What Is Aerobic Exercise—and How Much Do You Need?


Courtesy of Outdoor Voices

For many of us, the term “aerobic exercise” may conjure up images of neon leotards, retro sweatbands, and endless spandex. And while there’s no need to forgo your favorite ’80s workout mix, there’s a lot more to aerobic exercise than you may think. Aerobic exercise has been shown to have a variety of benefits not only for physical fitness, but for mental wellness.

As Andrew Weil, MD, has noted, “Human bodies are designed for regular physical activity. … Many studies show that depressed patients who stick to a regimen of aerobic exercise improve as much as those treated with medication.” But what is aerobic exercise exactly? And what is the optimal amount?

Read on to learn what aerobic exercise is, the most popular variations, and how much you should be doing.


What is aerobic exercise?

Simply put, aerobic exercise is any sustained exercise of low to high intensity that stimulates the heart, lungs, and the body’s utilization of oxygen. While the term “aerobic” (which simply means requiring or pertaining to oxygen) has fallen out of fashion in recent years, it’s still the go-to term within the medical community and is synonymous with the term “cardio.”

A casual definition is that aerobic exercise is any activity that gets your heart and blood pumping. By contrast, anaerobic exercise refers to physical activity that doesn’t stimulate oxygen use in the same way, such as weight-lifting or short-distance sprinting. 

What types of aerobic exercise are best?

While some forms of aerobic exercise may be trendier than others, there’s no “right” way to do cardio. Ultimately, you should select aerobic activity based on what you genuinely enjoy, and adding variety to your aerobic regimen can be a great way to stay on track for your fitness goals. A few of the most well-known aerobic exercises are running, cycling, swimming, jumping rope, and using the elliptical. But there are also cardio forms of yoga, kayaking, and even dance workouts that are equally effective. 

How often should you engage in aerobic exercise?

According to Gordon Blackburn, PhD, director of cardiac rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic, aerobic exercise should be performed for 30 to 60 minutes three to five times per week. However, no two people (or schedules) are exactly alike, and spending more time on fewer sessions or less time on more sessions appears to pack equal health benefits.

The Mayo Clinic states, “Longer, less frequent sessions of aerobic exercise have no clear advantage over shorter, more frequent sessions of activity.” And once you find something you love, the benefits of aerobic exercise are virtually limitless, from a slimmer waistline to increased endorphins.

Up next, keep reading for the fascinating new study that links exercise, learning, and memory.