The words “aerobic exercise” might call to mind those cheesy ’80s aerobics videos. But you don’t need big hair, leggings, or leotards to get the benefits of aerobic exercise (unless you’re into that, of course).
Aerobic exercise is a type of cardio exercise that relies primarily on oxygen to produce energy and is often continuous and rhythmic in nature. (Anaerobic [without oxygen] exercise, on the other hand, relies primarily on glucose and glycogen [the stored form of glucose], and often involves intense activity performed in repeated short bursts.)
So what counts as an aerobic exercise — and how much aerobic exercise do you need? Here’s what you need to know.
What Types of Workouts Count as Aerobic Exercise?
“Any type of sustained, low- to moderate-intensity exercise counts as aerobic exercise,” explains Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., Openfit’s director of fitness and nutrition content. This includes walking, cycling, jogging, rowing, using an elliptical, dancing, swimming, and skiing.
It’s a common misconception that aerobic exercise is the same thing as cardio, but it’s actually just one form of cardio, which includes anything that raises your heart and breathing rates and improves the functioning of your heart, lungs, and circulatory system. So while jogging and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) are both cardio, HIIT isn’t considered aerobic exercise, because it relies primarily on anaerobic energy production.
How Much Aerobic Exercise Do You Need?
According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults should aim for at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week. The former recommendation would encompass aerobic exercise while the latter would be geared more toward HIIT.
But that’s just a general guideline: “It really depends on your fitness goals and what else, if anything, you do for exercise,” Thieme says. If your goal is weight loss, you might be better off focusing on strength training, and working in aerobic exercise as “active recovery” between strength workouts, for example.
The Key Benefits of Aerobic Exercise
There are plenty of reasons to add aerobic exercise into your workout schedule. “In addition to enhancing cardiorespiratory fitness — the ability of your lungs and cardiovascular system to supply oxygen to your muscles — it can boost endurance, improve mood, promote fat loss, and reduce stress, to name just a few benefits,” Thieme says.
Here are a few of the biggest benefits of aerobic exercise.
Improved Cardiovascular Health
Aerobic exercise is well known for its cardio-boosting benefits. Indeed, research suggests that aerobic exercise might be superior to resistance training for improving blood pressure and vascular function.
You can’t totally turn back the clock, but aerobic exercise may improve your odds of living longer. In a recent study, researchers found that cardiorespiratory fitness is “inversely associated with long-term mortality with no observed upper limit of benefit.” In other words, the more aerobically active participants were, the longer they tended to live.
Better Sleep Quality
Research has found that aerobic exercise may improve sleep quality in adults with insomnia. And if the only time you can squeeze in aerobic exercise is right before bed, have no fear — contrary to popular belief, research suggests that exercising right before bed won’t interfere with sleep quality, and may actually help you get a better night’s sleep (as long as you’re already a “good sleeper,” according to researchers).
Forget an apple a day — aerobic exercise may keep the doctor away. One study found that the incidence, duration, and severity of colds and flu reduced by 29 percent, 43 percent, and 31 percent, respectively, in older adults who did moderate-intensity exercise for 45 minutes daily for eight weeks.
Is Aerobic Exercise Safe?
Yes, for most people. “Aerobic exercise is only unsafe if you overdo it or have a medical condition that can be triggered or exacerbated by it,” Thieme says. Talk to your doctor if you have any health conditions or injuries to consider — otherwise, go ahead and start reaping the benefits of aerobic exercise.