Research has documented the important health benefits of 150 or better yet 300
hours of moderate intensity physical activity a week. This level of physical activity
contributes to fitness. But what about getting more highly fit with the goal
of improving athletic performance? What sort, how often, how intense, and what
duration should physical conditioning exercises for this purpose be? And what is
the best schedule for someone who is sedentary and just embarking on a fitness
Good advice on getting athletically fit is found in the science-based books on aerobics
by exercise physiologist, Kenneth Cooper. They provide a practical guide to
fitness that was developed by Cooper for the United States Air Force. He studied the
often-poor performance of soldiers at oxygen intensive exercises such as long-distance
running, swimming, and bicycling. Cooper evaluated sustained performance
in terms of a person’s ability to use oxygen, or aerobic capacity and proposed that
the combined capacity of lungs, heart and blood vessels to deliver oxygen to the
body was the best index of overall physical fitness.
In his book, Aerobics, first published in 1968, Cooper presented a series of scientifically-
proven exercise programs to improve physical performance. He described
the training effect that brings about biochemical and anatomic bodily changes that
improve the body’s ability to use oxygen. He found that not only do the muscles
used in locomotion get stronger, but so does the heart and the muscles used in respiration.
As fitness improves, circulation and oxygen transfer are facilitated by lower
blood pressure and an increased number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
Research carried out by Cooper, and other exercise physiologists showed that to get
the training effect needed to improve fitness, exercise must be of sufficient intensity,
duration, and frequency. To help the average person get the exercise needed for a
training effect, Cooper devised a points scale based on the oxygen requirements
of a wide variety of aerobic exercises according to their length and duration. For
example, walking or running two miles in 40 minutes or longer just barely begins
to cause a training effect and is awarded one point whereas running the same two mile
distance in between 23:59 and 20 minutes gets a point score of seven. To reach
what Cooper considers to be a minimum standard of fitness requires the accumulation
of 30 points a week using running, walking, swimming, bicycling, or other
aerobic exercises in any combination.
Dr. Cooper emphasizes that prior to beginning any fitness program or taking a fitness
test, it is essential to get a medical checkup and clearance, especially if you are
over age 30. To help guide initial intensity and speed of progression when starting
a fitness program, Cooper has devised exercise schedules based on age and level of
fitness based on the fitness tests he has devised, a 12-minute run for distance, or a
run of 1.5 miles for speed. Cooper also emphasizes the importance of warming up
before exercise and cooling down after.
A critical lesson from the experience of many people seeking to improve their fitness
is to progress slowly. It is a mistake to rush a conditioning program. A gradual
increase in intensity and duration over at least six weeks to attain a minimum level
of fitness is needed, and gradual progression of intensity, duration, and frequency
over many months thereafter is advisable. For example, Jeff Galloway recommends
a 30-week schedule as the minimum required for someone to be able to go from an
average of running two miles a day to be able to finish a marathon.
This blog presents opinions and ideas and is intended to provide helpful general information. I am not engaged in rendering advice or services to the individual reader. The ideas, procedures and suggestions in that are presented are not in any way a substitute for the advice and care of the reader’s own physician or other medical professional based on the reader’s own individual conditions, symptoms or concerns. If the reader needs personal medical, health, dietary, exercise or other assistance or advice the reader should consult a physician and/or other qualified health professionals. The author specifically disclaims all responsibility for any injury, damage or loss that the reader may incur as a direct or indirect consequence of following any directions or suggestions given in this blog or participating in any programs described in this blog or in the book, The Building Blocks of Health––How to Optimize Your Health with a Lifestyle Checklist (available in print or downloaded at Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble and elsewhere). Copyright 2021 by J. Joseph Speidel.