Aerobic fitness increases the amount of oxygen that is delivered to your muscles, which allows them to work longer. Any activity that raises your heart rate and keeps it up for an extended period of time will improve your aerobic fitness.
Benefits of aerobic exercise
| Increases in: || Decreases in: |
- Heart health
- Blood supply to heart and muscles
- Your body’s use of oxygen
- Muscular endurance
- Mood, self-esteem, and self-concept
- Energy level
- Risk of cardiovascular disease
- Blood pressure
- Cholesterol level
- Shortness of breath
- Risk of diabetes
- Blood sugar
- Risk of some cancers
- Body fat
- Anxiety and depression
As you increase your aerobic fitness, you will notice that you can do more physical activity without becoming out of breath or feeling like your heart is pounding. You will be able to do activities such as playing with children, housework, yard work, or hiking without becoming exhausted as quickly. Many forms of aerobic exercise will also strengthen your muscles and increase your flexibility.
One of the best and easiest aerobic activities is walking. You don't need special equipment, and it can be done almost anywhere. To get aerobic benefit, you must walk briskly—fast enough to increase your heart rate (pulse) and breathing, but not so fast that you can't talk comfortably.
Increasing your activity
A pedometer, which you can buy at a sporting goods store, can help you keep track of your activity. A pedometer will count the number of steps you take each day and help you set goals to walk more. Some people prefer letting the pedometer count the steps they walk, rather than trying to keep track of how many minutes they walk. For more information, see:
- Fitness: Using a pedometer or step counter.
A good goal is to walk a total of 10,000 steps per day. Try wearing your pedometer every day for 1 week to see your usual number of steps. Then increase the number by up to 2,000 steps per day until 10,000 steps is comfortable for you. You can increase your walking in simple ways. These suggestions can get you started, and you can probably think of additional ways. For more information, see:
- Fitness: Walking for wellness.
You can add more steps to your everyday activities by:
- Parking farther than usual from your workplace (or get off the bus or subway before your stop).
- Taking the stairs rather than the elevator for one or two floors.
- Walking a lap inside the grocery store before you start shopping.
- Walking instead of driving for short trips. Walk to school, work, the grocery store, a friend's house, or a restaurant for lunch.
To keep exercise interesting, find a new area to walk in. Allow yourself some extra time in case this walk takes longer than your usual route. Because new areas may pose some safety concerns, try a new area only during daylight, and choose well-populated areas, such as:
- Around your neighborhood. See some places you rarely see from your car. Meet some neighbors.
- Around a whole park. Try getting off the sidewalk. For example, walk around a baseball or soccer field.
- A mall.
- A track at a local school.
Walk at various times of day. Use "transition times" (times between activities when you don't have to be anywhere) to get out and walk, such as:
- After work, when you usually might sit in front of the television.
- First thing in the morning. See a part of the day you usually might miss.
- During your lunch or coffee break. Ask a coworker to join you for a walk. This can be a great energy boost.
Other aerobic activities include:
- Aerobic classes, including step aerobics and spinning (indoor cycling) classes.
- Running or jogging.
- Cross-country skiing.
- Daily activities such as walking the dog or actively playing with children. These need to be done for at least 10 minutes a session at a moderate intensity.
- Water aerobics (which is especially good for older people, those who are overweight, and those with joint problems).
- Sports such as tennis, basketball, or soccer.
To find out how many calories are burned during various activities, use this Interactive Tool: How Many Calories Did You Burn?
How often and how long?
Experts say to do either of these:7
- Moderate activity for at least 2½ hours a week. Moderate activity means things like brisk walking, brisk cycling, or shooting baskets. But any activities—including daily chores—that raise your heart rate can be included. You notice your heart beating faster with this kind of activity.
- Vigorous activity for at least 1¼ hours a week. Vigorous activity means things like jogging, cycling fast, cross-country skiing, or playing a basketball game. You breathe harder and your heart beats much faster with this kind of activity.
You can choose to do one or both types of activity. And it's fine to be active in several blocks of 10 minutes or more throughout your day and week. Do what works best for you. For example, you could do moderate activity twice a week for at least 1 hour and 15 minutes at a time. Or you could do 10 minutes 3 times a day, at least 5 days a week.
You could do vigorous activity 15 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week. Or you can try to do it once a week for 1¼ hours, or for 25 minutes a day, 3 days a week.
Moderate exercise is safe for most people, but it's always a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program.
Start by doing a short warm-up, such as walking or riding a stationary bike. And stretch briefly.
Experts recommend that teens and children (starting at age 6) do moderate to vigorous activity at least 1 hour every day.7 And 3 or more days a week, what they choose to do should:
- Make them breathe harder and make the heart beat much faster.
- Make their muscles stronger. For example, they could play on playground equipment, play tug-of-war, lift weights, or use resistance bands.
- Make their bones stronger. For example, they could run, do hopscotch, jump rope, or play basketball or tennis.
It’s okay for them to be active in smaller blocks of time that add up to 1 hour or more each day.
How hard do I have to work?
To achieve health benefits, you need to exercise at a moderate pace. This means you need to increase your heart rate to the point where it is 50% to 70% of its maximum or at a pace that feels somewhat difficult. An easy way to monitor this is to note how hard you are breathing:
- If you can't talk and exercise at the same time, you are exercising too hard.
- If you can talk while you exercise, you are doing fine.
- If you can sing while you exercise, you may not be exercising hard enough.
You can also use your target heart rate range to know if you are exercising at a moderate pace. Use this Interactive Tool: What Is Your Target Heart Rate?
As you continue to exercise aerobically, your heart rate will not rise as high as it did before with the same amount of effort. This is a sign that you are becoming more fit.
- Fitness: Adding more activity to your life
- Quick Tips: Getting in Shape Without Spending Money
- Quick Tips: Fitting Physical Activity Into Your Day