Benefits & How to Increase Activity

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Think “aerobic exercise” and you might picture hopping around a manic fitness class at the gym. That counts, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Aerobic exercise, generally defined, is any activity that increases your breathing and heart rate using major muscle groups in a rhythmic way that you can maintain continuously. Its main selling points are keeping your heart, lungs and circulatory system in good shape, along with improving your overall fitness and health, mental included.

What is aerobic exercise?

There are different levels of aerobic activity, aka “cardio,” which is the term you probably hear most often associated with this type of exercise. You can do aerobic exercise at moderate to vigorous levels of intensity.

When you exercise moderately, your heart beats faster and you breathe harder than if you were just sitting around, but you can still hold a conversation. Examples of moderate aerobic exercise, courtesy of the American Heart Association, include:

  • biking at less than 10 miles per hour
  • brisk walking, which is about 2.5 miles per hour
  • gardening
  • tennis in a doubles format
  • water aerobics

When you exercise vigorously, you tend to get hot (or at least warm) and sweat, and you can’t hold a conversation without panting a whole lot in between your sentences. Examples of vigorous aerobic exercise, again from the AHA, include:

  • biking at 10 miles per hour or faster
  • jumping rope
  • hiking uphill or with a heavy backpack
  • running
  • swimming laps
  • tennis in a singles format
  • yard work, such as continuous digging or hoeing

Now that you have some examples to help you envision what aerobic exercise is, it’s easier to understand its defining characteristics.

Aerobic exercise needs oxygen, which it gets through your aerobic capacity (aerobic literally means “occurring only in the presence of oxygen.”) Your aerobic capacity comes from the capacity of your cardiorespiratory system to supply oxygen and the capacity of your skeletal muscles to use that oxygen. Lots of oxygen and breathing going on! This makes sense, given you’re breathing harder than usual, right?

Anaerobic exercise, on the other hand, is intense physical activity that’s quick and is fueled by energy sources within your contracting muscles, not the oxygen you’re getting from breathing while you move around. Anaerobic literally means “activity in which the body incurs an oxygen debt,” as in “absence of oxygen.” Lifting weights and using resistance bands are good examples of anaerobic exercise.

Benefits of aerobic exercise

We already hit on the overarching benefits of aerobic exercise, which are preventing cardiovascular disease and promoting cardiovascular health. Let’s take a closer look at what that means in everyday terms, along with other ways aerobic exercise is a boon.

Here are 10 benefits of aerobic exercise. It can:

  1. strengthen your muscles, including your all-important heart
  2. help you shed pounds and keep you from gaining excess weight
  3. increase your endurance
  4. strengthen your heart and lungs
  5. keep your immune system in shape
  6. improve your mood, and keep anxiety and depression at bay
  7. help you sleep better
  8. improve your blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  9. reduce your risk of getting heart disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome or stroke
  10. ward off dementia

How to add aerobic exercise to your routine

Sound appealing? If you’re ready to give cardio a bigger slice of your life, so you can get more from your life, here’s what you need to know:

Start slowly

If you barely exercise, take a 10-minute walk on a flat surface. Assess how you’re doing. If the walk feels easy, step up your pace or walk on an incline.

Eventually, you’ll want at least 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate cardio, 75 to 150 minutes per week of vigorous cardio, or a combination of both, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’s exercise guidelines for adults. It’s best to spread your cardio out over the week.

Gauge yourself

Make use of your target heart rate in order to know better whether your activity is moderate or vigorous. Your maximum heart rate is roughly 220 minus your age. Your target heart rate for moderate aerobic exercise is 50% to 70% of your maximum heart rate, and for vigorous aerobic exercise it’s 70% to 85% of your maximum heart rate. The AHA has a handy chart to help you see those ranges.

Do an activity you’ll enjoy

You have loads of options for aerobic activity, many listed above. As long as what you’re doing uses big muscle groups to raise your heart rate in a rhythmic way that you can keep on going with, it’s aerobic exercise. Need more ideas? You can dance, row, kayak, paddleboard. You can join group sports such as soccer, basketball or volleyball. You can walk up and down the stairs in your office or apartment building, while filling your ears with your favorite tunes. Mainly, pick something you like to do so that you’re more likely to do it.


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