Aerobic fitness is a strong predictor of long-term health. And how fit you actually are is determined by the maximum volume of oxygen that your muscles use while exercising. Because of this, when people think about aerobic activity, they think of the heart. But your aerobic system has a lot of components. Here are six elements, including your heart, that are tied to optimal aerobic fitness, as well as tips on how to improve each of them.
USE YOUR LUNGS
The first step to aerobic fitness is to make full use of your lungs. We often see people get poor results during a cardio workout because they are so-called shallow breathers. This means that they unknowingly restrict their breathing, not getting the maximum volume of air.
What you can do: Practise breathing from your diaphragm. Lie on your back and place one hand on your belly and one on your chest. Take a deep breath and make the hand on your belly move while limiting the movement of the one on your chest.
ACHIEVE EFFICIENT OXYGEN TRANSFER
When you get an optimal volume of air in your lungs, it will produce pressure that will help oxygen diffuse into your blood. But if your lungs aren't healthy (for instance, if you are a smoker or have asthma) this function may be limited.
What you can do: If you are a smoker, stop. If you have emphysema or chronic bronchitis, proper breathing is even more important. Asthmatics should stay away from triggers. If you don't have any lung-related issues, avoid air pollutants when you exercise.
STRIVE FOR NORMAL HEMOGLOBIN LEVELS
Oxygen is transferred from the lungs to the blood. A molecule called hemoglobin transports it to the tissue. People with low hemoglobin, which is called anemia, usually have a lower capacity for exercise. One important factor is iron. It helps hemoglobin perform well.
What you can do: If you suspect that your hemoglobin is low, consult your family doctor to find the cause. You may need to eat more foods rich in iron and vitamin B12. This is especially important for vegetarians and for females during the menstrual cycle.
KEEP YOUR HEART HEALTHY
Your heart is the pump that ships oxygenated blood to the working muscles. Its performance is based on how fast it beats and how much blood comes out at every beat.
What you can do: Train it. Any activity that makes your heart beat faster will challenge it. Your maximum heart rate is (approximately) determined by subtracting your age from 220. This rate is not sustainable for long periods of time. But through training, you may be able to sustain a higher target heart rate. For example, if today you can exercise at 60 per cent of your maximum, you can improve your performance by getting to a higher percentage. In turn, a healthy heart can push out more blood for every beat. If you're serious about tracking your heart rate, consider getting a heart-rate monitor.
KEEP YOUR PIPES OPEN
The system of little blood vessels around your muscles will determine how quickly oxygen will get into the muscles. More vessels will get it in there faster. Also, if some of those tiny blood vessels are blocked or hardened, your performance will suffer.
What you can do: Keeping your cholesterol levels in check will help keep the pipes open. If you suffer from erectile dysfunction, it may be an indication that the little blood vessels are getting clogged.
DON'T FORGET THE ENERGY MANUFACTURERS
Last but not least, your muscles have to be equipped to use the oxygen. This is determined by healthy mitochondria. They are energy manufacturers in your muscles. The more you have, the more efficient you will be.
What you can do: Challenge your aerobic system. Any activity that increases your heart and respiratory rate will help you build mitochondria. It doesn't have to be long if it is challenging. With lower-intensity activities, you will have to compensate by going longer.
Improving your aerobic performance is about more than just your heart. By maximizing the other five items on this list, you will actually put less stress on your heart. Optimizing all of the components of your aerobic system is the way to success.
Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.
Gilles Beaudin is a registered clinical exercise physiologist at Cleveland Clinic Canada.