How to Achieve an Aerobic Effect

aerobics class

The word aerobic is defined as "with oxygen" and references the use of oxygen by the body during a period of activity.

The intent of regularly performing an aerobic exercise is to increase your heart rate to your target heart rate and maintain that level for a minimum of 20 consecutive minutes. By doing so, you will achieve what is defined as an "aerobic effect".

Regularly forcing your body to increase its level of oxygen intake will improve the condition of your entire cardiovascular system. In addition, not only will you improve your overall cardiovascular endurance, but the efficiency of your entire cardiovascular system as well.

The cardiovascular system is defined as your heart and the circulatory system. The cardiovascular system is responsible for transporting food, metabolic wastes, hormones, and gases to and from the individual cells within the body. Included within the circulatory system are the heart, lunges, blood vessels, and blood.

Health Benefits

As previously stated, when performing an aerobic exercise the intent is to increase your heart rate to your target heart rate and thereafter, maintain that level for a minimum of 20 consecutive minutes. By doing so, you will achieve what is call an “aerobic effect”. There are several health, fitness, and mental well-being benefits associated with regularly achieving an aerobic effect and are as follows:

  • Reduces the risk of contracting debilitating diseases including obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and/or a stroke, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, and certain forms of cancer.

  • Strengthens the muscles involved in respiration through facilitating the flow of air into and out of the lungs.

  • Strengthens the heart, allowing it to more efficiently pump and circulate blood throughout the entire body.

  • Reduces the resting heart rate.

  • Promotes efficient transport of oxygen throughout the entire body through an increase in the total number of red blood cells within the body.

  • Improves the quality of life by increasing daily energy and endurance levels.

  • Increased the total number of calories burned by the body and hence, assists in weight loss and weight management.

  • Decreases symptoms associated with illness and aging.

  • Assists in reducing cravings for habits like smoking and drinking alcohol.

  • Strengthens the bones, tendons, and ligaments.

  • Reduces stress and anxiety.

  • Improves self confidence and self esteem.

  • Promotes a sense of well-being through the secretion of endorphins.

  • Improves cardiovascular endurance and stamina.

  • Improves immune system strength.

  • Increases high density lipoprotein (HDL) levels, the good cholesterol, while reducing low density lipoprotein (LDL) levels, the bad cholesterol.

  • Minimizes the effects of depression and lessens the severity of mood swings.

  • Improves muscular strength (depending on the exercise type), flexibility, balance, coordination, and joint range of motion.

Performance Benefits

In addition to the health, fitness, and mental well-being benefits associated with regularly performing an aerobic activity, performance improvements are also realized. Below is a brief list of several of the performance benefits associated with aerobic exercise:

  • Improves endurance by increasing the storage of energy molecules (i.e. fats and carbohydrates) within the muscle tissue.

  • Increases blood flow throughout the tissue of the muscles.

  • Allows for a greater level of energy to be released by increasing the rate in which aerobic metabolism is activated within the muscles.

  • Improves the ability of muscles to utilize fats as an energy source during exercise while maintaining intramuscular glycogen levels.

  • Reduces the muscle recovery time needed after performing a high intensity activity.

In order to obtain the benefits listed above most sports physicians recommend that, as a minimum, an individual perform an aerobic activity that will achieve their target heart rate for a minimum of 20 consecutive minutes, 3 times per week. In addition, it will be necessary to modify your aerobic activity to ensure that you are continually achieving an aerobic effect and that you are forcing your body to constantly improve its cardiovascular condition.


Exercise Tip

In general, aerobic exercises are performed over a longer period of time and at a moderate level of intensity. Running or jogging at a moderate pace over a fairly long distance is considered an aerobic activity. Sprinting is not. Playing singles tennis where you are continually moving is typically considered an aerobic activity. On the other hand, playing team tennis or performing any other activity where short bursts of energy are followed by inactivity are considered anaerobic activities.

For individuals that jog or run, you may want to consider modifying the course that you run (i.e. include more hills), increase the pace at which you run or jog, or both. In another example, swimmers can continually improve their cardiovascular conditioning by modifying their swimming routine to include more difficult swimming strokes or decrease the time in which it takes to complete a specific distance.

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise

aerobic treadmill

There are two basic forms of exercise: aerobic and anaerobic. The primary differences between the two are defined by the duration and intensity of the muscular contractions and how the energy within the muscles are generated.

During the initial stages of an aerobic exercise, glycogen is broken down to produce glucose. Thereafter, the glucose reacts with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide and water. The result of this process is a release of energy.

Once these carbohydrates have been depleted, the metabolism of fat will begin. The metabolism of fat is a slow process and is typically accompanied with a decrease in performance. As the body transitions to consuming fat as a source of fuel the body will begin to slow down. This phenomenon has been described as “hitting the wall” by marathon runners.

In contrast, anaerobic exercise types include strength training, short distance sprinting, or any form of exercise where a short burst of intense exertion is performed. During anaerobic conditioning, glycogen is respired without oxygen and is a far less efficient process than aerobic conditioning. For example, an unconditioned runner may "hit the wall" well short of completing a 400 meter sprint. The bottom line is that in order for an activity to be considered and aerobic activity it must be able to increase your heart rate to your target heart rate and maintain that level for a minimum of 20 consecutive minutes.

Determining Your Target Heart Rate

In order to achieve an aerobic effect when exercising you will need to calculate your target heart rate. There are several methods that can be used to determine your target heart rate. In general, to achieve an aerobic effect, you will want to elevate your heart rate to 65% to 85% of your maximum heart rate and maintain that level for a minimum of 20 consecutive minutes.

The first step in determining your target heart rate is to calculate your maximum heart rate. You maximum heart rate can be calculated by subtracting your age from 220. For example, the maximum heart rate for an individual that is 30 years of age would be 190 (220 – 30 years of age). The next step is to determine at which percentage to calculate your target heart rate. To continue our previous example, let’s assume that the 30 year old individual chooses to set their target heart rate at 75%. Under this example, the individuals target heart rate at 75% would be 142.50 (190 x 75%). Below is a more formal example of how to calculate your target heart rate:

Individuals Age: 30 years of age

Maximum Heart Rate = 220 – 30 = 190

Target Heart Rate: 75% of maximum heart rate so 190 x 75% = 142.50

Table #1, below, depicts a typical target heart rate chart and can be used to determine your appropriate heart rate for your exercise routine and/or achieving your personal fitness goals.

Limitations of Performing Only Aerobic Exercises

Although aerobic exercise is crucial to obtaining good health and fitness many aerobic activities fail to improve overall muscular strength and build lean muscle mass; especially in the upper body area. In addition, the metabolic pathways utilized in anaerobic metabolism (i.e. glycolysis and lactic acid fermentation) that produce energy when performing high intensity, short duration movements (i.e. strength training, sprinting…) are not exercised during typical aerobic activity levels.

Several individuals have suffered repetitive stress injuries from performing a specific aerobic exercise type over a long period of time. Many of the aerobic activities promote performing a specific series of movements over and over. For instance, running, jogging, and biking all entail performing a single movement type for an extended period of time. Under this scenario a runner may experience ankle, knee, hip, or lower back stress injuries.

Alternative approaches to regularly performing an aerobic activity may be to choose a low impact form of aerobics, allow for a greater rest period between exercise performances, or vary your aerobic activities to include several exercise types. For example, if an individual aerobically exercises 5 times per week, they may want to consider running twice per week, biking twice per week, and performing an aerobics class once per week; or any combination whereof.

In addition, regularly performing a high intensity exercise type in your fitness routine, such as strength training or high intensity interval training (HIIT), will increase your resting metabolic rate over the 24 hour period following your workout. This, in turn, over the long run, will burn more calories when compared to performing a lower intensity exercise type. While low intensity exercises burn more calories when you are actually performing the exercise, due to the increased time duration, the number of calories burned over the subsequent 24 hour period will be less.

Adding an exercise type that will promote increases in lean muscle mass and strength are not only an excellent way to improve your overall structural strength, but, to also increase the total number of calories that your body burns on a daily basis as well. Since muscle, by volume, weighs more than fat, an increase in the basal metabolic rate is required to support the muscle tissue. In other words, muscle tissue requires a greater expenditure of calories to be maintained; even while sleeping.

target heart rate chart

When determining which type of physical activities to perform as part of your fitness routine it is important to remember that you will need to choose a set of exercise types that address a large range of health benefits.

As a general guideline, all fitness routines should include some form of aerobic exercise, some form of strength training, and some form of exercise that promotes flexibility, improvements in range of motion, and mental centering and balance.

While keeping these exercise types in mind you can then choose the types of activities that you enjoy performing. In addition, you will want to make sure that the exercise types that you choose to perform are not only enjoyable, but are targeted towards your personal fitness goals as well.

All in all, every fitness routine should include some form an aerobic exercise that you regularly perform as a means to achieve an aerobic effect. The health and fitness benefits to the entire cardiovascular and respiratory systems can not be overstated. However, it is important to be aware of acquiring a repetitive stress injury as many of the aerobic exercise types are highly repetitive.