The benefits of physical activity are body-wide: Exercise helps reverse age-related losses in muscle mass, bone strength, heart-lung capacity, and flexibility. Every hour you exercise results in measurable increases in bone density, and people who are physically active better retain the strength and size of their muscles. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn and the less body fat youre likely to store. Whats more, physical activity has been consistently shown to help people who lose weight keep it from creeping back on, and body fat is a key cause of age-accelerating inflammation.
Catch sight of yourself in a mirror after a bout of cardiovascular exercise, the kind that accelerates your breathing and gets your heart rate up, and youll see the direct effect of your aerobic effort: Your skin glows from increased circulation. Beneath your skin, cardiovascular workouts help your circulatory system function better by building new capillaries and making existing ones more efficient at supplying blood and fuel to all your tissues. Improved circulation helps all your organsfrom skin to stomachlook and act younger.
Research has also shown that aerobic exercise can delay biological aging by 10 years or more, increasing the likelihood youll stay fit, mobile, and independent as you grow older. And while the likelihood of many diseasesfrom diabetes to cancer to heart diseaseincreases with age, cardiovascular exercise counters that risk. Even if youve never done much physical activity before, you have every reason to get on the fitness bandwagon now.
Heres your cardio fitness prescription:
How often? The pounds you sweat off lower your risk of life-threatening conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease that are associated with being over-weight. Regular activity, in fact, cuts your heart-attack riskby 50 percent, says one reportand just three 10-minute walks three days a week fills the bill for beginners. As you get more fit, aim for 35 to 45 minutes (or more) per workout. Beyond your scheduled exercise sessions, you should try to be as active as possible on most, if not every, day:
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator
- Walk up the escalator
- Clean your own windows
- Sweep, rake, garden and other daily household chores
- Walk/run the dog
Many trainers suggest that you simply use the talk test, no matter what your chosen activity. For each component of your workouts, use this handy guide:
- Warm-up/cool down
You should be moving along, making a little bit of effort.
- Moderate pace
You can talk comfortably while moving.
- Fast pace
Youre a little breathless but can still talk in short sentences.
In other words, if you find it slightly difficult to talk while youre working out, youre moving at the right pace. No problem chatting with your walking partner? Ramp it up a bit. Getting too breathless to share a funny anecdote? Slow down. The talk test takes into account your state of fitness (as you get more conditioned, youll need to go faster), the length of your stride, and the terrain (hilly, flat, or some of each).
You should aim to breathe hard and break a sweat with each workout. The point is to challenge your body so your support systems (heart, lung, circulation, muscles) improve. That said, the best way to improve is gradually, over time.
Isnt there some formula for taking my pulse and calculating how hard Im exercising? Is that the best way to make sure Im benefiting?
Tracking your pulse is another way to determine how hard you should be working during a cardio session. Until recently, target heart rate, the pulse rate that promotes heart fitness, has been based on a unisex formula that turns out to be too high for women. To find your female-friendly peak heart rate, calculate 88 percent of your age and subtract that from 206. Then aim to work out at 65 to 85 percent of that number. Weve done the math for you at goodhousekeeping.com/target-pulse.
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