Fitness Articles

Reference Guide to Aerobic Exercise

An In-Depth Look

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SparkPeople’s Exercise Reference Guides offer an in-depth look at the principles of fitness.

What is Aerobic Exercise?
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) defines aerobic exercise as "any activity that uses large muscle groups, can be maintained continuously, and is rhythmic in nature." It is also defined as exercise that increases the need for oxygen. Aerobic exercise is used interchangeably with the terms: cardiovascular exercise, cardio-respiratory exercise and cardio. Some examples of aerobic exercise include: walking, jogging, running, dancing, rollerblading, bicycling, swimming, aerobics classes (both land and water), rowing, stair climbing, etc.

What are the Benefits of Aerobic Exercise?
Aerobic exercise strengthens your heart and lungs (which make up the cardiovascular system). During exercise, your muscles demand more oxygen-rich blood and give off more carbon dioxide and other waste products. As a result, your heart has to beat faster to keep up. When you follow a consistent aerobic exercise plan, your heart grows stronger so it can meet the muscles' demands without as much effort. Everyone, regardless of their weight, age, or gender, can benefit from aerobic exercise.

Regular aerobic exercise, performed most days of the week, also helps reduce the risk of illness and premature death. Regular aerobic exercise improves health in the following ways:
  • Reduces body fat and improves weight control
  • Reduces resting blood pressure (systolic and diastolic)
  • Increases HDL (good) cholesterol
  • Decreases total cholesterol
  • Improves glucose tolerance and reduces insulin resistance
  • Decreases clinical symptoms of anxiety, tension and depression
  • Increases maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max)
  • Improves heart and lung function
  • Increases blood supply to the muscles and
  • Enhances your muscles’ ability to use oxygen
  • Lowers resting heart rate
  • Increased threshold for muscle fatigue (lactic acid accumulation)
Source: “Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General”, CDC, 1999.
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About The Author

Jen Mueller Jen Mueller
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid marathon runner, she is an ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, medical exercise specialist and behavior change specialist. See all of Jen's articles.

Member Comments

    Well! I like - 12/15/2015 5:00:01 AM
  • Anyone who is on a Beta Blocker cannot reach a target heart rate because the medication kicks in and suppresses the heart rate. So a different criteria must be used. - 10/29/2015 11:42:13 AM
  • I wish there were more circuit training workouts in the workout generator. I get frustrated when it draws a blank when I enter what I have for equipment and what I am looking for.

    - 9/23/2014 8:45:34 PM
    Loving my new self.

    .com/ - 9/23/2014 3:52:41 PM
    Excellent article, with good basic overview of aerobic exercise.

    I do agree that aerobic exercise is important, but from practical experience as a personal trainer, I believe that the guidelines should emphasize resistance training over aerobic training. That is not to say that aerobic training is not important (it is), it's just that resistance training can actually give you more benefits than aerobic training.

    Resistance training done in a circuit format will give you the obvious strength benefits, but it will also give you endurance benefits, and if you're doing it through a full range of motion, flexibility benefits. On the other hand, if a person performs aerobic exercise exclusively, yes, their aerobic endurance will improve, but their strength and flexibility will get worse.

    Furthermore, if aerobic exercise is performed excessively and exclusively, it will actually cause fat gain at some point. I actually wrote a blog about it right here:


    I understand that there are space limitations, so overall, I want to re-state that it's a good basic overview of aerobic training.

    Igor. - 12/9/2012 3:30:06 PM

  • So, not the "perfect" article . . . but ten times better than my best would ever be.

    There is never ever too much info regarding aerobics! - 10/17/2012 1:08:51 PM
  • Helpful article for me as I'm just starting out.

    Is there a way of favouriting it? I can't see a button to click on unless I'm just being dense :/ - 10/17/2012 5:42:28 AM
  • WAYNE56
    It is my understanding that you burn more fat at a lower intensity than your THR is this correct or not. Or do you still burn as much fat at the THR but also get a better aerobic work out - 8/10/2012 2:13:56 PM
  • VIRGO091190
    Can you help to know some important things about teaching aerobics? I am oing to teach aerobics just only for my friends...
    How many session per day and per month?
    It is ok,,if one session per day? So it means 20 minutes it's the total of my teaching lesson everyday? - 6/30/2012 4:21:23 AM
    Exercising is a great way of reducing body fat and keeping your muscles fit. But as you may already know, not all types of exercises are good for you. Of course, you have to make sure that your body has enough strength to carry out a particular exercise routine. There have been many cases when bodies give out and succumb to injuries because the exercise routine is more rigorous than what the body can muster. There are generally two types of exercises: aerobic and anaerobic. They differ in terms of the routine they contain and the benefits they give.
    - 5/23/2012 4:44:38 AM
  • @CamelSamba: Yeah, I see why that was confusing. It's still aerobic, the article is just trying to stress that you get the most benefit out of doing the activity at least three times per week. Right now, I don't do the same aerobic activity three times a week; I've been doing two workouts a week rowing and two workouts a week swimming. Any more with the rowing and I think it's overkill, and I'm not that strong a swimmer yet.

    I appreciate that this article talks about activities other than just plodding along on a machine. I gave myself a stress fracture from doing too much on the treadmill, so I've switched to a lot of bodyweight circuits and intervals after my strength training, and it's really kicking my butt! I challenge anyone who doubts that to do a leg workout and then finish with intervals of kettlebell swings and bodyweight squats and see how long they last. My butt was crying for days!! I like the idea of finishing a workout with something like that because it gets me out of the gym faster, and then I can do longer, steady cardio on days that I'm not lifting.

    The one thing I would add is that if you can do high intensity intervals for more than 15-20 minutes, you're not doing high intensity intervals. Steady cardio is good for up to 60 minutes, but if you're doing that much with HIIT, then your intervals aren't intense enough. Just sayin'. - 1/21/2012 1:16:45 PM
    I am loving this website and am really glad that I joined. There are so many helpful and interesting tips and articles!!!! - 7/8/2011 7:32:38 PM
    Stretching is part of the cool down after aerobic exercise. You should never stretch at the beggining before your body is warmed up. Warming up is doing something slow that mimics the exercise you are going to do. - 7/2/2011 5:50:13 AM
  • Confusing part in the article: "What counts as aerobic exercise?
    Any activity can count as cardio/aerobic exercise as long as it meets the 3 requirements above (frequency of 3-5 days a week, moderate intensity, and lasts at least 20 minutes per session)."

    The frequency part confuses me - if someone runs only 2 days a week, is that no longer considered aerobic? - 5/3/2011 12:18:45 PM
  • This is a fantastic article! I am a Fitness/Nutrition advisor as well as a Personal Trainer, AND a very proud Spark member. While training for my certification, my reference material was all Spark related information. I am on Spark everyday, whether it's getting a new recipe, or just for motivation. Thank you Spark!!! - 5/3/2011 11:32:51 AM

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