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Immortal Musings

What a Difference an “S” Makes!

by Ralph Kenney

September 04, 2015

Before we continue talking about exercise, we need some definitions. I‘d like to start with the word “Aerobics”.


We all know what it means…right? Certainly my gym knows, they have tons of aerobics classes.

You will find a definition in most dictionaries something like this one: “a system of physical conditioning involving exercises (as running, walking, swimming, or calisthenics) strenuously performed so as to cause marked temporary crease in respiration and heart rate” (compliments of Mr. Webster)

I guess you are nodding your head and thinking, “Yep, that’s what I thought.” But, you and Mr. Webster have it wrong.

Here’s what Mr. Webster should be saying; “A marketing term coined by Dr. Kenneth Cooper in 1964 to descrbe a style of exercise he advocated that attempts to stimulate accelerated breathing and heart rate through vigorous movement.”

That’s right, the word “aerobics” came into existence just about 50 years ago and it has no medical definition. It as though “Zumba” got really popular and people started assuming there was a medical or scientific term “Zumba.”

(I’m allowed to make fun of Zumba because I am a certified Zumba instructor. It’s a long story. Suffice to say one has to do strange things at a gym if you want to teach tai chi.)

After the publication of Dr. Cooper’s book and his very successful campaign advocating this form of exercise, there were valid studies showing cardiovascular benefits to vigorous exercise. But the word ‘aerobics” itself is just an example of very successful marketing.

Aerobic (no 's')

There is a word in science “aerobic” (without the ‘s’) Aerobic describes any process requiring oxygen. Fire for example an aerobic process and so is rust. In your body there are numerous aerobic processes.

Dr. Cooper decided to call his style of exercise “Aerobics” because he assumed that vigorous exercise increased the efficiency of the aerobic phase of muscular metabolism.

Let’s take a minute to explain the phases of muscle cell metabolism. When you consume food, it must be converted to energy your cells can use, this “energy” is a chemical called ATP. It does in a many step chemical process comprised of an anaerobic phase and aerobic phase.

The anaerobic phase produces a chemical called pyruvate. This process only produces 2 ATP per glucose molecule. But the conversion process is fast and has no practical speed limit. You can produce pyruvate (and ATP) as fast as you need to based on the intensity of activity you are doing.

In the aerobic phase, the pyruvate passes into the cellular mitochondria where it is converted to 36 units of ATP. But, this process is slow and has a maximum speed.

Feel The Burn

When we engage in any activity that has a high-energy demand. The anaerobic process (which has no speed limit) starts to produce pyruvate faster than the aerobic process can handle. The excess pyruvate has to go somewhere so your cells convert it to lactic acid. The presence of lactic acid is what makes us sore after a strenuous activity.

By the way, your body also increases your nerve sensitivity at the same time to make sure you really feel the burn. Your body hates to expend more energy than necessary so it’s kind of your body’s way of saying, “I’d really rather you didn’t do that anymore, thank you very much!”


“Let me hear your body talk…body talk..” anyone besides me having a 80’s flashback?

OK, all this does have a point. Stay tuned, in an upcoming post I will argue that aerobics aren’t very aerobic. 


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