What's Aerobic Exercise? Beginner's Guide to Cardio Training

Lisa Lorraine Taylor, BSc, CPT
Published by Lisa Lorraine Taylor, BSc, CPT | Staff Writer
Last updated: April 30, 2024
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In this article, we tackle the subject of aerobic training and discuss what is potentially one of the most commonly used forms of physical exercise on the planet.

Aerobic exercises can be described as cardiovascular conditioning, popularly known as cardio.

Aerobic workouts increase your heart rate and breathing rate. Scientists have proven that these workout performances keep your circulatory system, lungs, and heart healthy.

There are numerous workout routines individuals can choose from. In short, there is an aerobic workout routine for everyone.

Quick Summary

  • Aerobic exercise, also known as cardio, involves physical activities that increase heart and breathing rates, such as swimming, running, and cycling.
  • The distinction between aerobic and anaerobic exercise lies in oxygen usage: aerobic exercises use oxygen over extended periods, while anaerobic exercises involve short bursts of high-intensity activity without oxygen.
  • A 2018 CDC study found that only 23% of Americans get enough exercise, underscoring the importance of incorporating more physical activities into daily routines.
  • Personally, I believe incorporating a variety of aerobic exercises tailored to individual fitness levels is essential for maintaining cardiovascular health and overall well-being.

What is aerobic exercise?

running for physical fitness

Aerobic exercise, also known as cardio, is any type of cardiovascular conditioning that elevates your heart rate for 20 minutes to an hour or more.

It usually includes activities like swimming, running, and cycling.

There are many forms of aerobic exercise you can perform, all of which are totally adaptable and scalable to your current fitness levels and physical restraints.

As a personal trainer, I've seen clients transform their fitness by incorporating aerobic exercises like swimming and running, which keep their heart rates elevated for extended periods.

Aerobic, meaning 'with oxygen,' refers to exercises that use the respiratory system extensively.

This type of exercise is adaptable and low intensity, making it accessible to many. It can vary widely, even combining different activities like boxing and cycling.

There is no predefined rule book for how aerobic activity should be performed, with the only minimum requirement being that it involves any form of exercise that makes use of the lungs and circulatory system to perform your chosen physical task as opposed to primarily relying on the muscles.

I’ll cover that a little more in depth shortly.

Aerobic vs Anaerobic training

The difference between aerobic and anaerobic training has to do with how your body uses and requires oxygen - aerobic being “with oxygen,” and anaerobic being “without.”

You’ve probably heard these two terms mentioned before, but have perhaps wondered what the main differences are between them and what actually makes them both completely different exercise types.

Aerobic Exercise - When you perform aerobic activity, you’re training at a growth in intensity that allows you to continuously sustain your exercise due to the oxygen you take in being circulated around your system and “feeding” your body the nutrients it needs to carry on its chosen activity.

Examples of aerobic exercise include walking, swimming, and kickboxing classes.

Anaerobic Exercise - Anaerobic exercise is exercise with greater intensity that is unsustainable for long periods because your body cannot keep up with the amount of oxygen demanded.

Examples of anaerobic exercise include sprinting, jumping, interval training, and anything that requires short but intense exertion without weights.

Both forms have their benefits, and inevitably, while performing one type, you will likely cross over to the other type. Aerobic conditioning is great for general cardiovascular health, stamina, and weight loss, as confirmed by the study published on the National Library of Medicine website [1].

Related Article:

What Are Some Aerobic Exercises?

When it comes to aerobic training types, you’ll probably be amazed at the sheer number of activities you can perform to achieve the aerobic training effect without the use of weights.

I often recommend a variety of aerobic activities, like cycling and dancing, to my clients based on their individual fitness levels and preferences.

Examples of aerobic exercises include:

  • Running
  • Cycling
  • Dancing
  • Swimming
  • Rowing
  • Skipping
  • Fencing
  • Tennis
  • Football
  • Cricket
  • Golf
  • Squash
  • Walking
  • Step classes
  • Most fitness classes

As you can see, your choice is fairly limitless, and what’s even better is that you can scale most of these activities either down or up to suit your current fitness levels.

This versatility is one of the main reasons why aerobic exercise is so popular.

While aerobic exercises are crucial for cardiovascular health, adding a segment on flexibility and stretching is vital, as it can improve joint range of motion, enhance posture, and even alleviate stress, making it a comprehensive fitness routine.

Health Benefits

Girl dancing and girl sprinting

Aerobic exercise offers numerous health benefits for everyone, whether you're a seasoned athlete or just starting.

It's adaptable to all skill levels and doesn't need special equipment.

Plus, its flexibility means you can fit it into your routine, whether through short daily sessions or longer workouts a few times a week.

From my experience as a coach, aerobic exercises significantly improve mental and physical health, which I've seen firsthand in my clients.

A study by Post Graduate Medicine says that aerobic exercise has significant benefits for the cardiovascular system, including lower mortality numbers from heart disease. The results concluded that aerobic exercise can help weight loss programs, encourage nutrition, reduce anxiety, depression, and improve stress management.

The main health benefits of aerobic exercise include:

  • Burns high amount of energy per hour, making sticking to body fat loss easier
  • Improves endurance for longer-term exercise, sports, and recreation
  • Increases your body’s ability to manage weight
  • Reduces the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes
  • Can improve high blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • Improves mental health, self-esteem, and symptoms of depression
  • Aids sleep quality
  • Strengthens immune system

How Much Aerobic Exercise Do You Need to Gain the Benefits?

You might be surprised how little aerobic exercise you need to get healthy and achieve weight loss.

In the United States, there are two major guidelines that are followed.

The Surgeon General's lifestyle recommendation suggests accumulating 30 minutes of physical activity at least five times a week through daily activity, like taking the stairs or walking instead of driving.

The other guideline is by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) which suggests that you get at least 20-60 minutes of continuous activity, three to five times a week. The exercise should push your heart to at least  60-90% of your maximum heart rate (MHR), and two to three days of resistance training.

If you’re not hitting either of these targets - you’re not alone.

A 2018 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) found that only 23% of Americans regularly get enough exercise.

These two standards aren’t necessarily meant to be one or the other. For example, if you can only make it to the gym for an hour 2 days a week, you can still work to accumulate 30 minutes of exercise on other days during the week.

Regardless of which standard you follow, you only need to find 1 to 3 hours a week total to gain the full range of benefits of aerobic exercise to meet your short and long term fitness goals.

Many of my clients are amazed to learn that even moderate aerobic exercise, like daily brisk walking, can lead to significant health improvements.

Ensuring the safety of aerobic exercises involves understanding proper techniques, using the right gear, and knowing personal limits.

How Do I Get Started with Aerobic Exercise

To get started with aerobic exercise, you should choose a few that you can rotate between. This is so you can have fun, happily do it for at least 20 to 60 minutes, and also avoid getting bored with your weekly routine.

Some great cardio workouts, combined with some strength training for women and men, will have you on your way to great health.

I always advise my clients to start with simple exercises like walking or light jogging and gradually build up their routine.


Couple walking on a boardwalk

Walking is an excellent start for aerobic exercise beginners. Its low intensity suits almost everyone.

To turn a stroll into a workout, try walking three days a week for at least 30 minutes, aiming for 55% of your maximum heart rate.

Gradually increase your walking distance, heart rate, or time to intensify the workout.

Remember, while walking is effective, other aerobic exercises like cycling can be more energy-intensive.

Also, this very low-intensity exercise doesn’t boost the metabolism for hours afterwards like other types of exercise does. It’s a great option if you are physically limited or don’t have much time - but you should work toward doing more challenging exercises.


man running

Running should be more difficult than walking, but not as difficult as sprinting.

You should try to choose a pace that you can maintain for at least 20 minutes. A moderate to difficult run can burn up to 600 calories an hour.

Unlike walking, your body enters an overhead metabolic state for longer periods after running — meaning you’ll burn an elevated amount of calories long after your workout is finished.

A study by Sports Medicine showed that running has a positive impact on body fat, body mass, and increases the “good” HDL cholesterol — and that more training results in more positive impacts.

To use this as one of your aerobic options, run at least 3 times a week, with a duration of 20 to 30 minutes, and aim a growth of 70-85% of your MHR.

Running engages the larger muscle groups in your lower body, such as your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves, which is a great way to build muscle without weights. It also improves flexibility in your hips, allowing you to take long strides.

If you need a solid running plan, you can check out the Daily Burn fitness app.

Related: Does Running Build Muscle?


man cycling

Cycling is a great alternative to running because it burns a similar amount of energy without being high-impact on the joints.

There are spin classes or you can manage your own routine. Most gyms have stationary bikes, and if you enjoy it — you can take this activity on the road as recreation.

Pete Reynolds, the founder of Discerning Cyclist, adds that unlike other forms of exercise, cycling doesn’t take any precious time out of your day. Just use a bicycle as your regular mode of transport and you’ll get your workout without even realizing it.

You can also include some weight training to involve your upper body. If you use cycling in your routine, you should aim for a frequency of three times per week, with a duration of 30 to 45 minutes, and an intensity of 65 - 85% MHR. Using this kind of volume, you can burn up to 600 calories an hour. A fitness tracker for cycling will help measure this.

Aerobic Classes

Women in fitness class

There are a variety of aerobic fitness classes available. You can join classes at your gym, which might provide a fun social scene while also getting instruction.

There are also fitness follow-along DVDs that you can do from the comfort of your living room. Some options are dance classes which incorporate fun moves, improve your coordination and involve the whole body.

Cardio kickboxing is one of many aerobic sports that challenges all the main muscle groups, and requires full range of motion from all parts of the body without using weights like a barbell. It's one of the best exercises for weight loss.

There are also general strength circuits with exercises like squats, dips, jumping jacks, jumping rope and others.

For each of these, you should aim to do them at least 3 times per week, for at least 40 to 60 minutes, and reach around 60 - 80% of your MHR. These classes can burn 400 to 600 calories an hour, depending on your level of effort.

Read More: 6 Best Types of Aerobic Workout Routines

How Do I Calculate My Target Heart Rate?

heart and lifeline

Before you start any aerobic exercise, you should calculate your target heart speed.

This will help determine how difficult your exercise can be without entering the anaerobic exercise zone.

To determine the intensity you need to benefit from a specific aerobic method, you’ll need to calculate the lower and upper ends of your target heart rate.

The low end of the target zone is 55% of your MHR, and the upper end should be around 80% of your MHR.

There are two easy ways to figure out your MHR. One option is to use an online calculator like this one that will tell you your upper and lower limits.

Another way is a simple calculation: subtract your age from 220. So if you are 35 years old, your MHR shouldn’t exceed 185 beats per minute.

In the long term, any dangers associated with aerobic exercises far outweigh the risk of living a sedentary life. However, it’s still important to consider any potential health risks, previous injury, or medical history before beginning an aerobic exercise program.

A few important things to consider are:

  • Any past or potential heart issues such as heart attacks, palpitations, etc.
  • Excess fatigue or shortness of breath
  • Swelling, pain, or discomfort due to poor blood flow

Some equipment you can use for exercising:


How Do I Warm Up For Aerobic Exercise?

You can warm up for aerobic exercises by doing brisk walking, jumping jacks, or squats. You should always warm up for an aerobic exercise since it requires an increase in oxygen demands, blood flow, and flexibility from rest. To know you’ve warmed up enough, you should break a mild sweat and stretch your extremities like your shoulders.

How Do I Cool Down From Aerobic Exercise?

To begin cooling down from aerobic exercise, lower the intensity or speed of your workout until you can feel your heart begin to return to rest. Cooling down is similar to warming up. If you were running, you could slow to a jog or walking pace for a few minutes before stopping.

Do I Need To Stretch After Aerobic Exercise?

Stretching should always be a part of your aerobic exercise routine. It helps improve muscle flexibility, makes space or helps release lactic acid build up, and ensures you get the full range of motion out of your exercise. Always stretch while your muscles are warm, like after a warm-up or after cooling-down.

How Often Should You Do Aerobic Exercises?

You should aim to do aerobic exercises either five times a week for at least 30 minutes, or three to five times a week for at least 20-60 minutes to gain the full range of benefits from this type of exercise. Something is always better than nothing, so feel free to spend time working your way up to this frequency.

Is Aerobic Exercise Safe?

Aerobic exercise is very safe, but there are always precautions you can take when doing a new type of exercise. Consider talking to a doctor if you have any potential for previous, current, or potential health risks, particularly anything to do with the heart and lungs.

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About The Author

Lisa Lorraine Taylor, BSc, CPT
Staff Writer
Lisa Lorraine Taylor, BSc, CPT holds a BSc degree in Holistic Nutrition from Clayton College of Natural Health and is the owner of Taylor Made Fitness. Her philosophy centers on cutting through the hype and misinformation surrounding dietary supplements, focusing instead on practical, science-backed strategies for health and weight loss.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Kristy June Dayanan, BS, MD is an author with a BS degree from University of the Philippines and an MD from University of Perpetual Help System. Her ability to simplify medical science complexities and dietary supplement jargon for the average reader makes her a valued medical fact checker and reviewer.
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Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
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One thought on “Aerobic Exercise: The Complete Guide on Training, Workouts & Benefits

  1. Aerobic exercises employ large muscle groups that lead to weight loss. Aerobic means your body’s ability to use oxygen and caters to the energy requirement, especially during high activity levels, such as exercising.
    Aerobic exercises give you quick results keeping your heartbeat high. They are pretty easy to follow and apply and what’s more, you can do without equipment. This kind of exercises has several benefits such as it increases energy, boosts blood circulation, reduces body fat, initiates weight loss, minimizes tension and anxiety, helps prevent type 2 diabetes, improves endurance levels and helps in building a strong and fit body

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