Aerobic Exercise Definition

It’s not a new concept that exercising has many benefits for the body. Everyone is advised to participate in some form of physical activity to improve health and prevent chronic illnesses. Performing aerobic exercises is a great way to maintain your physical fitness and curb a sedentary lifestyle. This article will go into why some exercises are considered aerobic, the benefits of aerobic exercises, examples of these exercises, and best practices for performing them.

About aerobic exercise

The term “aerobic” comes from the Greek words “aeros” and “bios” which mean “air” and “life", respectively. An aerobic exercise is a form of rhythmic physical activity that uses large muscle groups (such as the muscles of your arms and legs) and requires oxygen. Aerobic exercises will make you breathe harder and make your heart beat faster to supply oxygen to your exercising muscles. This is because aerobic exercise relies on aerobic metabolism to produce energy for your workout, and aerobic metabolism requires oxygen. The ability of your heart and lungs to supply you with oxygen and the capacity of your muscles to use that oxygen for energy is known as your aerobic capacity.1

Aerobic metabolism gets energy in the form of ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) from fuels like proteins, fats and carbohydrates, depending on the intensity of your workout. But a workout has to be done long enough for the body to mobilise fuels and oxygen to supply your muscles with energy.2 That’s why exercises like sprinting, weight lifting and high-intensity interval training are not considered aerobic but anaerobic. They are done in short bursts of high intensity so the body will rely on anaerobic metabolism, that is, it won’t require oxygen, to supply the muscles with energy.1

What are its benefits

There are many ways exercising affects your body. It helps you lose weight, makes you energetic, strengthens your muscles and bones, prevents chronic diseases, improves your memory and sleep and makes you happier. Evidence has shown that there are benefits of aerobic exercise, specifically, for different health conditions. Some of these benefits are 

For cardiovascular diseases;

  • Aerobic exercise improves blood flow through vessels
  • It reduces the blood pressure of people with hypertension irrespective of their age3
  • It reduces the heart rate
  • It reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases4
  • It improves the lipid profile5

For diabetes mellitus:

  • Aerobic exercise reduces blood glucose levels in type 2 diabetes
  • It helps people with type 2 diabetes lose weight6
  • It improves glucose tolerance of people with type 2 diabetes3
  • It reduces insulin resistance in type 2 diabetes
  • It reduces the risk of heart disease and death in people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.7

For musculoskeletal disorders;

  • Aerobic exercise increases bone density in people with osteoporosis3
  • It increases the size of skeletal muscles also known as skeletal muscle mass8
  • It reduces the pain sensitivity of people with musculoskeletal conditions9
  • Improves the strength, quality of life and independence of older adults3 

Mental health:

  • Aerobic exercise helps people with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • It reduces the risk of developing mental health conditions by reducing physical inactivity10
  • It improves sleep quality and length11

If you have a chronic health condition, speak with your doctor about how aerobic exercises will benefit your condition.

Aerobic exercise examples

You can choose to perform aerobic exercises at home, at the gym or outdoors.

At-home aerobic exercises

  • Dancing 
  • Jump rope

Aerobic exercises you can do at the gym:

  • Kickboxing
  • Stationary cycling
  • Using the elliptical machine
  • Using the stair stepper

Outdoor aerobic exercises:

  • Walking
  • Cycling
  • Running
  • Jogging
  • Swimming

If you have a workout routine, you can incorporate these aerobic exercises into it.

  • Jumping jacks
  • High knees
  • Lunges
  • Burpees 
  • Mountain climbers
  • Jump squats
  • Football drills
  • Arm circles 
  • Boxing 
  • Leg lifts
  • Bicycle crunch

Aerobic exercises can be done at different intensities.

Low-intensity aerobic exercises:

  • Casual walking 
  • Light jogging
  • Cycling at a relaxed speed12

Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise:

  • Walking briskly for 3 kilometres in 30 minutes
  • Riding a bike for 4 kilometres in 15 minutes on a flat terrain
  • Swimming
  • Doing water aerobics
  • General gardening 
  • Fast dancing
  • Wheeling yourself in a wheelchair for 30 minutes13

Vigorous intensity aerobic exercises:

  • Brisk walking, fast jogging or running
  • Riding a bicycle for 16 kilometres in 1 hour or 8 kilometres in 30 minutes
  • Hiking 
  • Swimming laps
  • Jumping rope
  • Heavy gardening14

How long and how often is enough

Generally, how long and often you should exercise will depend on your body. If you are just starting, you mustn’t overwork yourself. With time, you’ll be able to meet and exceed your exercise and fitness goals. If you have a health condition, you should seek advice from your doctor on how long and often you should exercise and how intense your workout should be.

How long should I aerobic Exercise

Guidelines suggest that all healthy adults, aged 18 to 65, participate in moderate-intensity aerobic exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes on five days of each week, or vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise for a minimum of 20 minutes on three days of each week. This is in addition to activities that maintain or increase muscular strength and endurance which should be done a minimum of two days per week.15

You might be wondering how to know if your exercise is intense enough. The talk test is a simple way to find out. If your exercise is of moderate intensity you will be able to talk but not sing. If you’re exercising at a vigorous intensity you will not be able to get in a few words without pausing to take in a breath.

Another way to gauge the intensity of your exercise is to observe your heart rate. For moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, your heart rate should be 64% to 76% of your maximum heart rate. For vigorous intensity aerobic exercise, your heart rate should be 77% to 93% of your maximum heart rate. You can estimate what your maximum heart rate should be by subtracting your age from 220. So, a 30-year-old person with an estimated maximum heart rate of 190 beats per minute should aim for a heart rate of 122 to 144 beats per minute in a moderate-intensity workout and 145 to 177 beats per minute for a vigorous-intensity workout.

You can measure your heart rate with a fitness tracker, a heart rate monitor or manually. To measure your heart rate manually, you’ll need your index and middle fingers and a timer. Your pulse or heart rate is how many times your heart beats in a minute. The easiest place to check your pulse is at your wrist. Place your index and middle fingers just below the wrist and towards the thumb of your opposite hand. The palm of the opposite arm should face up. Press lightly with your fingers and count your heartbeat for 60 seconds. That is your heart rate.16

How often should I aerobic exercise

How often you should do aerobic exercise will depend on how long you exercise each day. Generally, you should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise and 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise spread over a week. Don't forget the 2 days of strength training workouts you’re recommended to do.

What this means is that you can perform a moderate-intensity workout for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week vigorous-intensity exercise for 25 minutes a day, 3 days a week. You can choose to mix both intensities for an equivalent time.17

Things to remember

There are a few things you should be aware of before you start any form of exercise.

  • Physical activity refers to all forms of movement including movement when you’re at work, at home or during your leisure time. Try finding ways to move throughout the day to form an active lifestyle
  • When you start exercising, you may not be able to meet your intensity or duration goals. This is fine. Consistency is key to getting the benefits of exercising and improving your exercise capabilities, not how much you exercise
  • Wearing an appropriate exercise outfit and exercising in a conducive environment can make your workout more efficient
  • Don’t forget to warm up and cool down during your workout
  • If you have any chronic condition, you should speak with your doctor for proper guidance before you start exercising


Aerobic exercises include any form of physical activity that uses large muscle groups and requires oxygen. As such, oxygen demand during these exercises increases. To meet up with this demand, your breathing and heart rate increase. Aerobic exercises, like any other form of physical activity, have many benefits and help improve health conditions.


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  2. Hargreaves M, Spriet LL. Skeletal muscle energy metabolism during exercise. Nat Metab [Internet]. 2020 Sep [cited 2022 Nov 10];2(9):817–28. Available from: 
  3. Fleg JL. Aerobic exercise in the elderly: a key to successful aging. Discovery Medicine [Internet]. 2012 Mar 26 [cited 2022 Nov 10];13(70):223–8. Available from: 
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  5. Wang Y, Xu D. Effects of aerobic exercise on lipids and lipoproteins. Lipids Health Dis [Internet]. 2017 July 5 [cited 2022 Nov 10];16:132. Available from: 
  6. Lumb A. Diabetes and exercise. Clin Med (Lond) [Internet]. 2014 Dec [cited 2022 Nov 10];14(6):673–6. Available from: 
  7. Colberg SR, Sigal RJ, Yardley JE, Riddell MC, Dunstan DW, Dempsey PC, et al. Physical activity/exercise and diabetes: a position statement of the american diabetes association. Diabetes Care [Internet]. 2016 Nov 1 [cited 2022 Nov 10];39(11):2065–79. Available from: 
  8. Konopka AR, Harber MP. Skeletal muscle hypertrophy after aerobic exercise training. Exerc Sport Sci Rev [Internet]. 2014 Apr [cited 2022 Nov 10];42(2):53–61. Available from: 
  9. Tan L, Cicuttini FM, Fairley J, Romero L, Estee M, Hussain SM, et al. Does aerobic exercise affect pain sensitisation in individuals with musculoskeletal pain? A systematic review. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders [Internet]. 2022 Feb 3 [cited 2022 Nov 10];23(1):113. Available from: 
  10. Smith PJ, Merwin RM. The role of exercise in management of mental health disorders: an integrative review. Annu Rev Med [Internet]. 2021 Jan 27 [cited 2022 Nov 10];72:45–62. Available from: 
  11. The importance of aerobic activity [Internet]. Center For Fitness and Wellness. 2016 [cited 2022 Nov 10]. Available from: 
  12. Are these 7 low-intensity workouts right for you? [Internet]. [cited 2022 Nov 10]. Available from:  
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  14. Measuring physical activity intensity | physical activity | cdc [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2022 Nov 10]. Available from: 
  15. Physical activity guidelines resources [Internet]. ACSM_CMS. [cited 2022 Nov 10]. Available from: 
  16. Target heart rate and estimated maximum heart rate | physical activity | cdc [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2022 Nov 10]. Available from: 
  17. Physical activity guidelines for adults aged 19 to 64 [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2022 Nov 10]. Available from:
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Roseline Akpa

Bachelor of Science degree in Human Physiology, Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria

She is a freelance health writer interested in mental health, holistic health, and health tech.

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