Aerobic is an adjective that means “requiring air”, where “air” usually means oxygen.
Aerobic exercise is physical exercise that intends to improve the oxygen system. Aerobic means “with oxygen”, and refers to the use of oxygen in the body’s metabolic or energy-generating process. Many types of exercise are aerobic, and by definition are performed at moderate levels of intensity for extended periods of time.
Both the term and the specific exercise method were developed by Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D., an exercise physiologist, and Col. Pauline Potts, a physical therapist, both in the United States Air Force. Dr. Cooper, an avowed exercise enthusiast, was personally and professionally puzzled about why some people with excellent muscular strength were still prone to poor performance at tasks such as long-distance running, swimming, and bicycling. He began measuring systematic human performance using a bicycle ergometer, and began measuring sustained performance in terms of a person’s ability to use oxygen. His groundbreaking book, Aerobics, was published in 1968, and included scientific exercise programs using running, walking, swimming and bicycling. The book came at a fortuitous historical moment, when increasing weakness and inactivity in the general population was causing a perceived need for increased exercise. It became a bestseller. Cooper’s data provided the scientific baseline for almost all modern aerobics programs, most of which are based on oxygen-consumption equivalency.
Aerobic exercise and fitness can be contrasted with anaerobic exercise, of which strength training and short-distance running are the most salient examples. The two types of exercise differ by the duration and intensity of muscular contractions involved, as well as by how energy is generated within the muscle. Initially during aerobic exercise, glycogen is broken down to produce glucose, which then reacts with oxygen (Krebs cycle) to produce carbon dioxide and water and releasing energy. In the absence of these carbohydrates, fat metabolism is initiated instead. The latter is a slow process, and is accompanied by a decline in performance level. This gradual switch to fat as fuel is a major cause of what marathon runners call “hitting the wall”. Anaerobic exercise, in contrast, refers to the initial phase of exercise, or to any short burst of intense exertion, in which the glycogen or sugar is respired without oxygen, and is a far less efficient process. Operating anaerobically, an untrained 400 meter sprinter may “hit the wall” short of the full distance.
Aerobic exercise comprises innumerable forms. In general, it is performed at a moderate level of intensity over a relatively long period of time. For example, running a long distance at a moderate pace is an aerobic exercise, but sprinting is not. Playing singles tennis, with near-continuous motion, is generally considered aerobic activity, while golf or two person team tennis, with brief bursts of activity punctuated by more frequent breaks, may not be predominantly aerobic. Some sports are thus inherently “aerobic”, while other aerobic exercises, such as fartlek training or aerobic dance classes, are designed specifically to improve aerobic capacity and fitness.
Among the recognized benefits of doing regular aerobic exercise are:
* Strengthening the muscles involved in respiration, to facilitate the flow of air in and out of the lungs
* Strengthening and enlarging the heart muscle, to improve its pumping efficiency and reduce the resting heart rate, known as aerobic conditioning
* Strengthening muscles throughout the body
* Improving circulation efficiency and reducing blood pressure
* Increasing the total number of red blood cells in the body, facilitating transport of oxygen
* Improved mental health, including reducing stress and lowering the incidence of depression
* Reducing the risk for diabetes.
As a result, aerobic exercise can reduce the risk of death due to cardiovascular problems. In addition, high-impact aerobic activities (such as jogging or jumping rope) can stimulate bone growth, as well as reducing the risk of osteoporosis for both men and women.
In addition to the health benefits of aerobic exercise, there are numerous performance benefits:
* Increased storage of energy molecules such as fats and carbohydrates within the muscles, allowing for increased endurance
* Neovascularization of the muscle sarcomeres to increase blood flow through the muscles
* Increasing speed at which aerobic metabolism is activated within muscles, allowing a greater portion of energy for intense exercise to be generated aerobically
* Improving the ability of muscles to use fats during exercise, preserving intramuscular glycogen
* Enhancing the speed at which muscles recover from high intensity exercise
Both the health benefits and the performance benefits, or “training effect”, require a minimum duration and frequency of exercise. Most authorities suggest at least twenty minutes performed at least three times per week.
‘Aerobic capacity’ describes the functional capacity of the cardiorespiratory system, (the heart, lungs and blood vessels). Aerobic capacity is defined as the maximum amount of oxygen the body can use during a specified period, usually during intense exercise. It is a function both of cardiorespiratory performance and the maximum ability to remove and utilize oxygen from circulating blood. To measure maximal aerobic capacity, an exercise physiologist or physician will perform a VO2 max test, in which a subject will undergo progressively more strenuous exercise on a treadmill, from an easy walk through to exhaustion. The individual is typically connected to a respirometer to measure oxygen consumption, and the speed is increased incrementally over a fixed duration of time. The higher the measured cardiorespiratory endurance level, the more oxygen has been transported to and used by exercising muscles, and the higher the level of intensity at which the individual can exercise. More simply stated, the higher the aerobic capacity, the higher the level of aerobic fitness. The Cooper and multi-stage fitness tests can also be used to assess functional aerobic capacity for particular jobs or activities.
The degree to which aerobic capacity can be improved by exercise varies very widely in the human population: while the average response to training is an approximately 17% increase in VO2max, in any population there are “high responders” who may as much as double their capacity, and “low responders” who will see little or no benefit from training. Studies indicate that approximately 10% of otherwise healthy individuals cannot improve their aerobic capacity with exercise at all. The degree of an individual’s responsiveness is highly heritable, suggesting that this trait is genetically determined.
When overall fitness is an occupational requirement, as it is for athletes, soldiers, and police and fire personnel, aerobic exercise alone may not provide a well balanced exercise program. In particular, muscular strength, especially upper-body muscular strength, may be neglected. Also, the metabolic pathways involved in anaerobic metabolism (glycolysis and lactic acid fermentation) that generate energy during high intensity, low duration tasks, such as sprinting, are not exercised at peak aerobic exercise levels. Aerobic exercise remains however a valuable component of a balanced exercise program and is good for cardiovascular health.
Some persons suffer repetitive stress injuries with some forms of aerobics, and then must choose less injurious, “low-impact” forms of aerobics, or lengthen the gap between bouts of exercise to allow for greater recovery.
Higher intensity exercise, such as High-intensity interval training (HIIT), increases the resting metabolic rate (RMR) in the 24 hours following high intensity exercise, ultimately burning more calories than lower intensity exercise; low intensity exercise burns more calories during the exercise, due to the increased duration, but fewer afterwards.
Aerobic activity is also used by individuals with anorexia as a means of suppressing appetite, since aerobic exercise increases sugar and fatty acid transport in the blood by stimulating tissues to release their energy stores. While there is some support for exercising while hungry as a means of tapping into fat stores, most evidence is equivocal. In addition, performance can be impaired by lack of nutrients, which will reduce training effects.