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What is the Best Type of Aerobic Exercise

By: Dr. Gordon Blackburn
Director of Cardiac Rehabilitation, Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation Program

There is no one best exercise for everyone. The benefits to your heart are similar as long as the type of exercise satisfies some basic requirements and you follow the recommended program goals, as prescribed by your doctor or exercise physiologist.

Your aerobic exercise program should have four goals:

  1. It is aerobic. It uses large muscle groups repetitively for a sustained amount of time
  2. You perform it for 30 to 60 minutes, three to five days a week
  3. It meets the cardiovascular goals your doctor or exercise physiologist has prescribed for you
  4. It is something you will enjoy doing for an extended period of time

Safety First!

The type of exercise you choose is a personal decision, but you should take certain factors into consideration to reduce the risk of injury or complications and make exercise more enjoyable.

  • Always speak to your doctor first before starting any new exercise program
  • Chose a type of exercise you are more likely to stay with over the long-term
  • Perform your activity at a level in which you can carry on a conversation or speak clearly while exercising. This "talk test" provides a general rule of thumb to help you determine if a particular activity is too strenuous for you. It is especially helpful if you have not been given a "heart rate (pulse) zone" to stay in during exercise.

Exercise Options

Let's look at some of the common types of aerobic exercise. See which one is best suited for you.

Walking

Walking is one of the simplest and most available aerobic exercises. You can vary the intensity to match your fitness level. Other than walking shoes, it does not require any special equipment. You can walk almost anywhere: outdoors or indoors (malls, indoor tracks, or a treadmill). This makes walking easy to continue throughout the year. Walking is a good choice for starting their first exercise program or find other exercises too hard on their joints.

Cycling

Cycling is another type of aerobic exercise with wide appeal and value. You can use a stationary or regular bike. Cycling may be ideal for individuals who, due to arthritic or other orthopedic problems, are unable to walk for an extended period of time without pain or difficulty. A program that combines walking and cycling may provide cardiovascular benefits without inducing the limiting pain as quickly. Cycling is also a good choice for people who are greater than 50 pounds overweight. It helps the heart without the mechanical stress on the back, hips, knees and ankles that walking can cause. One drawback - if you cycle outdoors, exclusively, the weather may limit your activity.

Ski Machines, Stair Climbers, Steppers, Ellipticals

These types of machines can provide a good aerobic workout and each has its own unique strengths and drawbacks. First, exercise on these machines may be too strenuous to be enjoyable and provide optimal benefit for the beginner or person of low fitness level, even at the lowest settings. To determine if this type of machine is within your capability, give the machine of your choice a trial run at the store or fitness center.

You should be able to pass the "talk test" while exercising at a moderate pace. People with knee or hip problems should avoid stair climbers and steppers as these machines can put extra stress on these joints. Ski machines require above-average coordination to master. The advantage to the machines is that they are indoor activities that can be pursued regardless of the weather.

Swimming Activities

Swimming is an excellent aerobic exercise, but considerations should be made before starting a program. For the exercise beginner, low-fit, or non-swimmer it might be a difficult activity to maintain the appropriate intensity for the recommended 30 to 60 minutes. Also, because the focus of swimming is on the smaller upper body musculature and swimming is a less efficient activity than cycling or walking, one can easily exceed their target heart rate range with swimming. Therefore, those with heart conditions, should address a swimming program with their physician before starting. Water aerobics and water walking are good alternatives for those with joint pain. The buoyancy provided by the water eases stress on the joints.

Jogging, Aerobic Dance

These can be safe and beneficial exercise for the highly fit person. Both can be done indoors, which makes them year-round activities. Anyone with orthopedic problems or who experiences symptoms such as chest pain or shortness of breath should not engage in these activities.

Remember to check with your doctor or cardiac rehabilitation instructor before starting any exercise program.

To make an appointment with an exercise specialist or to join a cardiac rehabilitation program, contact Cleveland Clinic Preventive Cardiology - 216.444.9353 or 800.223.2273 ext. 9353.

Talk to a Nurse: Mon. - Fri., 8:30 a.m. - 4 p.m. (ET)

Call a Heart & Vascular Nurse locally 216.445.9288 or toll-free 866.289.6911.

Schedule an Appointment

Toll-free 800.659.7822

This information is provided by Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition.

© Copyright 2014 Cleveland Clinic. All rights reserved.

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