Designing a Good Exercise Program

To get the maximum benefits out of your workouts and to reduce the risk of injury, it is very important to have a balanced exercise program.  There are three key components that should be included in every exercise regiment:

  1. Aerobic Exercise
  2. Strength/ Resistance Training
  3. Flexibility/ Stretching

For general health benefits, approximately 60% of exercise time should be spent on aerobic exercise, 30% on strength training and 10% on flexibility.  Last week I wrote about some of the benefits of stretching, today I will focus on aerobic exercise and you can stay tuned for a post on the benefits of strength training.

Aerobic Exercise

The word aerobic means “with oxygen”.  Therefore, aerobic exercises are defined as exercises that require oxygen in the body.  Some examples are walking, jogging, biking, swimming and elliptical training.  Aerobic exercises are beneficial because they:

  • Help to achieve/maintain a healthy weight by burning calories
  • Tone muscles and build strength
  • Improve cardiovascular health by strengthening the heart muscle
  • Decreases blood pressure and blood sugars
  • Improve respiration and oxygen delivery throughout the body
  • Aid in stress management and help with depression

Generally, aerobic exercises are done at moderate intensities for a sustained period of time.  In order to get the maximum cardiovascular benefits from your workouts, you will want to make sure that your aerobic exercises last at least 20 minutes and that you are within the recommended intensity range.

Two well accepted ways to determine if you are working out at the appropriate intensity level are to monitor your heart rate or to rate perceived exhaustion (RPE).  If you like numbers, you can determine your target heart rate zone using the following method:

  1. Determine your maximal heart rate by subtracting your age from the number 220.
    • Example: If you are 40 years old, your maximal heart rate is ~180 beats per minute (bpm).
  2. Your target heart rate zone is the number of beats per minute at which your heart should be beating during exercise.  Your target heart zone should be between 50-80% of your maximal heart rate. 
    • Example: If your maximal heart rate is 180 bpm, then your target heart rate zone is 90-144 bpm.
  3. When first starting an exercise program, you should aim to be at the low end of this range.  As you become more fit, you should aim to get up to the higher end of this range.  However, it is always important to always listen to your body!  If you feel like you are working too hard or you can’t catch your breath, slow down.  These guidelines were made for healthy individuals, so ask your doctor how hard you should be working out if you have heart disease or are taking medications.

For those who don’t love numbers or don’t want to stop to measure heart rate during exercise, a much simpler method to monitor exercise intensity is to rate perceived exertion (RPE).  The RPE scale provides a way to gage how hard you are working and ensure that you’re working out at a comfortable level.

When measuring RPE you will want to pay attention to sensory input from muscles, joints, breathing rate and heart rate.  Then use a scale to rate these feelings during exercise.  The Borg Scale is a 20 point scale that is often used to rate perceived exhaustion, but the following is a more user-friendly scale from the American Council on Exercise: 

Rating How hard you are working? Exercise Equivalent
0 Nothing at all Lying in bed
1 Very weak
2 Weak
3 Moderate Walking at a moderate pace
4 Somewhat Strong
5 Strong
7 Very Strong
10 Couldn’t work harder Sprinting up a hill

It is recommended that most people remain in the 3-5 range when exercising. 

Regardless of whether you decide to monitor your heart rate or use the RPE scale, take time to make these assessments throughout your workout.  This will help to make your workouts more enjoyable and to help maximize your cardiovascular benefits.