When it comes to improving your health, one of the best things you can do is exercise (apart from a healthy diet and quality sleep). Generally, exercise requires moving your body with regular and rhythmic movements of large muscles. Moving your body through a large range of motion (ROM) is beneficial (yoga, t'ai chi), and daily walking is a great activity (for both body and mind), but to combat heart disease (the biggest annual killer of men and women) one needs to do slightly more vigorous cardio respiratory exercises, "cardio" for short. Cardio not only works your body's organ systems but helps to burn up any excess calories from one's diet (a huge contributor to obesity and, thus, cardiac disease).
Exercise involves getting your heart pumping oxygen rich blood and nutrients through your system; it challenges the body's physiological mechanisms, challenging your muscular and skeletal systems, moving your lymphatic fluids throughout your body, and cycling your endocrine system. In short, you use your whole body when you exercise!
Cardio respiratory exercise often involves sweating (functional to reducing heat but also moving metabolic cellular wastes out of the body) because it involves using the larger muscles of your body; and when you do this, the conversion of energy from food to produce movement also produces heat, or a calorie. Scientifically, a calorie is the amount of energy it takes to raise on gram of water 1 degree Celsius. This is a small amount of energy, so when talking about meaningful amounts, food energy is often expressed as 1 kilo calorie (kcal) or Calorie; now, we have the amount of energy it takes to raise 2.2lbs of water 1 degree Celsius.
When one exercises consistently and regularly, you are potentially improving the quality of your life and quite possible lengthening the years of it. The new guidelines by the American Heart Association recommends that every American (starting at age 2) engage in activities of moderate to vigorous intensity at least 60 minutes every day.
"Activity" is a broad topic. Walking could be cardio if it causes your heart to increase its rate or beat, and increase your demand for oxygen. You can measure this by checking your pulse and these days that job has gotten easier with the prevalence and proliferation of heart rate monitor technology, either worn around your chest using a strap, or now, on your wrist, using laser plethysmography. With this tool and technology, you are given a quantifiable measure of your work output, but what does it mean?
The measurable healthy range of a one's heart rate is 40-220 bpm, above or below this range, and we are getting medically extreme for rest and extreme activity, respectively. We use these two equations to determine our effective range. First, you must calculate your maximum value in bpm, beats per minute, with this equation: 220 - age (+/- 10). As an example, I am 41. 220 minus 41 = 179 (+/- 10) so my maximum value is somewhere between 169 to 189 bpm. Through more testing you can more precisely estimate your maximum value.
Get In The Zone
Once you have your maximum heart rate, you can calculate your working zones, 65% and 85% of your maximum value represent the low and high of your cardio respiratory zone. Below 65% and you are technically not working hard enough to strengthen cardio (but you are moving enough to burn fat and calories; just more slowly!). Above 85% and you start to work "too hard" and the systems will NOT be able to meet demand; you go "anaerobic" (your body can not meet the increased demand for oxygen and you start to produce lactic acid in amounts your body can not metabolize fast enough to stop the decrease in performance). Thus, in this example, 189 x 65% = 123 bpm. 189 x 85% = 161 bpm. These are this example's working zones; 123 to 161 (+/- 10).
You may test your cardio fitness by using the simple "3 Minute Step Test." The ability and speed at which your heart to recovers from this test will give you an estimate of your fitness.
The vast majority of one's exercise time will be spent in the lower zone (about 65-75% of your maximum Heart Rate or MHR) where one burns mostly fat for energy during aerobic exercise. Because of the demand on the body, anaerobic exercise can be very taxing and arduous, but there are performance and physiological benefits to pushing into this zone, most significantly, raising your HDL or good cholesterol.
For optimal health, wellness, and fitness, it is key to participate in an activity program that lasts 60 minutes or more daily (walking briskly), and a cardio program that occurs at least 3 and up to 5 times per week at 65% of maximum heart rate, with periodic efforts above aerobic (anaerobic efforts) for healthy individuals (but discuss with your physician this type of intense program prior to implementation).
Rob Murray is the owner of A Balanced Body Studio and the Orlando School of Thai Massage in Winter Park, FL. With degrees in Exercise Science, he and his wife, Dana, began their wellness studio nearly 20 years ago, specializing in private and small group instruction of yoga, Pilates, massage therapy, and personal fitness.