Love it or hate it, easy aerobic work, or cardio, is essential for health and longevity. Here’s a progressive approach to programming it
The human body is a complex system that thrives on movement. As we’ve explored in our previous post on resistance training, maintaining physical strength is crucial, especially as we age. However, strength is only one facet of our overall fitness. The underpinning of all movement and a critical component of our health and fitness is aerobic work.
In this article, we’ll dig into the often-underestimated value of easy aerobic work and how it plays a fundamental role in our overall health.
Aerobic Work: The Foundation of All Movement
The term aerobic refers to the use of oxygen in a body’s metabolic or energy-generating process. Many types of exercise are aerobic, but by definition, easy aerobic work refers to activities performed at a level where you can maintain a somewhat labored conversation. This level of exertion encourages the efficient use of oxygen to sustain activity for longer periods, enhancing endurance and cardiovascular health.
Aerobic work is foundational for all types of exercise, including resistance training. The more efficient we are aerobically, the more we can delay muscle fatigue during endurance or growth training. Likewise, a robust aerobic base improves recovery from strenuous work, be it within a set, between sets, or session by session.
The Role of Mitochondria and Aerobic Work
At a cellular level, easy aerobic exercise plays a vital role in maintaining healthy mitochondria, which are, like we all learned in middle school and the Magic School Bus, the powerhouse of our cells. Mitochondria turn nutrients like glucose and fats into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), our body’s primary energy currency. The more mitochondria we have and the healthier they are, the better our metabolic health and ability to produce energy.
Long, easy aerobic work promotes mitochondrial growth, enhancing our ability to use glucose and fat as fuel sources—a state known as metabolic flexibility. This capability is essential as it allows us to adapt to different energy demands and fuel availability, contributing to overall metabolic health. Increased mitochondrial health offers substantial cognitive benefits, attributed to improved vascular flow to the brain and increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein linked to improved brain health and cognitive function.
The Case for Slow and Easy
When we speak about aerobic work, a common misconception is that going harder is better. However, slow, easy aerobic work offers significant benefits that should not be overlooked.
Slow, easy aerobic work increases mitochondrial density and capillary supply, thereby improving the body’s ability to use oxygen for energy production. Besides, it’s a more sustainable form of exercise that teaches patience, focus, and consistency—virtues that transcend beyond the realm of physical fitness. The emphasis on long-term commitment aligns perfectly with maintaining lifelong health and fitness and bleeds into other areas of our lives: we could all use more patience.
Progression: From Cyclical to Mixed
When integrating easy aerobic work into your routine, it’s advisable to follow a progression framework for those that don’t want to stick with the tried and true method of simple cyclical work and would like to include mixed cyclical and mixed easy aerobics into their splits.
Cyclical exercises are repetitive and rhythmic, like running, rowing, hiking, rucking or cycling. As you progress, you can introduce mixed cyclical exercises, which incorporate multiple cyclical modalities that can be sustained over time. Finally, mixed easy aerobic work would include a variation of cyclical, weights and gymnastics.
This progression should not be seen as a strict roadmap, but more as a constraint system to help individuals avoid jumping into attempting to make resistance training sustainable, which is extremely difficult to do at the pace we want easy aerobic work to be performed at. If unsure, just stick with cyclical-only modalities. It’s also important to ensure motor control is established in patterns used and strength endurance is appropriately trained in resistance in every pattern of movement prior to attempting to include mixed easy aerobic work.
While it might be tempting to focus on high-intensity workouts or lifting the heaviest weights, don’t underestimate the power of easy aerobic work. It is the foundation upon which all other physical activities are built. Whether your goal is to improve your metabolic health, enhance cognitive function or increase your resistance training gains, aerobic work is a fundamental aspect to incorporate into your fitness routine.
I would recommend including easy aerobic work in your routine 3 times per week, for 30 to 90 minutes per session. As discussed in the resistance article, in terms of progression, we could go down a bunch of rabbit holes, but in short, for most people simply getting in these sessions three times per week following the above advice is good enough!
In the final article of this series on The Three Exercise Types Everyone Needs To Live Longer, we’ll explore the final piece of the fitness puzzle: tough aerobic work. Stay tuned!
Carl Hardwick, CEO of OPEX Fitness & CoachRx is a strong advocate for bringing honor to the coaching profession and raising the value of all fitness coaches. He lectures frequently about program design, business systems, and building a sustainable coaching career. Follow him on Instagram @hardwickcarl and OPEX Fitness on YouTube