Aerobic Exercise vs Aerobics Classes

Aerobics Step ClassDear Chris,

I am a 58 year old woman with bad knees who is trying to get back into shape. Everything I read tells me that I should be doing aerobics several times a week, but my doctor says that I shouldn’t do aerobics because all the jumping and stepping will wreck my knees. Is there something I can do besides aerobics? How often do I need to do it?



Dear Eva,

The confusion over aerobic exercise and aerobics classes is a common one. Let me first explain the difference and then comment about aerobics classes.

When we talk about doing aerobic exercise or physical activity, what we are really talking about is doing something which makes your heart pump faster. This type of activity is also called endurance activity and will exercise your heart. And like any muscle, your heart will get stronger with exercise. The stronger your heart, the more efficient it is in getting blood to your lungs and the rest of your body. Having a heart made strong with aerobic exercise will also help protect you against coronary heart disease and high blood pressure.

Aerobic simply means “with oxygen” and this type of exercise makes you breathe faster and harder in order to get enough oxygen to your lungs. This action causes your heart to beat harder in order to pump the oxygen-rich blood it receives from the lungs to the rest of your body. Stated simply, aerobic exercise promotes better blood circulation, making your body stronger and you healthier.

And now a few words about “aerobics” exercise.

Exercise classes featuring activity which causes you to breathe faster and harder are often called “aerobics” classes, although that term has fallen out of use in the past years. Group exercise classes, as they are more recently called, may be entirely aerobic in nature, be mainly for muscle conditioning, help with balance and flexibility, or be a combination of any of these. Many group exercise (or “aerobics”) classes are high intensity but may or may not be high-impact. While some involve a lot of jumping and stepping, something your doctor has told you to avoid, many others are low-impact, use other props instead of steps, and do not involve any fancy footwork. Group exercise classes are a fun and sociable way to get into shape. For many people, it’s the only exercise they do since they choose classes that include resistance and balance training using such things as body bars, free weights, and stability balls.

I highly recommend taking group exercise classes but only take ones where you feel comfortable with the level of activity and be sure you are not doing anything to harm your knees. When in doubt, ask the group fitness instructor about the nature of the class and be sure to tell him or her about your limitations. A good instructor will be up front with you and will recommend not taking a class if he or she thinks that it will be too high-impact for your condition.

Many gyms and recreation centres offer group exercise classes for older adults, which typically are slower-paced and use no impact movements. Sometimes younger people with physical limitations will attend a class for older adults because they can exercise at a slower pace. And some older adults attend classes geared to younger people but they exercise at a slower pace and work within their own limits.

Whether you choose to go to a group exercise class, a small group training class, work with a personal trainer, or workout on your own, be sure to include aerobic exercise in your routine. And don’t just limit it to the gym. Besides exercise, incorporate physical activity that is aerobic in nature every day.

Health Canada recommends doing aerobic (endurance) activity 4-7 days a week, working up to at least 10 minutes at a time and totaling 30 to 60 minutes a day. Some low-impact activities are brisk walking, swimming or aqua-fit, cross-country skiing, cycling, and hiking. For more information, seeĀ Canada’s Physical Activity Guide for Older Adults.

To your health


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