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Body Works Fitness Tips

Community Columnist

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Aerobic Exercise to Improve Cardiovascular Fitness

According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer in America.

It is estimated that up to 250,000 deaths a year can be related to a lack of regular exercise. In addition, less active people have a 30 to 50 percent greater risk of developing high blood pressure.

Twenty-four percent of adult Americans do no exercise at all. Fifty-four percent occasionally exercise, but without the necessary intensity to reap heart healthy benefits. Only 22 percent get enough exercise to achieve cardiovascular fitness.

There are many benefits of regular cardiovascular exercise. As we age, the pumping capacity of the heart decreases, causing an increase in the resting heart rate. The body's ability to process oxygen efficiently decreases by 1 to 2 percent each year after the age of 40. Individuals who participate in regular exercise have lower heart rates and have only about one-third the aerobic decline of non-exercisers. Studies with individuals 65 and older who were put on a regular aerobic program were shown to improve lung capacity as much as 76 percent.

How much aerobic exercise do you need to improve your level of cardiovascular fitness? The answer depends on many factors, such as age and level of fitness, but in general, the activity must be intense enough to significantly increase blood flow to the muscles for an extended period of time. The definition of aerobic is ''with oxygen,'' meaning that oxygen from the blood is required to fuel your muscles. This type of exercise not only increases lung capacity, but it decreases LDL cholesterol levels, improves stamina and provides stress reduction and body fat burning. For maximum effectiveness and safety, your workout should always include a warmup (5 to 10 minutes of low-intensity walking is fine) followed by the intensive part of the activity. Be sure to end your session with a 5- to 10-minute cool- down period and light stretching.

Three important components of cardiovascular exercise need to be considered. The first is frequency of exercise sessions a week. The American College of Sports Medicine's general guidelines recommend three to five days for most cardiovascular programs. The second component is duration, the time you will spend on each session. Not including the warmups or cooldowns, this varies greatly, from as little as five minutes to as much as 60 minutes or more. The duration needed for cardiovascular benefit depends on the third component, intensity, which refers to how hard your body is working during the activity. If you are a beginner, train at a low intensity (50 percent to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate). You should be somewhat winded, but still able to carry on a conversation. As you get into better shape, increase the number of minutes of the exercise before you increase the speed or other intensities, such as walking hilly terrain. Frequency of three to five times a week, with a duration of 30-60 minutes is sufficient to increase endurance, burn body fat and improve cardiorespiratory fitness. If fat burning is your goal, increase the duration of your aerobic sessions instead of increasing speed of movement. If you also weight train, do your aerobic conditioning after weights, not before.

Regular exercise of any type is a challenge and requires a change in lifestyle. Decide to take action and make time for yourself. The health benefits and great results, as well as the excitement and fun you experience will make the change well worth the effort.