Exercise to Your Heart’s Content

Here’s how aerobic exercise can keep you in shape.

“Some people don’t mind how they look,” 14-year-old Sarah Lax says. “I like to keep in shape.”
Since she was 11, Sarah has exercised so she can compete in track, volleyball, and swimming. This past summer, she started exercising at a local YMCA with her father.

Sarah concentrates on aerobic exercises to condition her heart and lungs. Using an exercise bike and walking on a treadmill are two ways she participates in aerobic exercise at the YMCA. At home, she does aerobics to an exercise video, plays basketball with friends, and rides her bike.

Because of her devotion to exercise and training, Sarah has won 17 awards with a local track club, qualified to go to National Track Olympics in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and won the “Best Athlete” award at her school.
“My parents taught me that it is good for your health to exercise,” she says. “It is best to be active when you are young so when you get older, you are still in good shape.”

Tracking the Benefits

Exercising on a regular basis can help fight off depression, keep weight under control, and help with strength, flexibility, and coordination.

“It helps me get things off my mind,” Sarah says. She also knows that keeping in shape can help you succeed when trying out for sports.

“Exercise simply makes you feel good,” says Pam Gall, program director at the YMCA in Kankakee, Illinois. “It helps with self-esteem and daily stresses. It helps you become stronger, more flexible, and prepares you for sports in school. In the classroom, it can help you concentrate and ward off fatigue. Your heart will be healthy and pumping the right amount of blood and oxygen throughout your body.”

Getting into the Habit

More high school students are getting into aerobic exercise, according to Gall. In general, kids don’t want to be told to “work out.” This puts them off. They just want to have fun. And, aerobic exercise can be fun.

“Any activity like in-line skating, jumping rope, biking, walking, or playing basketball or volleyball is aerobic exercise,” says Gall. “Aerobic exercise is any exercise that increases your heart rate beyond a normal walking pace.”

Aerobic activities should be done for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, three times a week, to give the heart a true cardiovascular challenge.

Making the Heart Muscle Stronger

Aerobic exercise is any activity that involves the large muscle groups continuously, increasing the level of oxygen used by the body, thus conditioning the heart and lungs.

“A cardiovascular workout [or aerobic exercise] works the heart muscle to make it stronger,” Gall says. To make the heart muscle stronger, you have to maintain a certain heart rate for a certain length of time.

Compare a cardiovascular workout to strength training. With strength training, lifting weights, doing pullups, pushups, or situps will strengthen body muscles. With a cardiovascular workout, the heart muscle can be conditioned to get stronger, improving your overall health. The heart pumps faster and more efficiently, forcing more oxygen throughout the bloodstream, which is needed to perform your daily workouts and maintain a healthy body.

You need to make sure, though, that you are not overstressing the heart during cardiovascular exercise.

Finding the Range

Nearly nine out of 10 people begin their exercise programs working out at the wrong level, or intensity, Gall says.

“If you exercise at a level beyond what your heart is conditioned for, it could stress the heart tremendously,” she adds.

It’s best to see a family doctor or a fitness instructor before starting aerobic conditioning to determine the exercise level safe for your heart. It’s especially important to see a doctor if you have had heart problems, if you have bone or joint problems, if you have a medical condition such as diabetes, or if you feel tired after mild exertion.

Each person has a “training heart rate range.” Your range depends on how far along you are in an exercise program. A beginner’s target heart rate should fall between 60 and 70 percent of his or her maximum rate.

To find your range, first subtract your age from 220 for your maximum rate; then calculate 60 percent and 70 percent of that number. For example, a 16-year-old student’s target heart rate range would be calculated like this:

  • 220 – 16 = 204 (the maximum heart rate)
  • 204 x .60 = 122
  • 204 x .70 = 142

The target range is 122 to 142 beats per minute.

Heartbeats should be monitored at regular intervals during exercise. “Usually when you are working out,” Gall says, “within 10 minutes of your cardiovascular workout your heartbeat should be where you want it.”

To monitor your heartbeat while exercising, check your pulse in the radial artery (in the wrist) or carotid artery (in the side of the neck) for 10 seconds.

Then, divide your target range numbers by 6 to see how many heart beats you should have in that 10-second period. For example, a 16-year-old would divide both 122 and 142 by 6 and get the numbers 20 and 24. That student’s heartbeats should be anywhere between 20 and 24 for 10 seconds.

Gall recommends taking your pulse 10 to 15 minutes after you start exercising, when you are finished exercising, and after you cool down.

Know the Warning Signs

Doing aerobic conditioning doesn’t mean exercising until you are nauseous or have difficulty breathing. Other warning signs that you’re overdoing it: the heart beating too fast, not being able to talk with a friend while working out, or feeling fatigued.

  • If any of those symptoms occur, begin to cool down by decreasing the intensity level of your workout and taking slow, deep breaths.
  • If you are in-line skating or jogging, for example, decrease your speed slowly.
  • If you are hot, put a cool towel on your forehead. And make sure to see your coach or tell your friends.

Be aware of signs of heart problems, too. They could include cold sweats, fainting, pain or pressure in the left side of the neck, or sudden light-headedness. Get help immediately if any of these occur.

Heartfelt Tips

Before running, try not to eat for at least two hours. And, afterward, wait for 20 minutes to eat.

Eat healthy foods. Vegetables and fruits, protein-rich foods (such as fish, nuts, and poultry), cereals, and dairy products are great things to feed your body and keep it in shape.

Be sure to do warm-up sessions for five minutes before exercise. Also do a cooldown session–maybe walk for three minutes and stretch for two minutes.

Choose the right clothing for exercise, such as layers in the winter to keep out cold and wind while you jog.
Putting aerobic exercise in your weekly schedule like Sarah Lax does will help keep you fit for life.

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