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Aerobic exercise is any activity that gets your blood pumping and large muscle groups working. It’s also known as cardiovascular activity. Examples of aerobic exercise include:

  • brisk walking
  • swimming
  • heavy cleaning or gardening
  • running
  • cycling
  • playing soccer

Experts recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week. Brisk walking or swimming are examples of moderate activity. Running or cycling are examples of vigorous activity.

But why is aerobic exercise recommended? Read on to learn about the benefits and to get tips for ways to incorporate aerobic exercise into your routine.

1. Improves cardiovascular health

Aerobic exercise is recommended by the American Heart Association and by most doctors to people with, or at risk for, heart disease. That’s because exercise strengthens your heart and helps it more efficiently pump blood throughout the body.

Cardiovascular exercise can also help lower blood pressure, and keep your arteries clear by raising “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and lowering “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels in the blood.

If you’re specifically looking to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, aim for 40 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise between 3 and 4 times each week.

2. Lowers blood pressure

Cardiovascular exercise may help you manage symptoms of high blood pressure. That’s because exercise can help lower blood pressure. Here are other ways to lower blood pressure without medicine.

3. Helps regulate blood sugar

Regular physical activity helps regulate insulin levels and lower blood sugar, all while keeping body weight in check. In a study on people with type 2 diabetes, researchers found that any form of movement, either aerobic or anaerobic, may have these effects.

4. Reduces asthma symptoms

Aerobic exercise can help people with asthma lessen both the frequency and severity of asthma attacks. You should still talk to your doctor before beginning a new exercise routine if you have asthma, however. They may recommend specific activities or precautions to help keep you safe while working out.

5. Reduces chronic pain

If you have chronic back pain, cardiovascular exercise — specifically low-impact activities, like swimming or aqua aerobics — may help you get back muscle function and endurance. Exercise can also help you lose weight, which may further reduce chronic back pain.

6. Aids sleep

If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, try cardiovascular exercise during your waking hours.

A study on individuals with chronic sleep issues revealed that a regular exercise program combined with sleep hygiene education is an effective treatment for insomnia.

Participants engaged in aerobic activity for 16 weeks and then completed questionnaires about their sleep and general mood. The activity group reported better sleep quality and duration, as well as improvements in their daytime wakefulness and vitality.

Exercising too close to bedtime may make it more difficult to sleep, however. Try to finish your workout at least two hours before bedtime.

7. Regulates weight

You may have heard that diet and exercise are the building blocks to weight loss. But aerobic exercise alone may hold the power to help you lose weight and keep it off.

In one study, researchers asked overweight participants to keep their diets the same, but to engage in exercise sessions that would burn either 400 to 600 calories, 5 times a week, for 10 months.

The results showed significant weight loss, between 4.3 and 5.7 percent of their starting weights, for both men and women. Most participants walked or jogged on treadmills for the majority of their exercise sessions. If you don’t have access to a treadmill, try taking a few brisk walks or jogs a day, such as during your lunch break or before dinner.

Depending on your weight and speed, you may need to walk or jog up to 4 miles to burn 400 to 600 calories. Cutting calories in addition to aerobic exercise can reduce the amount of exercise needed to lose the same amount of weight.

8. Strengthens immune system

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University examined active and sedentary women and the impact of exercise on their immune systems.

  • one group exercised on a treadmill for 30 minutes
  • another group did a burst of intense activity over 30 seconds
  • the last group did not exercise

All women had their blood taken before, after, and at different intervals in the days and weeks after these exercise sessions.

The results showed that regular and moderate aerobic exercise increases certain antibodies in the blood called immunoglobulins. That ultimately strengthens the immune system. The sedentary group of women saw no improvement in immune system function and their cortisol levels were much higher than those in the active groups.

9. Improves brain power

Did you know that the brain starts losing tissue after you reach age 30? Scientists have uncovered that aerobic exercise may slow this loss and improve cognitive performance.

To test this theory, 55 older adults submitted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans for evaluation. The participants were then examined to assess their health, including aerobic fitness. The adults who were most fit showed fewer reductions in the frontal, parietal, and temporal areas of the brain. Overall, their brain tissue was more robust.

What does this mean for you? Aerobic exercise does the body and brain good.

10. Boosts mood

Moving your body may also improve your mood. In one study on individuals with depression, participants walked on a treadmill doing intervals for 30 minutes a session. After 10 days, they were asked to report any changes in their mood.

All participants reported a significant reduction in their symptoms of depression. These results suggest that engaging in exercise, even for a short period of time, may have a big impact on mood.

You don’t need to wait almost two weeks to see improvement. The study results revealed that even a single exercise session may be enough to give you a boost.

11. Reduces risk of falls

One in three people over the age of 65 fall each year. Falls can lead to broken bones, and potentially create lifelong injuries or disabilities. Exercise may help reduce your risk for falls. And if you’re worried you’re too old to start exercising, don’t be. You have much to gain.

Results from a study on women ages 72 to 87 revealed that aerobic dance, for example, can reduce the risk of falling by promoting better balance and agility. The women worked out for an hour, 3 times a week, for a total of 12 weeks. The dance sessions included plenty of squatting motions, leg balance, and other basic gross motor tasks.

At the end of the study, the women in the control group performed significantly better on tasks like standing on one leg with their eyes closed. They also had better grip strength and reach, all important physical strengths that can protect the body from falls.

Be sure to talk to your doctor before starting a new workout routine, and start slow. Group classes can be a great way to safely exercise. The instructor can tell you if you’re doing moves correctly and they can also give you modifications, if needed, to reduce your risk for injury.

12. Safe for most people, including kids

Cardiovascular exercise is recommended for most groups of people, even those who are older or who have chronic health conditions. The key is working with your doctor to find what works best for you and is safe in your particular situation.

Even children should get regular aerobic exercise. In fact, recommendations for kids are slightly higher than for adults. Aim to get your child moving at least 60 minutes or more each day. Moderate activities are good, but kids should get into the vigorous zone at least three days each week.

13. Affordable and accessible

You don’t need any fancy equipment or a gym membership to work out. Getting daily exercise can be as easy as taking a walk around your neighborhood or going for a jog with a friend on a local trail.

Other ways to get your aerobic exercise for free or cheap:

  • Check local schools or community centers for pool hours. Many offer free admission to residents or have sliding scale rates. Some centers even offer free or inexpensive fitness classes to the general public.
  • Browse online to find free workouts on sites like YouTube. Fitness Blender, Yoga with Adriene, and Blogilates are popular channels.
  • Check with your employer about discounts or free memberships at area gyms. If your workplace doesn’t offer anything, you may be eligible for incentives through your health insurance provider.

Speak with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine. While aerobic exercise is appropriate for most people, there are certain situations where you may want to be under guidance of a physician.

For example:

  • Exercise lowers blood sugar. If you have diabetes, check your blood sugar levels before and after exercise. Eating a healthy snack before you start sweating will also help prevent your levels from dipping too low.
  • Spend extra time warming up before beginning your activity if you have muscle and joint pain, such as with arthritis. Consider taking a warm shower before lacing up or heading to the gym. Shoes with good cushioning and motion control can also help.
  • If you have asthma, look for exercises with shorter bursts of activity, like tennis or baseball. That way you can take breaks to rest your lungs. And don’t forget to use an inhaler when necessary.
  • If you’re new to exercise, ease in to activity. Start over several weeks by doing 10 to 20 minutes every other day. This will help with fatigue and muscle soreness.

Your doctor can offer more guidelines and suggestions for your specific condition or fitness level.

Most people should aim to get around 30 minutes of moderate cardiovascular activity at least five days each week. This works out to around 150 minutes or 2 1/2 hours per week. You can mix up intensities and activities to keep it interesting.

If you’re new to activity, start short and slow. You can always build as your fitness level improves. Remember: Any movement is better than no movement.

If you’re pressed for time, consider breaking up your exercise throughout the day into several 10-minute chunks. Even short sessions of aerobic exercise are enough to reap the benefits.