Fitness

Aerobic Exercise: The Complete Guide on Training, Workouts & Benefits

Aerobic Training: What Can’t It Do For You?
Written by Isaac

In this article we tackle the subject of aerobic training and discuss what is potentially the oldest and most widely used form of physical exercise on the planet.

Often when you say the word “aerobics” to somebody they think of neon headbands and ankle warmers being worn in the middle of a densely packed fitness studio, but this stereotypical image is neither an accurate or fair representation of aerobic activity as a whole.

Often those mocking this stereotype are hypocrites due to the fact they perform aerobic activity on a daily basis that they may not even be aware of!

Why is it so popular? And more importantly, why is it so effective?

What is aerobic exercise?

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 shouldering what is totally adaptable and scalable to your current fitness levels and physical restraints.

running for physical fitness

Defined, the word aerobic means “with oxygen,” therefore any form of aerobic exercise is performed by primarily using and tapping into the respiratory system and relying on it to sustain your chosen activity over a prolonged period.

This makes it a very versatile and accessible form of exercise due to its low intensity nature.

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.

We’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 being 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 a greater exercise 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 whilst performing one type, you will likely cross over to the other type. Aerobic conditioning is great for general cardiovascular health and stamina, nutrition, weight loss, and anaerobic is better for growth of explosive power and speed.

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.

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.

Health Benefits

athletic women

The health benefits of this type of exercise are many. It doesn’t matter if you’re an athlete or someone who is just looking to improve their health, aerobic exercise can always be scaled to match your skill level.

And because it requires little to no equipment like a barbell or machine, it’s an exercise you can always bring with you.

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.

You can either do short bursts frequently, or longer bursts a handful of times a week — so there’s no reason you can’t find a way to squeeze it into your schedule and get you these health benefits.

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.

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.

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.

Walking

Walking is the easiest place to start for anyone new to aerobic exercise. It’s super low intensity makes it accessible by just about anybody.

But this is still an exercise after all. To avoid just taking a stroll, start with a frequency of 3 days a week with a duration of at least 30 minutes, and intensity of at least 55% of your MHR.

Couple walking on a boardwalk

Progressively increase the distance traveled, heart rate level, or duration of your walking session to make this a workout instead of a stupor.

Although there are ways to make walking a workout, it doesn’t really compare to the other aerobic options out there. For example, you can burn more energy in 15 minutes on a bike than the entirety of a 45-minute walk. 

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.

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. It also improves flexibility in your hips, allowing you to take long strides. 

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.

Bikes also are easily adjusted - making it easy to increase and decrease the challenge quickly. 

cycling

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. 

Aerobic Classes

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.

Women in fitness class

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.

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

How Do I Calculate My Target Heart Rate?

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. 

heart and lifeline

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

FAQ

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. 

Summary

This summary of aerobic exercise should answer most of your questions in regards to what it is, how it works and more importantly, how you can make it work for YOU.

No one form of exercise is ever perfect for everyone, but aerobic exercise is so adaptable that almost anyone can make it work for them due to the sheer number of activities on offer and the low impact nature of the way it is performed.

Give it a shot, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, you’ll benefit from aerobic cardio.

What’s your favorite aerobic exercise? Got a story about an epic cardio session you had recently?

About the author

Isaac

I’m a personal fitness trainer and nutritionist living in sunny Indianapolis, IN. I’ve spent the last 8 years staying at the forefront of the health and fitness industry. In that time, I’ve helped hundreds of people shed the excess weight and get into shape, maintaining their healthy new lifestyle through proper training and eating habits.

>