There’s more than one way to improve cardiovascular fitness with aerobic or ‘cardio’ exercise that raises your heart rate. The best activity for you — and one you’re likely to stick with — is one you enjoy and that fits easily into your life.
Let’s look at some of the ways a walking habit can improve your health:
It’s also a safe, low-impact exercise that most people can do — and it’s especially good if you’re overweight, unused to physical activity or pregnant.
Walking for 30 minutes a day at moderate intensity is great. Walking for a longer period of time is better still. As you get fitter, you will be able to walk more briskly. Walking up and down hills will also help to boost stamina and leg strength. You’ll get even more benefits from a walk if you swing your arms as this helps you walk faster and can burn 5 to 10 percent more kilojoules.
If weight loss is your goal, the National Heart Foundation of Australia recommends you walk at a moderate intensity for 45 minutes to an hour on most days of the week to lose weight and keep it off.
Like walking, running is an inexpensive exercise you can do anywhere at a time that suits you. It is beneficial in helping to improve heart and bone health. Its advantage over walking is that it improves heart fitness and burns kilojoules at a greater rate. It takes roughly an hour for a walker to burn the same number of kilojoules that a runner burns in 30 minutes.
Jogging is running at a slower pace which is still a great aerobic exercise. Like walking, running or jogging can be a social activity you can do with a friend or in a group. Many areas have running clubs which welcome runners of all skill levels.
Running is a high-impact exercise so the injury risk is higher than with walking. Common problems include injuries to the knee, shin splints and ankle sprains. If you can, you should aim to run on dirt tracks or grass rather than on the road as this puts less stress on the feet and knees. Runners and joggers need well-fitted running shoes designed to cushion the impact of running. If you’re not normally active, it’s important to start with regular walking first before gradually building up to jogging or running, and speak to your doctor before starting any new exercise program.
If it’s too hot to walk or run, swimming can be a cool way to get fit. It’s a low-cost workout for the whole body especially the muscles of the back, shoulder and arms and improves flexibility as well. It’s a good way to exercise if you’re overweight, pregnant or have joint problems as the water helps support your weight and can reduce the pressure on your joints. The risk of injury to muscles, ligaments or joints is also low.
It’s less effective for weight loss compared to walking or running. And because it’s not a weight-bearing exercise, it doesn’t reduce the risk of bone loss. If you’re swimming outdoors, remember to use sunscreen and reapply at regular intervals.
These exercise sessions are done in a swimming pool and are available at some fitness centres or through local community health services. Aquarobics is a low-impact way to improve heart fitness and muscle strength without stressing the joints. It’s particularly suitable for anyone who’s pregnant, has joint problems and is overweight or unused to exercise.
Like swimming, aquarobics is less effective for weight loss and doesn’t improve bone strength.
Cycling does double duty as an aerobic workout as well as being a low-cost, eco-friendly form of transport. It’s good exercise for improving leg strength and toning leg and buttock muscles — but with less stress on joints compared to running or walking. If you’d rather not ride outdoors, exercise bikes at home or in a gym are a good alternative.
Spinning classes available at some fitness centres are another indoor cycling option. These involve simulating different biking activities on a stationary bike — for example, cycling uphill or sprints — and are choreographed to music.
If you ride outdoors a helmet is essential, as well as reflective clothing if you ride when it’s dark. You need to maintain your bike so that it’s safe to ride and know how to ride safely on the road.
Rowing is a low-impact alternative to running or cycling that can improve heart fitness and strengthen the muscles of the upper body, back and abdomen. You can enjoy rowing outdoors by joining a rowing club or hiring a rowboat, or indoors using a rowing machine at the gym or at home.
Whether you’re rowing on water or indoors, it’s important to use the correct technique to avoid injury, especially to the lower back. Other common injuries include knee pain, tendonitis in the wrist and blisters on your hands. If you join a club, you should get advice on technique from the coach; if you use a rowing machine at the gym, ask a qualified instructor. If you row outdoors, you also need to be able to swim and wear a life jacket, know how to row safely — and remember to use sunscreen!
This is a good aerobic workout that also boosts upper body strength — and helps you let off steam. Boxing classes are widely available in many gyms. Some classes involve sparring with a partner — you take it in turns to hold a pad or pads while the other person punches them while wearing boxing mitts. Others involve no mitts or pads, just air punching and other moves that simulate boxing training. You can also use a punching bag either at the gym or in your own home.
You need hand-eye coordination to punch a pad or punching bag so it may be trickier than you think — but you’ll soon improve with regular practice. You won’t get a black eye because there’s no combat involved, but there’s a risk of injury to hands and wrists if you’re punching a pad or punching bag. Many gyms provide boxing mitts, however you’ll need to bring your own cotton gloves to wear inside.
Available in most gyms and community centres, these classes keep you moving to music using a variety of different exercises that raise your heart rate.
Classes can vary in their intensity with some classes more suited to beginners than others — so check first. As with running there’s always the chance of injury to knees or ankles, but a good instructor should ensure you exercise correctly to reduce the risk. You may not need to join a gym full time to take advantage of aerobic classes as many gyms offer casual classes.
Fast-paced sports such as soccer, netball or basketball provide an aerobic workout, improve muscle and bone strength — and provide a social activity as well.
There’s a risk of injury especially to knees and ankles. You’ll need to fit training and match commitments into your schedule.
Faster styles of dancing such as jazz, hip hop, African and Latin American can provide an aerobic workout and improve flexibility and bone strength as well as being a lot of fun. It’s also an indoor activity you can do in all weather conditions. Dancing classes are available in many community centres, gyms and dance schools.
You may need special shoes, depending on the dance style you choose.
Always check with your doctor first if you’re pregnant, over 40, inactive, have heart disease or a family history of heart disease or have any major health problems.
Australian Institute of Sport: Fact Sheets http://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/nutrition/factsheets
Better Health Channel http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au
University of California Berkeley Foundations of Wellness. A dozen ways to improve your walking workouts. [online] Palm Coast, FL: Remedy Health Media. c2010 [accessed 16 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.wellnessletter.com/html/fw/fwFit04Walking.html
Go for your life. Sports and Activities. [online] Melbourne, VIC: State of Victoria. c2006 [last updated 10 Aug 2010, accessed 16 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.goforyourlife.vic.gov.au/
National Heart Foundation of Australia. Physical activity in the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes. [online] Australia: National Heart Foundation of Australia. 2009 [accessed 11 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.heartfoundation.org.au/Top of page
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