Aerobic Guidelines

Stay strong enough to run through open plains by performing regular aerobic exercises

Dr. Walter Willett, the lead nutrition researcher on the Harvard Nurse’s Health Study, has a food pyramid in his book, Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy. The base of his pyramid is exercise rather than carbohydrates, the base of the USDA food pyramid.

Aerobic or cardiovascular activities

  • Speed up your breathing and your heart rate (pulse) and can be sustained over a period of time.
  • Improve the health of your cardiovascular system–heart, lungs, and blood vessels
  • Decrease blood pressure
  • Decrease risk of diabetes, cancer, and obesity
  • Improve your oxygen delivery system and increase your vitality
  • Improve your moods, lift depression, and improve sleep
  • Help with weight loss by consuming calories and taming the appetite
  • Improve bone and cartilage health if the exercise is weight-bearing, although strength training is more effective
  • Reduce stress

My advice for success is to set short-term, attainable goals. If you aren’t exercising now, begin with three short walks a week. Make a commitment you can keep. Err on the side of slow improvement rather than bursts of enthusiast reform that can’t be sustained. Be gentle and patient, and let your body learn to enjoy movement by not forcing it to do too much too fast. You’re building a new habit for life, so there is no hurry to reach specific goals. In time, you’ll learn to trust your body’s ability to become stronger and healthier, so accept where you are today and begin.

Assess which types of cardiovascular activity will work for you. Walking outdoors or on the indoor track during lunch break?  Hill climbing if you’re more fit? Swimming? Using exercise machines in the gym or at home?

Weight-bearing exercise such as walking or using a treadmill is best for bones and joints. If weight-bearing exercise causes pain, begin with non-weight bearing exercise such as biking or swimming while also beginning strength training. Strength training strengthens muscles and stabilize joints so that weight-bearing exercise becomes more comfortable. Elliptical machines or cross country skiing are less demanding on joints but they not as good for your bones; they can be good transition from non-weight bearing to weight-bearing exercise.

It’s easiest to begin cardiovascular work with walking if you’re out of shape. Begin slowly and increase your pace over time. To increase intensity, you can walk uphill in the middle of your workout or carry weight in a backpack. I find it boring to use cardio machines, so I do my aerobics outside with my hiking boots, good rain gear, snow shoes for winter, and my dog Daisy. We both love getting fresh air and exercise.

A General Formula for Aerobic Exercise

Target heart rate equals 60-80% of 220 minus age. It’s reassuring to plug in a formula, but this one is generic and can be inaccurate for a particular individual. The target heart rate formula can be as much as 20 beats per minute off, so I find using the target heart rate formula alone inadequate. To find your exact target heart rate, you need a stress test, but this isn’t necessary for most people. You can find a pace that’s right for you by observing your perceived rate of exertion. You can take your pulse or use a heart monitor to get your pulse rate while exercising, too. It’s interesting to compare your perceived rate of exertion with the target heart rate you get from using a formula. However, unless you’re interesting in competitive aerobics, working with the perceived level of exertion is fine. I like the guidelines used by Miriam E. Nelson in Strong Men and Women Beat Arthritis (Putnam, 2002) and which I list below.

Active movement: 50-60% heart rate maximum or easy, sustainable movement that increases your heart and breathing rate but doesn’t make you sweat unless it’s hot. Gardening, strolling, golfing, etc. Do this as often as possible, because it’s healthy and enjoyable to move, but it won’t improve your aerobic condition unless you’re sedentary.

Aerobic training at a beginning level: 60-70% is rapid breathing with the ability to converse with only slight strain.   Perspiration appears after about 5-15 minutes depending on air temperature. You could continue this indefinitely.

More advanced aerobic training: 70-85% with more rapid but not labored breathing. Possible to converse but with interruptions and more strain. You’d need rest periods to continue this for long.

Overexertion: excessive effort with heart pounding and breathing too rapid to speak. Don’t do this!

Goals: Exercise aerobically 3 – 5 times a week. Begin with twice a week if you can’t commit to more. Just make a commitment you can keep and increase the time or number of days per week later. Decide on a manageable goal that will bring success. Success leads to confidence and more success.

An aerobic workout in 25 – 30 minutes (including the time it takes to change your shoes)

This is an aerobic exercise for healthy, but out of shape, individuals (3 – 6 days a week).

Week 1: Active movement (50% of maximum heart rate) for 10 minutes

Week 2: Active movement for 15 minutes

Week 3: Active movement for 20 minutes

Week 4: Active movement for 10 minutes, beginning aerobic training level (60% max heart rate) for 5, then active movement for 5

Week 5: Active movement for 5 minutes, beginning aerobic training level (60% max heart rate) for 10, then active movement for 5

Week 6 (or when you’re ready): Active movement for 5 minutes, beginning aerobic level for 5, more advanced aerobic level (70-85% max heart rate) for up to 5 minutes, active movement for 5. Gradually increase the amount of time in the advanced aerobic phase until this lasts 5 minutes. No need to push too hard. Begin with just a few minutes and work up.

Week 10 or more: Active movement for 5 minutes, beginning aerobic level for 5 minutes, advanced aerobic level for 5 – 10 minutes, beginning aerobic level for 5. Continue with this plan until the advanced aerobic level phase lasts 10 minutes.

Week 15 or more: Stay with the 25 minute pattern and slowly increase the pace in the advanced aerobic phase of your workout.

Are you already aerobically fit?

Work out aerobically 3-4 days a week (along with strength training twice a week). Increase the pace in the middle of two 20-25 minute sessions per week, always warming up and cooling down. Continue with other sessions at a less intense pace. That few minutes of increased intensity a few times a week improves your cardiovascular fitness level without demanding huge amounts of time. You can increase intensity by increasing the time spent at higher levels of intensity or by doing high intensity interval training. I give you two examples with weekly changes, but you could also make your changes bi-weekly or monthly. It’s up to you and your body.

Increasing time at higher levels of intensity

Week 1: beginning aerobic level for 5 minutes, advanced aerobic level for 5-10 min, highest intensity aerobic level you can reach without overexertion symptoms for 2 minutes, slowing down to advanced aerobic level for 3 minutes, and ending with beginning aerobic level for 5 minutes

Week 2: as above, but 3 minutes at highest intensity you can without having overexertion symptoms

Week 3: 4 minutes at highest intensity you can without having overexertion symptoms

Week 4: 5 minutes at highest intensity you can without having overexertion symptoms

Stay with just 5 minutes at the most intense pace or work up to 10 minutes. Gradually you’ll find that you’re able to cover more distance in a specific amount of time. Experiment and see how your body responds.


Week 1: Beginning aerobic level for 5 minutes, advanced aerobic level for 5-10 min, then highest intensity aerobic level without overexertion symptoms for 1 minute, then slow down to advanced aerobic level for 1 minute, then repeat intense 1 minute interval.  Slow to advanced aerobic level for 2-7 minutes, and end your session with beginning aerobic level for 5 minutes

Week 2: Same pattern, but complete 3 intervals at highest intensity without overexertion symptoms. Shorten advanced aerobic phase before and after intervals so that you are exercising the same amount of time (20 – 30 minutes)

Week 3: 4 intervals at highest intensity you can without having overexertion symptoms.

Week 4: 5 intervals.

If high intensity aerobics feel stimulating and not too tiring, you can try intense sessions three days a week. Two times a week of intense aerobics mixed with frequent lower intensity exercise is plenty for most people. You want to have good energy left for strength work.