Aerobic Exercise: Benefits, Examples and How to Tell If You’re REALLY Exercising Aerobically

“Aerobics” is a term first coined by Dr. Kenneth Cooper, an exercise physiologist for the San Antonio Air Force Hospital. He developed the formula of subtracting your age from 220 and exercising with the heart rate at 60-80% of that number. Though he originally formulated “aerobics” to help astronauts, he soon realized that this type of exercise was useful for everyone. The benefits Dr. Cooper observed included weight loss and better heart health.

Since then there have been improvements to Dr. Cooper’s original formula, and studies have demonstrated many benefits of regular aerobic exercise, including:

  • Weight loss & maintaining weight (aerobic exercise burns fat!)
  • More long-term, consistent energy & stamina
  • Improved mood
  • Pain relief (by natural endorphin production)
  • Stronger heart & better circulation (keeps arteries clear and helps prevent heart disease)
  • Better blood sugar control & adrenal health
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Stronger bones (weight bearing aerobic exercise helps prevent osteoporosis)
  • Stronger immune system
  • Longer life expectancy

If you’re suffering from poor energy, if your endurance is not what it once was, if you are prone to aches and pains, if you have too much body fat or too much stress, or if you crave sugar or carbs, chances are you’re not getting enough aerobic exercise!

The exercise intensity and duration determine whether you exercise aerobically or anaerobically. Aerobic exercise requires at a very specific level of intensity, and you must maintain that level of intensity for at least thirty minutes at a time. If your heart rate is too low or too high (or variable), your exercise will become anaerobic instead.

In anaerobic exercise, the body burns sugar (glucose) for energy. As the name “anaerobic” suggests, oxygen is not required for this type of energy production. Burning sugar is useful for providing short term speed and power. Muscles cannot burn sugar for long, though, and so they fatigue quickly. Most people have no shortage of anaerobic exercise — even when you’re sitting, your body is doing some tasks anaerobically. Plus virtually all sports are anaerobic in nature due to their alternating bursts of high intensity activity and rest.

During true aerobic exercise, the body burns fat for energy. Converting fat into energy requires oxygen, hence the name “aerobic.” Aerobic exercise is useful for providing muscle endurance (energy for hours or days at a time without fatigue). This is particularly important for muscles that support posture, joints, and arches of the feet. If there is not enough aerobic exercise for these types of muscles, the chances of joint problems, injuries, and low stamina go up.

Internationally recognized researcher and author Dr. Phil Maffetone has greatly changed our understanding of aerobic exercise and endurance training. Dr. Maffetone studied many athletes pre- and post-workout for many indicators, including heart rate, gait, and muscle imbalance. He found that the athletes who used Dr. Cooper’s original formula often wound up over-training and suffered from injuries, distortions in body mechanics and posture, pain, and joint problems. After much work, Dr. Maffetone developed a new and improved formula for calculating each individual’s target heart rate for true aerobic exercise.

There are just four simple steps to proper aerobic exercise and all its benefits:

1. Invest in a heart rate monitor. It’s just not a good idea to rely on the “feel” of a workout or to guess at whether your heart rate is too low or too high. There are many brands and models to choose from. Polar ™ is an industry leader and is usually a safe bet. I recommend purchasing a model that has a chest strap as well as a wrist watch/display. If you work out in a gym rather than outdoors, invest in a model that is coded so that there is no electrical signal interference from other devices in the gym.

2. Calculate your maximum aerobic heart rate using Dr. Maffetone’s formula.

Simply subtract your age from 180. For example, a 32 year old who wants to exercise aerobically would have a maximum heart rate of 148 beats per minute. Modifiers and exceptions to this formula include:

  • Subtract another 10 from the max heart rate if: recovering from major illness or surgery, or if on any regular medications
  • Subtract another 5 from the max heart rate if: injured, have regressed in training or competition, suffer from more than two bouts of cold/flu per year, have allergies or asthma, just starting to train, or if you’ve been training inconsistently (Dr. Maffetone defined consistency as at least 4 times per week for 2 years).
  • Add 5 to the max heart rate if: training consistently for more than 2 years without any injuries or problems and have made progress in competition
  • Add 10 to the max heart rate if: over the age of 65
  • This formula does not apply to athletes 16 years old or younger. Best bet for these athletes is 165 as the max heart rate.
  • If in doubt, choose the lower maximum heart rate.

3. Calculate your minimum aerobic heart rate. Simply subtract 10 points from the maximum aerobic heart rate. So our healthy 32 year old example would have a max of 148 and a minimum of 138.

4. Walk, jog, bike or swim while wearing your heart rate monitor. Stay within your aerobic heart rate zone for at least 30 minutes at a time, and do this at least three times per week. I don’t advise exceeding 90 minutes without a doctor’s supervision.

You’ll find it’s surprisingly easy to exercise aerobically. It doesn’t take much to get your heart rate up to the target zone. That’s good news for couch potatoes (Talk about exercising smarter, not harder!), but sometimes frustrating for athletes who don’t want to slow down their training. Athletes need to do this, however, to protect their bodies. The good news for athletes here is that, as your heart becomes more aerobically fit, you’ll soon be able to quicken the pace without surpassing your maximum aerobic heart rate. Once you start wearing a heart rate monitor, you’ll likely also discover that any activity other than running, walking, cycling, or swimming at a steady pace is likely anaerobic.

As a chiropractor, acupuncturist, and athlete, I’ve noticed substantial benefits for both myself and my patients who invest a little bit of time each week to exercise aerobically. The immediate and long-term benefits are well worth the effort!