Why Should You Add Aerobic Exercise to Your Workout Routine?

The word “aerobics” likely reminds you of a jazz fitness class or your mom’s Dennis Austin workout video. Or maybe you’ve been using the word synonymously with aerobics. For the most part, all of these guesses are correct, but cardio can get a little more complicated than that – and really, it comes down to the intensity of your workout.

So what exactly is aerobic exercise and what workouts count as cardio? To help you decipher all the training terms, we interviewed experts who broke it down so you can build cardio (and its anaerobic counterpart) into your workouts. Learn exactly what these terms mean for your fitness and health.

What is aerobic exercise?
When you do aerobic exercise, you move your large muscle groups (think legs, glutes, and core) at the same time, usually in a rhythmic fashion and for long periods of time, explains Michele Olson, PhD, CSCS, senior clinical professor of exercise science at Huntington College in Montgomery, Arizona.” Your breathing goes up and your heart rate goes up to about 60 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate, but not beyond that maximum,” says Olson.

All aerobic exercise counts as cardiovascular activity, which is why you’ll often hear “aerobic exercise” used in the phrase “cardio.” (FYI, though, not all aerobic exercise is cardio, but more below.) So, you can tag activities like running, swimming, biking, or even speed walking as aerobic exercise.

The key to making exercise aerobic: “You need to be able to sustain activity for more than two minutes with adequate oxygen intake,” explains Norm Tamir, CSCS, owner of TS Fitness in New York City. This means that even if your breathing rate increases, you shouldn’t find yourself gasping for air.” The intensity is usually mild to moderate, so you’ll be able to continue for about 30 to 60 minutes without a significant spike in your heart rate.”

While most aerobic activities fit into the low to moderate intensity category, there are different levels.” Low-intensity cardio builds endurance, such as a brisk walk or perhaps a dance-inspired group fitness class,” explains Olson. This will hit that lower heart rate range, such as around 60 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. Moderate intensity aerobic work will involve a workout between 70 percent and 80 percent of your maximum heart rate level, and may include workouts like step aerobics and jogging. Finally, high-intensity aerobic work will raise your heart rate to between 80 and 90 percent of your maximum heart rate. To do this, you might do spinning, faster running or jogging stairs. However, it stops at going all out.

What is the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise?
To summarize, aerobic exercise consists of your sustained physical exertion, usually between 30 and 60 minutes, and your heart rate remains at a steady 60 to 90 percent of its maximum. You are able to inhale and exhale steadily and maintain your rate because your oxygen intake is adequate. (Aerobic literally means “in the presence of oxygen.”) Aerobic exercise is more about duration than intensity, says Tamir.” Your body is using fatty acids and carbohydrates as fuel to be able to maintain submaximal levels of effort,” adds Olson.

Anaerobic exercise, on the other hand, is where this maximal effort comes into play. This is another form of aerobic exercise in which you should only be able to maintain activity for about 30 seconds before needing to rest. You should feel very hard to catch your breath (anaerobic means “lack of oxygen”) while doing this type of training. Explosive exercises such as muscle training, sprinting, and even weight lifting are all examples of anaerobic exercise.” The body uses creatine phosphate and carbohydrates as fuel [for anaerobic exercise] because they break down quickly,” explains Olson.” Fats take too long to break down as an energy source.”

Interval training and circuit classes provide strong examples of activity, often involving anaerobic and aerobic fitness.” In these classes, you push to your max for a short period of time, followed by lower intensity rest periods,” explains Olson.” This improves your anaerobic fitness and strength performance as well as maintaining your aerobic fitness.”

What are the health benefits of aerobic exercise?
Aerobic exercise days offer some of the best days for your cardiovascular system (hence the name), but the benefits go beyond just your heart.” Aerobic exercise can lower your blood pressure and lipids and normalize your blood sugar,” explains Olson, all of which will help you live longer and reduce your risk of diseases like diabetes.

Numerous studies support these aerobic benefits, which is why the American Heart Association recommends that people get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week. In addition to warding off the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure, it can also help you keep your brain sharp, better bones (even more so if you do it regularly and add a little impact), and fight depression.

Plus, the more aerobic activity you do, the better you’ll get at it. Aerobic training increases the size and strength of your slow-twitch muscles – those involved in longer, sustained workouts, like long runs. It can also increase your VO2 max, a major fitness level marker that reveals how much oxygen your body can absorb and use. Along with all of this comes increased stamina, says Tamir, and regular cardio in your daily life simply means you can jog to catch the bus, or walk for miles without feeling super exhausted.

How to do aerobic exercise at home.
While common aerobic exercises include jogging, swimming, biking, rowing, and brisk walking (just to name a few, of course), circuit workouts are also possible.” All you have to do is perform it at the desired heart rate and intensity level so you can keep it up for a long time,” says Tamir.

If you don’t want to leave the house, or even the house, but still want to do cardio, there’s a perfect solution: this bodyweight workout from Tamir. Do the following 12 exercises in order, 30 seconds each, for five rounds, with minimal rest between exercises.

Leg Raise.
The ass-kicker.
Dog Walking/Inchworm
Weighted counterstroke
body squat
lateral runout
walking lung capacity
Jumping Jack
sit-up (physical exercise)
Tap your toe to a block or step.
Something to keep in mind as you go through this cycle. Work at a moderate intensity, so going from one movement to another with no breaks shouldn’t feel too challenging. If you do need a break, take it slow. You’ll get better each time you do it.