By Robert Reames, CSCS, *D, RTS1, CPT
Cardiovascular (CV) exercise requires movement of the body produced by large muscle groups over a sustained period of time. The benefits of CV exercise done on a consistent basis are numerous. You allow your body a huge opportunity to burn a tremendous amount of calories by including CV activity as a mainstay in your fitness regimen. This work is a key element of your program that you must include to successfully manage your weight, attain your realistic fitness goals and maintain the optimal overall health and wellness that you desire. Some of these health benefits include:
- Increase in circulation
- Improvement in overall heart health, including increase in stroke volume and cardiac output
- Decreased blood pressure
- Decreased resting heart rate
- Increased lung function
- Improvement in blood lipid profile
- Less prone to fatigue
- Improvement in overall energy, stamina and endurance
- Increase in muscular endurance
- Increase in insulin sensitivity
- Improvement in mood and sense of well being
I strongly recommend using a heart rate monitor when participating in CV exercise as well as when lifting weights. These monitors indicate your heart beats per minute (bpm) and are one of the best ways to monitor your exercise intensity as well as to track your progress over any given period of time. As you progress in your CV workouts, you will see that by working out on a regular basis over time, you can do more total work with less effort.
The three stages of your cardiovascular workout should include:
The Warm-up: The warm-up phase is the beginning portion of your workout and basically prepares your body for physical activity. This graduated activity increases active blood flow to the working muscles, increases heart and respiratory rate, increases overall body tissue temperature and facilitates neural transmission for motor unit recruitment. The warm-up phase of your workout should last approximately 5-10 minutes.
The Workout: This portion of the workout can last from 10-50 minutes depending on your specific realistic goals and current fitness level. This is the core of your CV workout. At this point, you should be into your target heart rate zone and ready for action.
The Cool Down: This phase should also last 5-10 minutes and in essence is the opposite of the warm-up. This is an important phase of your CV workout and should not be overlooked. The cool down slowly decreases the workload of the CV system and allows a smooth and safe transition back to the lower work demand. Be sure to include stretching as part of your cool down phase.
For instance, it's your first day of CV exercise and your goal is to walk outside for 20 minutes. You begin at a comfortable pace with your 5-minute warm-up, gradually escalating your heart rate into the entry level of your target zone (see below). You continue your workout phase for 10 minutes. At that point, you begin your cool down phase which lasts for 5 minutes. Include some light stretching. You have completed your first workout!
You can use the following factors to quantify the amount of work done per week overall in your CV program. Consult with your doctor regarding your specific parameters in any one of these areas, especially if you are just beginning an exercise program. He or she will give you insight as to an appropriate, customized program and heart rate training zone for your individual goals and current fitness level. Consistency is key for all modes of exercise. Count on the fact that you will include exercise as a staple in life. With this in mind, begin your program at levels that are comfortable yet challenging. You don't want to do too much at the onset and risk injury and or over training.
Frequency: A minimum of 3 to 6 days per week of CV exercise.
Time: 20 to 60 minutes of sustained or interval training. This includes both the warm-up and cool down phase.
Intensity: Generally speaking, you want to work out between 50-75 percent of your maximal heart rate. You can calculate your zone simply by subtracting your age from 220 and multiplying by your desired intensity. For example, the target zone for a 40-year-old female who wants to work between 65-75 percent of her MHR would be 117-135 bpm.
Mode: CV workouts and activity can done in a variety of locations, modes, settings, and levels. Examples include:
- Walking or running outside or at a track
- Walking or running stairs at a park or beach
- Gardening, mowing the lawn or raking leaves
- Sporting activity such as basketball or soccer
- Martial arts
- Walking the golf course
You can work out at the gym or at home on a variety of machines or group classes which include:
- Treadmills, elliptical trainers, steppers, stationary bikes and rowing machines
- Aerobic dance
- Kick boxing
- Power yoga
- Circuit weight training
It's important that you choose activities that you enjoy and feel comfortable doing. If you like the work, you'll look forward to it and be consistent. Variety is a big factor in exercise adherence as well. Below are some workout features of three of the most popular CV exercise machines used in fitness centers and home facilities worldwide:
Treadmills: Treadmills provide an excellent weight-bearing workout. Walking and running are natural motions for us as human beings in locomotion. Treadmills provide a smooth and very predictable terrain, meaning no rocks, chuckholes or uneven surfaces. Most on the market now provide flexible decks as well. Both of these factors add up to a safe and comfortable workout for the user. Walking and running have been staples in exercise programs since the beginning of time. These modalities work.
Elliptical Trainers: Elliptical trainers combine the motions of a treadmill, stepper, ski machine and a bike in one non-impact, weight-bearing motion. Some on the market provide both forward and reverse motion to add variety. Total body elliptical trainers provide arm motion as well. Although you do use both upper and lower body motion in a total body unit, if you work on a unit that does not have the arm motion and you do your own natural arm motion, you not only do more work but you receive balance and core training as well. Be ready to hold onto the hand rails (try not to lean on them) should you need them to catch your balance or rest.
Stationary Bikes: Upright bikes take up very little space. Bikes are another mode of exercise that have provided both fun and fitness to many walks of life over the years. It is a non-weight bearing form of CV exercise. This does not mean, however, that the workout will lack intensity; quite the opposite is true. Ask anyone who has trained for a bike race. Recumbent bikes provide added comfort for bike lovers with the added back support from the seat. Comfort is not synonymous with easy in this case. You choose your intensity level. Because the legs are more level with the torso, the venous return back to the heart is very efficient. The lower body workout from both types of stationary bikes is excellent.
Plan ahead, schedule your workouts and be consistent. It's no secret that if you are committed to your exercise program and make it a priority in your life, all realistic goals can be conquered. The bottom line is: You've got to keep moving! Our bodies are engineered for locomotion and genetically pre-dispositioned for movement.
Burn more calories, stay active and have fun with this! You'll feel better, look better and add quality years to your life.