Whether you call it aerobic or cardiovascular or endurance exercise, you’re probably talking about the same thing: getting your heart pumping and oxygenated blood flowing, with the goal of improving your cardiorespiratory health. But it benefits more than just your heart.
That means aerobic exercise makes the heart more efficient and capable of moving more oxygen-carrying blood with every beat. The lungs adapt to be able to take in more oxygen, and the muscles become equipped to use more oxygen.
Another way to think about aerobic exercise or “cardio” is that it's the type of workout where your heart rate and breathing increase, but not so much that you feel like you need to stop and rest. Think running, speed walking, stair climbing, cycling, and swimming, among other activities.
As you get started toward the recommended 30 minutes of moderately intense aerobic exercise five days per week, aim to exercise at a level that just lets you keep up a conversation during the activity. If you can get out three or four sentences in a row without gasping for air, it’s a sign that you’re maintaining an intensity that is truly aerobic, meaning aerobic metabolism is supplying the vast majority of your body’s energy, Jonesco says. At this intensity, your heart rate should be roughly 60 percent of your maximum heart rate. To find your max heart rate, subtract your age from 220. Multiply that number by 0.60 to obtain your target heart rate for moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, he says.
If you’re healthy and have already built up a base level of aerobic fitness, you can shoot for a higher target heart rate, up to 80 or even 90 percent of your maximum heart rate, Jonesco says. At this intensity, you will likely be able to say a couple of words before needing to gasp for air. You may not be able to talk at all. Keep in mind, however, that intensity predicts duration, so you won’t be able to keep up this intensity for very long. However, high-intensity interval training — alternating between bouts of all-out effort and low-intensity recovery — is a great way to improve cardiovascular health when you’re short on time, he says
Whatever your preferred exercise intensity, it’s also important to choose activities that you enjoy and will stick with over the long term. Walking, biking, hiking, dancing, and gardening are all great forms of aerobic exercise that you can easily integrate into your day. After all, aerobic exercise can greatly improve your health even if you perform it in shorter segments throughout the day.
Sure, it’s aerobic exercise, but it’s not a race. Focus on taking slow and steady steps — and you’ll benefit from aerobic exercise for years to come.