crowded, hot workout rooms, expense, and childcare often get it the way.
Become militant with your schedule. Make sure everyone in your life knows that you have, and adhere to, a strict exercise schedule. Your health depends on it, so why not? Don’t let anyone get in your way. We’re talking 30-60 minutes a day. This doesn’t mean that you must go to an aerobics class every day, but it does mean that you should carve out 30-60 minutes every day for aerobic conditioning. Pro-tip: Be this way with your sleep, too.
More Than Just Classes
One of the best aerobic workouts you can do is walking. It’s free and you can do it just about anywhere. Treadmills are cheap enough to buy for your home. Bicycling and exercise bikes also fit the bill for cheap, easy aerobics workouts. It doesn’t have to be an organized class. Here are some ideas:
- Cardio machines
- Cross country skiing
- Tai chi
An excellent plan is to be able to do several of these workouts on a whim, with a backup plan in case you run out of time. A nightly walk after dinner is perfect. Some would rather get up early and do it before work. However, you do it, just keep doing it. Anybody remember the “mall walkers?”
How Much/How Often?
The ideal amount of aerobic exercise is 30-60 minutes a day of walking, with some “more vigorous” exercise thrown in 3-4 days per week. This is based on government guidelines and many years of scientific data showing that this amount of aerobic exercise is optimal for human health. You can develop a great routine based on exercising six days a week. If you miss a day, you can play catchup on the weekend.
Do Gardening, Shopping, and Chasing Kids Count?
Short answer: No.
There is a big difference between “physical activity” and “exercise.” While it’s great to get lots of physical activity, it’s not considered exercise. Sure, vacuuming a house, taking laundry up and down the stairs, mowing the lawn, and having sex burn calories, you can’t count this as your aerobics exercise requirement unless it can fit a specific pattern. Think of it this way: the exercise you do enables you to perform physical activity better.
No Days Off?
I’m sure I lost a couple of you with this seemingly aggressive routine. It’s OK to take some breaks from your normally scheduled program, just don’t make a habit of it. If you’re sick or you’ve overdone it, take it easy for a week or so. You’ll soon be back on your game. What I love about a six-day exercise schedule is that if you miss a day, you can pick it up on your off-day, and if you miss a couple days it’s no big deal, either. Aerobic exercise is not physically demanding, and it’s not supposed to be.
Catch me Outside. How ‘bout dat?
Try to do as much of your aerobic’s program outside as you can. Breathing fresh air and getting sunshine is one of the best stress-relievers there is. You’ll need a backup plan for inclement weather.
Developing Your Aerobic Exercise Program
To separate exercise from physical activity, we can look at it like this: Physical activity is what your normal life is all about…work, hobbies, family, leisure. Exercise needs to be intentional, timed, controlled, and meaningful.
Intentional – You cannot count daily movement unless you are a foot patrolman or a mail carrier (many of whom are also overweight, by the way). Look at how the military does it; they line up every morning for PT and do an hour or so of jumping jacks, push-ups, squats, and sprints followed by several miles of marching or running. Then they go about their day of marching to and fro, learning to carry heavy packs, jumping out of airplanes, or any number of physically demanding tasks. They exercise so that they can better perform their daily movements, they never say, “Let’s skip PT this morning, guys, we have a big day ahead of us.” Daily activity doesn’t count. You can only count it as aerobic exercise if it is done intentionally, above and beyond your normal daily life. Normal activities are great (mowing, gardening, etc.) but they are rife with problems, ie. frequent breaks, gaps between activity, and poor form. Better to mow your lawn, hoe your garden, vacuum your floor, then go for a jog or a fast walk.
Timed – You need to time your aerobic exercise session. Plan on 30 minutes a day as a minimum. One hour is better. Much more is not needed (Mann, 2014). Pro tip: Buy an inexpensive “interval timer.” With this you can time your fast and slow aerobic sessions with a loud buzzer to tell you when to switch. Once you get your routine down, timing becomes easy.
Controlled – You should tightly control your aerobic workouts. Everyone around you needs to know that at 7pm (or whenever) you are in “exercise mode.” Perhaps you need to get up at 4am to make this work. So be it. If you miss a session, you should perform it at the next available time. Let’s say you normally exercise at 5pm, right after work, at the gym. Your boss wants you to work late, kid’s project due, cat’s sick. Sure, it’s hard, but priorities people, priorities! The gym stays open ‘til 9, right? Maybe instead, go for a fast walk around your neighborhood. Live in a crappy part of town? Do jumping-jack’s and run in place for 30 minutes. Don’t want to miss Survivor? I don’t want to hear it. If this just doesn’t sound like you, if your life is in shambles and there’s no way you can control your aerobic exercise schedule, then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate what’s going on in your life. Stress is also bad, remember?
Meaningful – The 2000 Fitbit steps you get from brushing your teeth don’t count. Yeah, I wore one for a while…I know the tricks. Your aerobic exercise routine must be meaningful. Here are some good guidelines:
Moderate Aerobics: Brisk walking. This just means walking at a pace like you want to get somewhere fast, but not quite so fast you are out of breath. About 3-4 miles per hour.
Vigorous Aerobics: Work up a good sweat. Do this in conjunction with your daily walks, or in addition to the walking. This can be done in repeated short bursts that last just 30 seconds or so with a minute or two of rest in between, or a steady jog/run/speedwalk. This portion does not need to be based on running. You can do anything that makes you sweat: Sports, step aerobics, bike riding, stationary bike, elliptical machines, stair-stepper, running up and down real steps, flipping tires, or whatever you like. Join an aerobics class if you so desire, but it’s not necessary. It can be fun to do this with some friends, or alone. The goal is to get your heartrate up a bit more. Since tracking heartrate is quite cumbersome and confusing, just go until you start to get sweaty or out-of-breath.
These two meaningful routines can be combined, a sample aerobic workout schedule might look like this:
- Mon, Wed, Fri – 60-minute walk around the track at the local park.
- Tue, Thu – 15-minute jog around the track, followed by 15 minutes of walking.
- Sat – 60-minute walk around your neighborhood, interspersed with 10 30-second sprints.
- Sun – Rest, bonus, or make-up for missed days.
Another sample aerobic workout schedule:
- Sat and/or Sun – 60-minute walk on a local walking path.
- Mon, Wed, Fri – Stop by the gym and walk 60 minutes on a really nice treadmill.
- Tue, Thu, Sat – Do one of the “7-minute workouts” apps available on every smartphone and virtual assistant (ie. Alexa).
Some Cool Aerobic Exercise Terms
HIIT – High Intensity Interval Training. This is basically what “running sprints” was all about in high school. With HIIT, you perform short (30 second) powerful bursts of speed broken up by longer periods (1-3 minutes) of low-intensity walking. Times of the intervals can vary, some recommend doing 40 seconds of high intensity with a 20 second rest. The key is very powerful bursts of speed interspersed with a rest cycle. HIIT lends itself well to walk/jog routines, bicycling, hill-climbing, or many machines designed to maximize HIIT (ellipticals, stair-climbers, rowing machines, etc).
LISS – Low Intensity Steady State. LISS is basically walking for a long time. With LISS, you want to get your heartrate up a bit, but not to the point where you’re out of breath or sweating. This is the “moderate” activity that everyone recommends. LISS should be performed 30-60 minutes a day, 3-7 days a week.
VO2 Max – This is the maximum volume of oxygen that your body can efficiently utilize during exercise. This measurement is used to assess cardiorespiratory (aerobic) fitness by doctors. As you exercise more, your VO2 Max increases, indicating better fitness.
MHR – Maximum Heart Rate. Expressed in “beats per minute.” When doing aerobic exercises, the goal is to make your heart pump harder, but not too hard. Most experts agree that getting your heart pumping to about 50-60% of your MHR is just right for LISS (moderate intensity) aerobics, and 70-90% for HIIT. To calculate your MHR, simply take 220 minus your age. For example, a 50-year-old person: 220 – 50 = 170 beats per minute MHR. For exercise purposes, divide MHR by 2 for 50% of MHR, or 85 beats per minute, in this example. You’ll find many different methods of calculating a preferred target heartrate for different styles of aerobics exercise.
KISS – Keep it Simple, Stupid. For moderate aerobic exercise, just do it at a pace that you can easily keep up with for 30-60 minutes. To add some “vigor,” walk a bit faster for brief periods until you get a bit out of breath and start to sweat. As you get more fit, it will take more to get out of breath and sweaty. For beginners, best to keep it simple. Don’t worry about HIIT, LISS, VO2 Max, or MHR. Just get moving! Once you’re a pro, read some books and learn more about how all this works.
10,000 Steps a Day
The current craze is walking 10,000 steps a day (approximately 5 miles). This originated in the 1970’s in Japanese walking clubs and carried over to the US in the early 2000’s (Yuenyongchaiwat, 2016). Under the current usage of the idea, these 10,000 steps are not meant to be walked consecutively. Most people walk 4-6000 steps a day in normal daily activity, leaving a deficit of 4-6000 steps, requiring one to purposely walk for an extra 30-60 minutes daily.
I’m not a fan of electronic step trackers. They are notoriously inaccurate. I tried out a couple of old-fashioned mechanical pedometers and two types of Fitbits for a couple months last summer. I found that at a normal walking speed, I took 2000 steps per mile. Both the mechanical pedometer and the Fitbits were extremely accurate in counting steps while walking nonstop.
While wearing a mechanical pedometer, I was seeing about 5000 steps during my 7am-5pm workday, with an extra 2000 steps before and after work. Most of these “steps” were just normal, daily activity…nothing I would count as “moderate aerobic exercise.”
When wearing a Fitbit, I saw anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 steps during my workday. A 5000-15000 step error! A quick web-search shows that this is a very common complaint and there are some hacks to increase the accuracy such as wearing the Fitbit on your left hand or decreasing the sensitivity. I tried several things, but never got the accuracy I was hoping for.
My advice is to ditch the FitBits and pedometers. Walk an extra 30-60 minutes every day and don’t worry about how many steps you’ve taken. Automated step counters will mislead you into thinking you don’t need to exercise with purpose. That said, Fitbits can do some pretty amazing things like track your sleep, heartrate, and even food intake. If you’re a techie, you’ll have fun with it, but expect it to be quite inaccurate.
Aerobic exercise is the foundation of your fitness program. This will ensure a healthy heart and lungs. If you can continue with a well-planned, meaningful aerobics program into old-age, you’ll be so far ahead of your peers that you won’t even recognize them. You’ll be the envy of the old folks’ home (because you won’t be there). I can’t stress enough how important it is to do aerobics as simple as just walking. As you get more fit, you’ll feel like doing more. Let your body guide you in this endeavor, it won’t let you down…even if you’ve let it down. Next up: Strength training.