Along with weight training and stretching, cardio exercise is a foundation of a well-structured exercise program. For seniors, and indeed for anyone, endurance training is important for maintaining a healthy heart and circulatory system, as well as for increasing your lung capacity. If you’re a smoker, running on a treadmill three or four times a week will make you want to stop smoking. Also, a sustained cardio regime will help you lose weight, or keep weight off. The benefits of cardio exercise are manifold.
There are two broad categories of cardio training: aerobic training, which involves activity over a long period of time (30 minutes to an hour or longer) at a relatively low level of intensity, and interval training, which alternates short periods of high-intensity work with “cooling off” periods of lower-intensity work. An interval training session can last from 20 to 30 minutes; most trainers argue that interval training is more beneficial, since it mixes intensities.
For most seniors, doing a cardio workout three or four times a week is plenty, with each workout lasting from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on whether you’re doing interval training. Many trainers will recommend alternating cardio days with weightlifting days; if you combine these activities in the same workout, lifting weights first is usually best.
And as for the most beneficial intensity, mixing is recommended. Many trainers refer to three levels of intensity. “Aerobic intensity” allows you to comfortably speak in short sentence while you’re working out. A brisk walk or slow jog, or a comfortable pace on a bicycle, are examples of aerobic intensity. If you pick up the pace to the point that you begin to suffer, you have reached “threshold intensity”: aerobic exercise, in which your body is still using oxygen in metabolism, has crossed over into anaerobic exercise. In the latter, your body’s demand for oxygen exceeds supply, and your body must rely on energy stored in the muscles.
Finally, there is “sprint intensity,” in which you move at the fastest pace you can for a short interval of time (15 to 60 seconds). During interval training, a burst of speed at sprint intensity is followed by a recovery interval.
There are various activities that can make up a cardio routine; you may be limited in what you can do (bad knees can prevent you from jogging outside, for instance), or you can switch from among these methods. One of the simplest cardio workouts is a good power walk, defined as walking at a speed at the upper end of the natural gait. A good walking clip might be 5 miles an hour (or 8 kilometers an hour); if you’re just starting with a workout routine, however, don’t try to walk that quickly at first. Find a quick pace that’s comfortable for you, at which you break out into a sweat and huff and puff a bit on the hills. As with any cardio workout, you want to get your heart rate up.
As much as possible, don’t walk on hard pavement; if you have a park or forest with trails nearby, that’s much easier on your body. And try not to walk alone, especially if you’re a woman. Find a walking companion, and always tell someone when you’re going for a walk and when you expect to return. Walk naturally — don’t swing your arms unnaturally or take long strides. When climbing hills, shorten your stride. Hand weights and ankle weights tend to throw you off your stride; if you want to carry weight, a waist pack or backpack is better. You can also carry drinking water in a small backpack!
If speed walking is too easy, then pick up the pace and start running. Running can also be a great way to lose weight, but if your primary concern is weight loss rather than overall fitness, then be sure to consider other factors such as your diet. Running has one big downside: it’s high impact and puts stress on your joints, especially your knees but also the lower back and hips. Low-impact cardio exercises such as stair climbing or swimming are suitable alternatives for people with knee problems.
Or, instead of an hour-long, high-impact run, some trainers recommend sprint intervals. Short sprints will not put as much stress on your joints as long-distance running, which is repetitive and relentless. Sprinting can also burn fat very effectively, as well as develop your leg muscles. But seniors should not start right out with wind sprints; work up to them, and consult with a trainer about distances (100 yards?) and the number of sprints you should do during each session.
If running is high impact, swimming is the opposite. Seniors of any age can get into the water and start swimming. If you’re new to swimming, start slowly and build up. During your first week, swim without kicking for 30 seconds and rest for 30 seconds, repeating this sequence ten times. Then swim and kick, again 30 seconds on and 30 seconds off. Then vary your timing: swim for 45 seconds, resting only 15 seconds. Vary your stroke, to include the backstroke and breaststroke as well as the crawl. Don’t overdo it, and don’t try to keep up with other swimmers; you can’t swim too slowly! Contrary to some reports, swimming can burn fat as efficiently as running.
Likewise, bicycling is a low-impact alternative to running, and because you can cover greater distances and vary your route every time, this can be the most enjoyable way to get a good workout. Avoid heavy vehicular traffic; breathing in exhaust fumes will offset whatever aerobic benefits you’re gaining. Try to find bike paths or country lanes. The best way to cycle is to find a cycling group; senior cycling groups exist in most communities, and they can help you purchase an appropriate bicycle (if you don’t have one) as well as gear.
If you can’t get outside, most gyms have a wealth of cardio equipment to choose from; you can run (or speed-walk) on a treadmill, setting an angle approximating a hill ascent if you wish, and you can cycle on a stationary bike, either on your own or in a group spinning class. Other machines approximate rowing and cross-country skiing. Elliptical machines combing a running motion with a cross-country skiing motion, but they are low impact because your feet never leave the footpads; elliptical machines also have moving hand grips, so you can use your arms and upper body to help “propel” you forward. And most gyms have a few varieties of stair-climbing machines; if you set these at a good pace, they can provide a very high-intensity workout for 20 or 30 minutes.
You have many choices for a cardio workout; go slowly at first, and get a trainer to help you if needed. But don’t put it off; the faster you take up a cardio routine, the faster you’ll improve your overall health.