Exercises that improve the flow of oxygen in the body are called aerobic exercises. They are also known as cardiovascular exercises or cardio, as they increase the heart rate and are good for the heart. Walking, jogging, running, cycling, and aerobic dancing are all classified as cardio exercises. These exercises improve our overall stamina by improving heart health.
Help your heart
Performing cardio over a period of time helps the heart muscle grow thicker and stronger; the size of the ventricles increases leading to improved pumping; the capillaries dilate improving circulation to every corner of the heart; there is also a hike in the number of capillaries supplying blood to the heart—this helps prevent heart attacks. Finally, even the number of capillaries in the other muscles of the body goes up, facilitating the supply of blood and oxygen to individual cells and reducing the load on the lungs and heart.
Further, a good cardio workout increases the level of HDL cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, improves immune system and helps protect the body against a host of diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, and osteoporosis.
Cardio exercises specifically help burn fat. However, a cardio workout does not always guarantee burning fat, simply because you may be training in your comfort zone preventing the body from reaching the fat burning zone.
Find the fat burning zone
When you are walking or doing any other cardio activity, you will notice your pulse rate going up. This means your heart is beating faster. For your body to reach the ’fat burning zone‘, your heart has to beat at your Target Heart Rate [THR].
The THR is different for every person. Here’s how you can calculate yours: 220–age=X
65 – 85 per cent of X is the THR, which you should stay at for at least 30 – 40 minutes to achieve maximum fat burn.
Measuring your target heart rate would mean taking your pulse at your wrist every now and then while walking, which would hinder your speed and also be inaccurate. A better option if you are a serious walker is to invest in a Heart Rate Monitor. This machine not only calculates your THR and calories you burn, but also beeps every time you train above or below your THR.
Walk when you can
Walking/running/jogging is one of the simplest and easiest exercises that requires nothing but a pair of exercise shoes and your t-shirt and tracks. You can walk/run/jog in a park or on a treadmill or even on your terrace whenever you find the time. Brisk walking will help you burn fat and make your heart and lungs stronger without you having to learn any special skill. You can even take someone along with you to beat boredom, but make sure you concentrate on walking rather than talking.
Caution: If you have a knee problem/pain walk only after consulting your doctor or physiotherapist.
Ride it away
Cycling is great for people with weak knees and for the overweight who are trying to shed weight. Cycling not only burns fat, but also strengthens and tones your leg muscles. You can cycle outdoors or even indoors on a stationary cycle.
Caution: Do not slouch while cycling and keep an eye on your speed. On the days you are bored you may be cycling too slowly, which will not help you burn fat.
Follow the rules
Here are some dos and don’ts when doing cardio:
- Like any other exercise, a cardio workout should be done only 1 – 1½ hours after a meal.
- It is important to warm up before you start your cardio exercises. Start off slowly and gradually build your pace. Cool down after the walk by slowing down your pace till you come to a stop. Then stretch your leg muscles.
- The shoes and clothes you wear matter; the right kind will protect your knees and ankles from injury.
- Jogging is not for everyone. Avoid it if you are over 10 kilos overweight or if you have knee problems.
- Posture is important in aerobic exercise too; you should be erect while walking—keep your back straight and stomach tucked in. The foot must always land with the heel first followed by the rest of the foot.
- Landing is crucial when jogging to prevent injuring your knees and ankles; always land on the entire foot and not on the toes, to take off the impact from the knees and ankles. If you hear a thump sound as you land, chances are you are not doing it right.
- If you get a side stitch [pain under the ribcage] while running, slow down to a walk and try holding your hands up in the air as you take deep breaths. Sometimes pressing into the cramp and massaging it helps relieve the pain. Work on strengthening your abdomen muscles as sometime side stitches are due to weak stomach muscles.
- Shin splits [pain on the front of the calf] are very common especially in beginners. Reducing your speed might help. If it doesn’t, keep stretching the calf till the pain subsides. If the pain keeps recurring, change your shoes.
- A simple way to ascertain if you are working hard enough is the talk test. While walking you should be comfortably breathless, if you find it difficult to even say a few words, you are probably working out anaerobically, meaning you are not burning fat by carbs.
If you are talking all the way through your workout you are not working enough. For a good indication of aerobic exercise you should be able to say a few words catch your breath and then carry on talking.
What to wear
- Wearing tights/cycling shorts/track pants/shorts and a t-shirt are a must, preferably in cotton or spandex, which allow your skin to breathe. For women, a form-fitting sports bra [spandex again] is compulsory.
- Wearing the right kinds of shoes are essential whether you are walking indoors on the treadmill or outdoors. If you are about to buy a new pair, buy one with a flexible sole, and one in which you can wiggle your toes after the laces are tied. Always try on new shoes with socks. Buy shoes in the evenings as your feet are slightly expanded at the end of the day due to oedema. Also, remember to get yourself a new pair, every 1000 hours of use.
This was first published in the April 2010 issue of Complete Wellbeing.