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?

Let’s take a close look at exactly what aerobic exercise is and how it works.

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

Aerobic definition

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

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

Girl in a park breathing during her running

Aerobic entails any form of aerobic exercise performed by primarily using and tapping into the respiratory system and successfully utilising it to sustain your chosen form of activity over a prolonged period.

There is no pre defined 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.

Can Anybody Do It?

Basically, aerobic training is for anybody who wants to improve their base fitness levels and burn body fat in a low intensity, highly accessible manner.

This really means that not only is it useful FOR pretty much anybody, it really probably should be used by every body.

Unlike certain forms of exercise, aerobic training can be slotted into the training regime of absolutely anybody.

There isn’t anybody on the planet that can’t benefit from enhanced fitness levels and lower levels of body fat.

Age is also not a factor here, as it’s one of the only exercise formats that caters for pretty much any body of any age due to the fact that it doesn’t put excess strain on the joints and internal organs.

It’s also one of the best ways for a person to get their teeth into regular exercise for the first time, old or young.

Aerobic exercise examples

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.

In a way, the world is your oyster; limitless are the options for aerobic exercise and the duration you cannot only perform them for, but the manner in which you can perform them too.

  • 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.

Walking can be performed more briskly, you can take fitness classes at your own pace, and with swimming it’s totally up to you how many lengths you perform, and at what pace they are performed for.

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

Health Benefits

When your heart rate elevates to the 55%+ zone, provided it doesn’t enter into the realms of the 80% territory, what the body will essentially do is burn fat for energy as opposed to relying on the muscles to power it through the activity being performed.

This makes it a highly effective weight loss method and due to its accessibility in terms of how it can be performed, that makes for one seriously useful form of exercise.

There are several other fantastic benefits to performing aerobic activity other than burning fat too, it’s genuinely fantastic for your every day fitness and keeping the heart and respiratory system fit and healthy.

Most very day activity could be described as aerobic in nature due to the fact that walking, lifting and generally plodding along through the stresses and strains of modern life is generally low impact and sustainable.

Girl blowing bubbles

There are many benefits to performing aerobic activity other than burning fat, it’s genuinely fantastic for your every day fitness and keeping the heart and respiratory system fit and healthy.

It doesn’t matter if its walking to a bus stop or walking the dog, performing regular aerobic exercise will seriously help with your ability to perform these activities and allow you to cruise through life in an effortless (well, close to effortless!) style.

You might be wondering how doing more physical activity is going to make doing other physical activity easier, as you’re possibly thinking “but wont I just be more tired?” but this couldn’t be further from the truth!

In actual fact, you can train the respiratory system and heart like you can train any other muscle group, making them stronger and more effective!

The old adage “use it or lose it” couldn’t be truer than it is here, and you’ll reap immediate health benefits if you schedule in some regular aerobic activity. Want to live longer? This will assist you! A healthy heart is going to last longer after all.

Aerobic vs anaerobic training

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.

As we’ve said before, aerobic means “with oxygen”, so with that in mind, you’ve probably guessed already that anaerobic means “without oxygen.”

What you may find puzzling at this point is the concept of performing exercise without oxygen, but that’s not strictly what anaerobic actually means.

Instead of thinking in terms of extremes, instead think about these exercise methods as being entirely different in the manner in which they process oxygen and use it.

When you perform aerobic activity, you’re training at an intensity level 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.

With anaerobic training, you’ll be performing more intense, short bursts of exercise.

The manner in which this works involves oxygen being inhaled to feed the muscles, and allow them to perform immediate feats of strength or power, but so intense is the level of the activity that it cannot be performed over a sustained period of time.

In short, one form (aerobic) training largely relies on the lungs, whereas the other form (anaerobic) relies primarily on the muscles for sustenance. Both need oxygen, but the manner in which the oxygen is processed is completely different for each one.

As a result of the high intensity nature of anaerobic exercise, it is not the most accessible and accommodating exercise format for those who are either new to exercise, or are physically limited.

There is a risk with anaerobic activity that the joints may experience excess strain, as will the internal organs potentially.

Both forms are fantastic, and inevitably whilst performing one type, you will likely cross over to the other type at some point without realizing it. For instance, when your sprint slows down and you got at a slower pace, you would be going from anaerobic into aerobic territory.

During aerobic exercise there is sufficient oxygen intake needed to sustain the current level of activity. During anaerobic exercise, oxygen consumption is not sufficient to supply the energy demands being placed on your muscles.

Equally, when pushing to achieve a personal best whilst running outdoors, you would likely delve into anaerobic territory for the last couple of minutes.

Where’s The Best Place To Do Cardio?

Is there a difference between cardio training in these environments or can you successfully perform aerobic exercise in either and reap the full benefits?

This isn’t an easy one to answer, because in truth it really does depend on your level of motivation and how you like to perform cardio.

If the big gym chains knew that we were even suggesting that you could achieve your fitness goals without a gym, then they would be outraged; the truth is though, you can.

We say that in relation to this form of training though, as not all training methods can be performed without a gym. This one can though.

Gym vs Home-Based Cardio?

One of the number one reasons why people join gyms in the first place is motivation.

As gyms have been purposefully set up to accommodate for your training goals, it means they’re rammed full of equipment and exercise class studios to skyrocket you towards your targets.

This environment is usually conductive towards a persons success, as they are surrounded by like minded people who all want the same thing; there’s a great mutual support aspect that you’ll find it difficult to replicate at home.

With that said, thing about what cardio actually is; you’re just elevating the heart rate to a certain level in order to achieve a specific goal.

Do you really need the latest crazy piece of cardio equipment to do that, or could you do it just as easily at home?

It's not too complicated or expensive to put together a small home gym. How much you invest, time or money, it's totally up to you.

Of course you could! If you’re self motivated enough to make yourself get out there and do it that is.

That could be the problem, and really, that’s what will determine your success; can you make yourself do it without all the bells and whistles of a gym being in place, or do you need that environment?

Just as a heads up, an alarming percentage of gym goers stop using their memberships after the first three months of attending.

This is proof that having a gym membership doesn’t necessarily mean you stand any higher chance of succeeding than you do in your own space. It’s all in the mind.

What Equipment Do You Need?

Again this one is totally up to you! A treadmill, cross trainer or rowing machine is always a good starting point for anybody wanting to perform aerobic exercise in the comfort of their own home.

The beauty of these machines lies in the fact you can literally place them wherever you want, be it the conservatory, in front of the television or even the garden. You can choose your own scenery, making motivation a little easier.

Equally, you don’t need to buy anything for the home. You can just as easily take part in any local sporting activities in your area to cater for your cardiovascular needs.

There are loads of football, cricket and running clubs out there, some of which don’t charge for entry.

If none of the above tickles your fancy, then why not try running or body weight exercise? This doesn’t cost anything and does the job just as well as any of the above-mentioned choices.

Making Time Is The Key To Success

It doesn’t matter if you’re training at home or in the gym, the fundamental key to whether or not you’ll be successful relies entirely on whether or not you make the time to do it.

If you wait for the right time, then it wont happen.

You’ve got to decide when the time’s right and act on it be that at home or deciding when to go to the gym at a time you know you wont be interrupted.

At the beginning of every week, strategically plan the gaps in your schedule you’d like to utilise in order to achieve your cardio goals. Ensure that the time slots you’ve chosen won’t be interrupted by any external force and turn off your phone.

5 aerobic workout Examples

Here’s a list of some the most popular cardio workouts for men and women! They’re pretty easily accessible and are all the perfect way to skyrocket yourself towards your goals.

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

1. Swimming

Starting a swimming lap in a pool

A light or moderate aerobic swimming workout can help you burn calories and improve cardiovascular fitness, while an intense anaerobic swimming workout will tax your muscles and improve lactic acid tolerance.

How To Perform

Choose your preferred stroke, and set yourself a target of reaching the maximum number of lengths possible within half an hour.

You can then either increase the length count for the next session, or the duration of your swim.

Watch Out For

Ensure you keep track of the lengths you’ve covered as this is going to be a vital indicator of your progress going into future sessions - don’t get lost in the waves!

Common Mistakes

Eat properly before you train.

Have some slow digesting carbohydrates at least an hour and a half before you hit the pool to ensure you stay properly fuelled throughout your session, or you’ll risk going hypoglycaemic (that’s a sugar crash) and totally bombing out

2. Running

Girl running in a tunel

Consistency is key to a successful program. A daily run helps improve your body's ability to burn fat, along with your biomechanics.

How To Perform

Aim to get your heart rate up to 55 - 60% of your maximum heart rate, and maintain it there for the duration of 30 minutes.

Aim to increase either your heart rate level, or the distance you cover within 30 minutes during your next session. You can also increase the length of time you spend running.

Watch Out For

Stay well hydrated! 

Many a runner has set off without adequate hydration, and as such, had to stop mid flight. You need to drink before, during and after your session to ensure success.

Common Mistakes

Wear the right trainers.

Seriously, if your footwear isn’t up to the job then you’ll cause yourself all kinds of muscular imbalances and back issues, not to mention postural misalignment. Spend a little extra and look after your health.

3. Cycling

Man cycling in sunset

Cycling is also great for your heart. Those who were active on a daily basis were 31% less likely to develop high blood pressure.

How To Perform

Either on the road or on an indoor bike, set yourself a minimum distance target over the duration of 30 minutes.

Variables here include distance and time spent travelling, so you can increase these aspects accordingly during future sessions.

Watch Out For

Incorrect seat placement!

Having the seat set at the incorrect height will lead to severe discomfort in the lower back and potentially even tight hamstrings. The saddle should be at hip height before you start.

Common Mistakes

Get the right bike. It doesn’t matter if it’s at home, or on the road - you need to make sure your weapon of choice is up to the task.

Get a bike that’s going to be able to cope with the stresses of the road properly if you want to start doing outdoor cycling, and ensure your posture is well protected with anything you get for the home.

4. Fitness Classes

Women in fitness class

Regular aerobic exercise can help you live longer and healthier. After all, it reduces health risks, keeps excess pounds at bay, strengthens your heart and boosts your mood.

How To Perform

Simply choose a class that you think resonates with your character and goals, and perform it to the best of your ability!

There are many factors to play with here, but the most important one is that you try to outperform your previous efforts for each subsequent class you attend.

Watch Out For

Choose a class to suit your ability, any good class instructor will be able to advise you on whether or not you’re ready for certain classes.

Never attempt an advanced class at beginner level for instance; as you’ll probably find that you’re a little out of your depth.

Common Mistakes

You need the right training gear. Wear something that not only allows your skin to breathe but that you also feel comfortable in!

You wont feel inspired if you’re wearing ten-year-old hand me downs, and you’ll fast lose motivation. Treat yourself.

5. Walking

Couple walking on a boardwalk

Walking is a popular aerobic activity. It is easy to do, you don't need special equipment, and it can be done almost anywhere.

How To Perform

Walking is easily the most adaptable fitness format as it’s super low intensity and accessible by just about anybody.

As with other aerobic activities start with 30 minutes and aim to clear a set distance of your choice whilst getting your heart rate up to at least 55%.

You can increase the distance traveled, heart rate level or duration of your walking session next time you do it.

Watch Out For

It’s easy to think you’re doing ok when walking but if you aren’t tracking the number of steps you’ve performed within a certain time frame with a pedometer, or your heart rate level then you’re shooting in the dark!

Make sure you’ve got a clear grasp as to how you’re performing and where you can improve.

Common Mistakes

Protect your feet with the right footwear and any supplementary support you may need.

You’re going to be putting your ankles and the base of your feet through a lot of relentless stepping, so ensure that your foot wear and under wear (socks, not briefs) fully support the task ahead of them.

6. Tennis

Women in a tennis match indoors

Depending on whether you're playing singles or doubles, whether you're a baseliner or net rusher, and generally how hard you play the game, you will reach different heart rates and burn different amounts of calories.

How To Perform

When it comes to tennis, you can set match length, sets and even change training partners to switch up the level of intensity you’re playing at!

An hours worth of continuous tennis is definitely going to supercharge your aerobic activity.

Watch Out For

Training partners! If your partner is too advanced for you, you’re not going to be able to keep up which in turn will mean no benefit.

If they’re of a much lesser ability than you, then equally you wont get a decent workout. You’ve got to play with somebody that matches your skill set!

Common Mistakes

As with many of the other activities listed, don’t just settle for an old set of tennis clothes.

You’re going to need decent footwear that absorbs the impact placed on the feet and some clothing that absorbs sweat effectively, not to mention wristbands and potentially even a hand band.

You’ll be glad you invested when you’re smashing through your sets.

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.