February is Heart Awareness month. If you haven’t spent the last forty years living alone in a Himalayan cave, you’re probably aware of the fact that heart health is kind of a problem for us in the states, so I’ll spare you the statistics that seem to be an obligatory part of any conversation involving this miraculous engine embedded in the middle of your chest.
Suffice it to say that since it keeps us alive, pumping a fresh supply of oxygenated blood to our brains, which concoct the schemes, and our muscles, which carry them out, it would behoove us to give the heart the respect it deserves, and keep it in optimal condition.
Here are some ways we can make it a healthier, stronger and more reliable ally.
Brisk walking at low to moderate intensity
This is the most accessible of the methods presented here. It’s also the easiest on the body, as impact on the joints is minimal, and the likelihood of injury low. Those interested in counteracting the health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle need look no further, as most health professionals feel that a brisk walk lasting 20-30 minutes, 3-5 times a week, is perfectly adequate for improving cardiac health.
Some recent studies have also shown that longer bouts of lower intensity cardio, such as brisk walking for 45-60 minutes, are more effective at burning fat than shorter bouts of more intense work (such as jogging for 30 minutes).
Because of the low stress level on the joints, this method is a great choice for older populations, those who are carrying significant excess weight, and those who are recovering from injury.
Ironically, the other groups that stand to gain from this type of work are bodybuilders, powerlifters and elite athletes. In the case of bodybuilders and powerlifters, their goals differ from that of the average fitness enthusiast. Rather than being in good overall shape, their interest is either: A) packing as much muscle on to their frames as humanly possible, or B) developing as much strength as their bodies will allow. In both cases, cardio work that is too intense becomes counterproductive to the goals of both adding slabs of beef and breaking your personal deadlifting record. Long, brisk walks allow the bodybuilders to burn fat while keeping the muscle they’ve worked so hard to gain, while allowing the powerlifter to improve their heart health without interfering with strength gains.
Some elite athletes also use technique on the days between intense bouts of training. The idea is that the extra circulation carries toxins away from the muscles, alleviating soreness and aiding in recovery.
Overall, it’s a good way to improve cardiovascular health, losing weight and burning excess fat. It does, however, have its limitations; If it’s the only physical exercise you do, you’ll certainly be healthier, but if six-pack abs or a sculpted physique are your goal, a more comprehensive approach is in order.
Medium intensity ‘steady state’ cardio
Somewhat more intense than the brisk walking model, it’s most of us think of as ‘doing cardio.’ Basically, it involves doing 20-30 (or more) minutes of medium intensity work, such as jogging, bicycling, elliptical machines, etc. As with brisk walking, this type of training, performed a few times a week, is more than adequate to reap the health benefits of increased activity. It will also yield better results in terms of increasing endurance, especially when it comes to long-distance activities such as marathons, triathlons, etc. Another thing to consider is that it will burn more calories in less time.
There are, however, a couple of things to keep in mind with this method. As with the low intensity method, the emphasis is on working slow twitch muscle fibers, which are responsible for endurance work. For those who seek a substantial change in cosmetic appearance, your training time will be more efficiently spent working on fast-twitch fibers (more on this below). If you look at the average physique of, say a marathon runner or long distance cyclist versus that of a sprinter, it will illustrate the difference. Generally speaking, the sexy muscles will be the fast twitch ones.
The other thing is that some recent studies have shown this to be the least efficient way of burning fat while sparing muscle. That’s not to say that it won’t burn fat, but endurance work has a way of burning everything, which would include muscle as well. So if you’re looking to build or preserve muscle while losing fat, use caution when using this method. If you’re looking to substantially improve you’re endurance, however, this is the zone in which you will be spending most of your time.
This method is designed to be all-purpose. The idea is to get your heart rate up by using short bursts of activity which favor fast-twitch muscle fibers (sprinting, high speed cycling, resistance work such as kettlebells, pushups, burpees, etc.) for periods that generally last 30-60 seconds, with some variations here and there. These bouts are followed by a less intense a recovery phase for a similar amount of time, before the next burst. It is the idea behind workout systems such as Crossfit, boot camp classes, circuit training, etc., and is favored by athletes such as fighters and gymnasts, as well as firefighters and military personnel, because their activities, unlike that of endurance athletes, require stamina, but also intense bursts of explosiveness.
The general idea is to pick a handful of compound movements (those involving the use of several large muscle groups at once), moving from one to another in a circuit, and repeating the circuit a few times. How many will depend on a variety of factors such as the difficulty of the exercises and the fitness level of the practitioner
As with the previous methods, it’s an excellent way to improve cardiovascular health, with the added benefit of improvements in strength, muscularity and, depending on how the routine structured, a variety of physical skills such speed and agility. Also, because the emphasis is on the fast-twitch range of muscle fibers, which have the effect of speeding up your metabolism, it is one of the most efficient ways of shedding excess body fat.
Most people would benefit from this method of training, especially because it is an efficient way to tackle a variety of aims. Effective interval training workouts can be performed in as little as 20 minutes, and rarely exceed an hour, because of the intensity levels involved.
With that said, competitive bodybuilders and powerlifters may find that interval training is not appropriate for them, as their training must either revolve around gaining maximum muscle mass, or power on specific lifts.
Also, if you dislike training at high levels of intensity, one of the first two methods may be more appropriate, as interval training generally calls on the practitioner to ‘dig deep.’
Regardless of the method you choose, be good to your heart, and your heart will be good to you…
Until next time!
Gerry Pinzon, Mercedes Club Personal Trainer and Boxing Instructor