The search has been on for the fountain of youth since before poor Ponce de Leon ever set foot on Florida soil, but it’s beginning to look like our goal is in sight. Ponce, a Spanish explorer who arrived in the new world in the 1500’s, may have died from the blood-thirsty mosquitoes, but many now are dying from the effects of obesity and sedentarism. The truth is that those deaths today are as needless as Ponce’s was.
There’s still no miracle cure, unless common sense and sound physiology have become miraculous, but there is a clear route to well-being and life extension: the Healthy Heart zone. Your body doesn’t have to decline with age; we choose to send ourselves into a physical free-fall simply by becoming less active as we get older, triggering an ever-accelerating downward spiral. If you’re in one of those spirals, turn your nose upward, look up at the sky and start to soar back up. Entering the Healthy Heart zone is your first step. Here you’ll begin a workout program that guides you to the fountain of youth by breaking through the cardiovascular floor – 50% of your maximum heart rate.
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
As fitness expert Covert Bailey says, it’s muscles that make the tiger sleek and let the eagle soar. Well, you’ll find your wings in the Healthy Heart zone – it’s the launching pad of the wellness continuum. It is probably the most important zone of all because it’s the first point where the health benefits of exercise are realized.
Being at the easiest, most comfortable intensity range – 50%-60% maximum heart rate – the Healthy Heart zone has taken some hard knocks from many fitness professionals. For years, many have saidthat there’s simply no benefit to exercising in this zone, because there is no improvement in the body’s oxygen utilization. However, there is noticeable improvement in several other wellness categories: blood pressure lowers, cholesterol levels improve, body fat decreases or stabilizes, and muscle mass increases.
These are the reasons to work out in the Healthy Heart zone – because you want to get healthier. If your goal is to be a competitive athlete, you will probably only spend time warming up and warming down in this zone. If your interests are to improve your health, especially if you are just starting a fitness program, the Healthy Heart zone is the place to be.
The zone floor for the Healthy Heart zone is 50% of your maximum heart rate. When you cross this heart rate line, you will realize health benefits. The amount of energy burned during this time will not be as great as in higher zones, but you will be burning a relatively large per-centage of the type of calories that are most preferred as your source of fuel – fat. There’s a critical, but not well discussed difference between total calories burned and the type of calories burned. Quality, or type of calories burned, is generally more important than quantity, the total number of calories expended in a workout. In the Healthy Heart zone, while the total calories burned per workout may be low, a very large percentage of the calories are fat calories. Carbohydrates are high-grade fuels, perfect for burning in the higher training load training zones. But burning them up doesn’t slim you down, it might just make you hungrier!
The Healthy Heart zone is a very comfortable level of exercise – you get the feeling that you could go on forever. The average number of calories burned per minute (about 4-6) is lower than in any other zone, though. So, if your number one goal is not basic cardiovascular fitness, but weightloss, you’ll need to move up to the Temperate zone, Zone 2.
Even if you have more advanced goals, the Z1 Healthy Heart zone is a good place to start, as well as to come back to from time to time, when you need a break from more strenuous workouts. Here you’ll find the quiet kind of success that sticks with you; you’ll feel good about yourself, you won’t sweat profusely, and you’ll be going at a moderate enough pace to have time to actually enjoy both the scenery and the workout.
IS P.E. P.C.? OR IS PHYSICAL EDUCATION POLITICALLY CORRECT?
Maybe you grew up with the experience of physical education that many of us did. PE teachers only had 30 minutes a day for you to actually experience the joy of exercise, so the teacher worked you hard. At the beginning of the school year, you had to take a fitness test, and if you were like many kids, you did poorly. That teacher with the whistle was try-ing to whip you into shape. What it probably did was whip you right out of physical fitness until now.
Mandatory physical education has been eliminated from many schools today, and you might be surprised to hear that I think this is a big mistake. Getting sufficient cardiovascular exercise every day is crucial to children’s fitness, growth, IQ, and weight maintenance. With the number of obese children growing yearly, this is not a light matter. Many adults have lost their former, youthful fitness and are now struggling to regain it, but just imagine the immensity of your task if you were neverfit, not even as a child!
I taught time physical education, and when I did, I found the mostcru-cial step was getting thekids to enjoy exercise. Heck, many of the teachers struggled teaching PE because the class was about discipline, not about starting youngsters on the path of lifetime fitness. As far as any mention of heart rate zones went, the most physical education teachers were taught was to try to get kids into some target heart rate zone of 70%-85% maximum heart rate, which is far above the Healthy Heart zone and many sedentary kids’ abilities.As adults, we have the luxury of choosing our own preferred formsof physical education, and we can also take advantage of the fact that wenow know that working out in the Healthy Heart zone (50%–60%of your maximum heart rate) is sufficient for great health benefits to occur. For thosewho have been inactive for more than five years, this is a perfecttraining load level with which to begin a program. If your maximum heart rate were200, it would mean that you would be spending your time in the 100-120 bpm zone.
GIVE A LITTLE, GET A LOT
The ACSM now acknowledges, after it re-reviewed the scientific literature, that working out in the Healthy Heart zone reduces your risk for certain degenerative diseases. The Healthy Heart zone doesn’t fit this prescription because it is below the recommended 60%-90%. And that’s the reason for the wellness continuum. Sure enough, if you want on your fitness effort invested. Sure, there are additional benefits when you train in the four higher zones, but many of the benefits can already be achieved right here.
The greatest benefits happen to those who need them the most, the least active individuals who begin a low-intensity rate exercise program. They are going to see much greater health benefits than the marathon runner who adds another ten miles a week of running. Sure, the ten miles may produce some incremental speed or endurance benefit, but not the massive health improvements that you will see when a secretary or computer nerd moves out from behind their computer screen and gets into a low-intensity exercise program. The figure below illustrates the point: a little exercise goes a long way towards gaining benefits.
If you’ve been relatively inactive and want to begin a fitness program, it’s not only more efficient to work out in the Healthy Heart Zone, it’s also safer. This is the zone that has the least orthopedic or cardiac risk.
Please don’t be one of those stereotypical, gung-ho exercise fanatics who wants all of their results in the first week, because for better and worse, exercise is a double-edged sword. Training can either make you healthier and increase your resistance to disease or, if you overdo it, can injure you and decrease your immune potential. And, your risk is more related to the intensity of the exercise than its amount or frequency. It’s better to exercise a little longer in the low-intensity zones than shorter pe-riods at high-intensity levels. It’s not true that the more pain, the more gain. For example, there is more of a risk of catching a cold, breaking bones, and heart attacks in the high heart rate zones than in the low ones. In other words, I don’t recommend pushing yourself because it’s possible that you could fall.
It is true that with less pain there’s more gain. In fact, for some health benefits such as lowering blood pressure, reducing platelet aggregation and enhancing immune function, exercise in the three lower zones (the Healthy Heart, Temperate, and Aerobic zones) is more beneficial than exercise in the higher zones.
TRAINING VOLUMES AND THE PRINCIPLE OF EQUIVALENCY
Everybody wants an exercise program that gets them the most benefits in the least amount of time. You can have it with just two cave-ats: you’ve got to measure your heart rate (preferably, but not necessarily, with a heart rate monitor) and you must stay in the Healthy Heart zone the equivalent of 10 minutes a day. Quite simply, it doesn’t matter whether you do 10 minutes a day or 20 minutes every other day. What matters is that you do it. After nearly a century of exercise testing, the answer to how much, how long, and how hard has been answered.
The body doesn’t care when you indulge in low intensity exercise – it only responds to exercise volume. Low intensity exercise can be accumulated in bits and pieces: twelve 5-minute periods or something equivalent is not better or worse than one 60- or two 30-minute periods. Why this occurs is what exercise scientists call the “last bout” effect.
Your body responds in two ways to any type of exercise: you get both the extended “training response” and the immediate “biological response,” both of which produce health benefits. A training response is a change in your body’s structure or function from the exercise experience, which may be permanent or extended (for example, your muscles get bigger, your cardio-respiratory system uses oxygen more efficiently, etc.). The biological or “last bout” response doesn’t make any sort of permanent change in your body’s structure or function, but it does have an immediate reaction to your exercise (for example, a drop in your blood pressure or release of endorphins into your bloodstream).
It’s the last bout effect that people who regularly work out get “addicted” to all those warm, energized, positive feelings. Your mind and body are physically uplifted from getting your heart rate up, and good feelings spontaneously arise when endorphins are released. Still, we’re not just getting the benefits of the classic “runner’s high” here. Most of the time when you are regularly engaged in a health or fitness program, you are going to earn yourself effects that are a combination of both training and biological responses.
Here’s a good example. If you are an older person with hypertension, and you work out on a stationary bike in the Healthy Heart zone for 15 minutes, you will probably see a significant drop in your systolic blood pressure for up to two hours after the exercise. That’s a last bout effect. It’s the result of the exercise experience, not of your accumulated training. What’s great is that this biological response from the last exercise bout can be augmented by repeated regular bouts of exercise and can become permanent – a training response. The bottom line? At relatively low exercise frequency and intensity, the body doesn’t care about the kind of exercise or the duration or frequency of your workouts. What it does care about is your total exercise volume. Your body just really wants you to move around and spend a reasonable amount of energy in the health area of the wellness continuum. Your body doesn’t care if you are raking leaves or shovelling snow or are on a cardiovascular machine at an athletic club. Your body doesn’t discriminate against you if you are walking your dog or if you are a mail carrier. Your body only begs for one thing: that you move regularly and spend some energy. If you want to sip from the waters that Ponce de Leon did not taste, then dip your cup into the Healthy Heart zone.