According to Wikipedia, aerobic exercise or activity is defined as a physical exercise that is intended to improve the oxygen system and use of oxygen in the body’s metabolic or energy-generating process. As such, aerobic activity is all about the ability of the respiratory system to absorb oxygen.
The efficiency of absorption is higher for a physically fit person compared to a person who is physically inactive. Normal adults will have approximately 300 million alveoli in their lungs.
Alveoli are tiny, microscopic sacks. The thickness of the walls of these sacks is comparable to the size of a cell and each sack is lined with a network of blood vessels. When the lungs get filled with air during breathing, the oxygen from the air is absorbed into the blood vessels through the walls of alveoli and passed on to the blood stream.
The surface area provided by the alveoli for absorption of oxygen is approximately 150 square meters; about the size of a tennis court. However, nobody can use the entire collection of alveoli at the time of breathing and hence, a portion of the lungs will never expel the air that is trapped in it.
The part of the lungs that never expels the air trapped in it is known as “residual volume” and it prevents the lungs from collapsing. The other part of the lungs that actively take part in the breathing process is called the “vital capacity.”
In an inactive person, the vital capacity will be lower and the residual volume will be higher than that is actually required to be. In the process of conditioning the body through aerobic activity, the vital capacity of the lungs will increase to a great extent.
The vital lung capacity will be as high as 75% in a well conditioned body. As such, aerobic exercise is essential to prepare the body for maximum stress that it will face. The requirement of oxygen for a person at rest will be very little as the body will be expending only less energy.
However, the demand for oxygen goes as high as 20 times the requirement for it when the body is at rest as a person exerts himself/herself. The heart will undergo serious damage or even fail, if the lungs fail to cater to the oxygen demand, as the heart struggles to compensate for the inadequate vital lung capacity.
The lungs depend on the muscles surrounding it to inflate them when the diaphragm lowers and the rib cage expands, as they do not have their own muscles. The muscles become toned and stronger, with the addition of tissues, through regular aerobic exercise. The fact that routine aerobic activity programs the breathing muscles to work faster has also been determined through experiments.
While an unconditioned person will normally be able to breathe about 10 times his vital capacity in one minute, six weeks of substantial aerobic activity will enable the same person to breathe 20 times his vital lung capacity in one minute.
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