What Kind of Exercise Do You Need?

As unique as your individual fitness markers may be, a successful exercise program aims to improve three basic types of fitness: aerobic fitness, strength, and flexibility. The following sections take a closer look at each of these types of fitness with some examples of specific exercises for each.

Aerobic Fitness

Aerobic fitness is endurance fitness, or the prolonged ability to do activities requiring oxygen. Aerobic exercises make your heart work harder, speeding up your heart rate and sending more richly oxygenated blood coursing through your circulatory system to feed all of the tissues of your body. Aerobic exercise has many benefits:

  • It builds strong, healthy heart muscle.

  • It increases the capacity of your lungs, so you don't get short of breath.

  • It helps your body regulate cholesterol levels and keep blood vessels clean and wide.

  • It builds your muscle endurance and improves muscle strength.

  • It burns calories and body fat.

  • It builds resistance to disease, including diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

Remember that aerobic exercise is effective when it raises your resting heart rate — your normal heart rate during a period of inactivity — to a target heart rate, which is approximately 60 to 75 percent of your maximum heart rate. A treadmill or other fitness test can determine your maximum and target heart rates, but here is a general formula for finding a target heart rate:

  • Subtract your age from 220 to find an approximate maximum heart rate.

  • Multiply that number by 60 percent; the result is your low-end target heart rate.

  • Multiply the maximum heart rate number from step 1 by 75 percent; the result is your high-end target heart rate.

Any activity that gets your heart rate up and sustains it for fifteen to thirty minutes is an aerobic exercise; this category includes brisk walking, jogging, swimming, skiing, dancing, bicycling, rowing, hiking, rock climbing, stair climbing, cardio-boxing, and a host of other movement-related activities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that adults participate in moderate-intensity aerobic activities for thirty minutes, three to five times a week.

Fact

Aerobic exercises that include a weight-bearing component such as jogging, walking, step-training, dancing, and skiing build stronger bones and prevent the development of osteoporosis.

Studies have persistently shown that approximately half of people who begin an exercise program drop it within the first six months. If you want your commitment to exercise to last a lifetime, keep your interest up by changing and adapting it to match your growing fitness capabilities, interests, and needs.

Essential

There are many benefits of aerobic exercise, but they aren't permanent. To maintain aerobic fitness, you have to keep it up — try varying the specific type, frequency, and intensity of aerobic exercise from time to time. Your body needs continuous challenges to remain fit.

Strength Exercises

Weightlifting is not just for hulking bodybuilders. Now called strength training or resistance training, it involves performing a series of repetitive, weight-bearing motions, usually using free weights or some other means of providing resistance against the actions of your muscles.

Strength training improves your muscular strength and endurance, of course, but it also helps improve the health and mobility of your joints. Strength training aids balance and coordination, and builds strong bones — an especially important benefit for women in perimeno-pause or menopause. People of any age benefit from strength training; many assisted living and convalescent centers incorporate strength-training exercises in daily routines for even their bed- or wheelchair-bound residents.

You have a number of options for incorporating strength-training activities into your exercise program. Gym equipment such as most Nautilus-type machines offer a great way to ease into resistance training. These machines have adjustable weight levels, and most help you position your body properly to perform the exercises safely and get the maximum benefit from your weightlifting action. A fitness instructor can help you construct an exercise program that includes the use of these machines.

You don't need to join a gym or buy expensive equipment to get a good strength-training workout. You can buy a set of inexpensive free weights to do arm curls and lifts at home. (You can even lift cans of soup or full water bottles.) You can strap on arm and ankle weights while you clean the house or take your daily walk. You can create a floor-work exercise routine that incorporates traditional exercises such as sit-ups, push-ups, leg lifts, and “air bicycling.” Or you can buy a home-workout video that demonstrates any type of program that includes weight-bearing or resistance-training benefits.

In general, you perform weight-training exercises in sets of repetitions. Most people begin weightlifting, for example, with a weight they can lift six or eight times. You may begin by performing two or three sets of six or eight repetitions, and then gradually increase the number of repetitions and the amount of the weight over time. In general, people who want to lose weight but gain muscle tone should do more repetitions using less heavy weights; people who want to increase strength dramatically and bulk up should exercise with heavier weights but do fewer repetitions. Most medical and fitness experts agree that strength training should make up less of your total weekly fitness plan than your aerobic training.

Alert

Be careful with yourself. If you have a fever or are recovering from a severe illness, don't push yourself to maintain your regular exercise routine; gradually return to your exercise program as you recover. Also, don't try to “work through the burn.” If any exercise feels painful or exhausting, reduce the weight you're lifting, do fewer repetitions, or slow down.

Flexibility Training

Your flexibility is determined by the length, strength, and elasticity of your muscles and the range of motion of your joints. Joints require movement and use in order to remain flexible and functional. Long, inactive periods allow muscles and tendons to grow stiff; when that happens, your range of motion shrinks, and movements can become awkward and painful.

Flexibility is an important quality for any active life. Every time you need to stoop to pick up a child, turn around to lift something from the backseat of the car, or reach up to place canned goods on the top shelf of your cabinet, you call upon your ability to stretch your muscles and flex your joints. And flexibility contributes to good balance and coordination; if you slip on a wet floor or stumble over an obstacle in the dark, your flexibility may determine your ability to recover your balance and avoid a fall. If you do fall, you'll suffer less injury and recover more quickly if your body is flexible and strong.

Essential

Strength training is a powerful anti-aging strategy. It reduces the symptoms of many conditions including arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis, obesity, back pain, and depression. You don't need expensive equipment or a trip to the gym. From push-ups to free weights, there are lots of ways to get started now!

Stretching is an important exercise for increasing flexibility. Remember, you should begin and end every exercise session with at least five minutes of stretching and warm-up movements. Flexibility training typically focuses on shoulders, hips, knees, and the hamstrings (muscles that extend up the back of your thighs). Stretches are slow, controlled movements that gently lengthen and tone the muscles and flex the joints, to give them increased elasticity and strength.

Fact

Obesity contributes to osteoarthritis by putting an excessive load on weight-bearing joints (such as the hip and the knee). If you have this form of arthritis, however, your doctor will encourage you to exercise, both to help reduce your weight and rehabilitate damaged joints. A rehabilitation therapist can design an exercise program for your specific needs.

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