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Cardio: Finding Your Training Zone

January 24, 2011 - Dalia Jakubauskas

By: Dalia Jakubauskas

Cardiovascular exercise –just saying the phrase can leave some people breathless as the actual activity most certainly should. Yet, “cardio” or aerobic exercise, as it is often called, is one of the easiest and most accessible ways to get heart healthy and lose weight. The fact that we live in Florida with warm temperatures year round (mostly) makes it ridiculously hard to come up with an excuse not to get outdoors and just move. Simply put, aerobic exercise means “with oxygen” which requires some kind of sustained movement over an extended period of time. Any form of exercise can be considered cardio as long as it gets the heart rate up sufficiently and can be sustained over a long period of time. Walking, swimming, running, biking are all common aerobic activities. Considering we are surrounded by water, add kayaking, canoeing, stand-up paddle boarding to that list. As long as the exercise engages the major muscle groups, such as quadriceps, hamstrings, chest and back, which pump large amounts of oxygen through the blood, it counts as cardio. Adults 18 and older with no physical disabilities should plan on getting at least 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity like brisk walking or biking, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. Or 75 minutes per week of a more intense aerobic activity like jogging or running will do as well. Or equal combinations of the two types of exercise are also recommended. Long strolls on the beach or a leisurely swim using a gentle breaststroke generally do not qualify as cardio. Unless your heart rate is elevated to between 50 and 70% of your maximum, these activities may be relaxing, but won’t do much to improve cardiovascular health or burn fat. In order to do that, you’ll need to find your maximum heart and then decide on a training zone. To get your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220 (for men) or 226 (for women). So for a 50-year-old woman, that would be 176 beats per minutes. Then decide where your training zone will be and insert that number. Most of us, provided you are not training for an endurance event like a marathon, will be in one of two zones –the heart healthy zone (50-60% of your maximum heart rate) or the fitness zone (60-70% of your heart rate). The heart healthy zone is the warm up phase of the work out but can burn up to 85% of calories from fat if it is sustained over a long enough period of time –about 45 minutes to 1 hour. This zone is best for people just starting a fitness program and has been shown to decrease body fat, blood pressure and cholesterol. The fitness zone, at 60 to 70% of your maximum heart rate, provides the same benefits as the heart healthy zone but is more intense and burns more total calories. The percent of fat calories burned is still 85%. Keep in mind that these formulas are based on studies done of the average healthy person, but may not give an accurate assessment of every individual. Your maximum heart rate is not only dependent on you age, but also on your physical condition. For instance, I had an 82-year-old, female client, who according to the formula, should have kept to a target heart rate of no more than 100 beats per minute when engaged in aerobic activity. However, she was one incredibly fit lady, who ran, swam and played tennis all her life. She could sustain a heart rate of 130 beats per minute for up to an hour. At the same time, I trained a 28-year-old male, who didn’t take care of himself nearly as well. He ate badly, stayed up too late and smoked and drank on occasion. After 20 minutes of his heart rate at 130 beats per minute, he would slump over the elliptical trainer heaving for air and begging for mercy. You can easily tell you are working hard enough, or too hard, during aerobic exercise with a simple physical gauge called “the talk test.” This means you should be able to sustain physical activity and still be able to draw enough breath to speak. You should also be breaking a light sweat. Conversely, if you can’t get enough air in to talk, you’ve gone into a training zone that is anaerobic. This zone burns only about 15% fat calories and can’t be sustained for longer than a few minutes. If you are fit enough to find yourself exercising in the fitness zone, great! Get after it! Move your body up to an hour at least 4 days per week. But, if you are new to exercise or are so deconditioned you don’t think you could move any body part for that long, don’t sweat it. As always, check with your doctor to make sure you are healthy enough for exercise. Then, start slowly with shorter increments of time. Studies have shown that just 20 minutes per day, three times per week can be beneficial. Add a few minutes to your exercise routine each time you do it. Before you know it, you’ll have an hour under your belt and you’ll be ready for more. Speaking of more –cardio alone is only one part of a well-rounded exercise program. No exercise regimen is complete without weight training. I’ll talk more about that in my next post. Until then, stay warm and get outdoors to experience the joy of movement and those glorious sunsets.


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