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Aerobic exercise – the energy booster

In aerobic activity, your body uses oxygen in a process that breaks down glucose and fat for energy. Aerobic exercise refers to any physical activity that uses the large muscles in your arms, legs and hips and makes your heart and lungs work harder.

About aerobic exercise

Aerobic means "with oxygen". Aerobic exercise refers to the use of oxygen when muscles generate energy during moderate-intensity physical activity. Good examples of aerobic exercise are swimming, cycling, rowing, jogging, brisk walking, cross country skiing, touch football and aerobics or ‘cardio’ classes at the gym. Do these exercises regularly and you can get something wonderful in return — stamina. This means you’ll be able to do any kind of physical activity for longer without getting tired.

How does aerobic exercise give you more stamina?

It increases the capacity of your heart and lungs to take oxygen-rich blood to your muscles. This means your muscles can produce energy for movement over a longer period. You may then find it easier to do any kind of physical activity — walking, gardening, shopping — for longer. When physical activity gets easier, you’re likely to do more of it. This can help build stronger muscles that let you do even more physical activity without feeling tired.

What are the benefits of aerobic exercise?

  • Weight loss. Aerobic exercise burns kilojoules and when combined with a healthy diet it helps you lose excess fat. Losing inches around your midline can be especially important. It’s recommended that waist measurements remain below 94 centimetres for men and 80 centimetres for women for better health. Measurements above these figures increase your risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
  • Healthier arteries. By reducing ‘bad’ LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol and raising ‘good’ HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, regular aerobic exercise can reduce the build up of plaque in the arteries.
  • A stronger heart. Strengthening your heart muscle means your heart can pump more blood for every heartbeat, which means your heart doesn't need to beat as fast during rest or exercise.
  • Reduced risk of coronary heart disease. Even if you've had a heart attack previously, achieving a higher level of aerobic fitness can help prevent another heart attack.
  • Lower risk of chronic disease. As well as helping prevent heart disease and stroke, regular aerobic exercise can lower the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. Weight-bearing aerobic exercises like walking and jogging can help reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
  • Improved mood. Research has shown that exercise can reduce symptoms of mild-to moderate depression.
  • A sharper mind. Research also suggests that regular aerobic exercise can help improve certain mental functions, including attention and memory. There is increasing evidence that it may slow cognitive decline in older people.

How much aerobic exercise should I do?

It’s recommended that adults get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most days of the week. This can help reduce heart disease risk. Do at least 10 minutes at a time without stopping.

‘Moderate-intensity’ means activities such as brisk walking (as opposed to strolling or window-shopping). Your heart rate is slightly increased. As a guide, you should be able to talk comfortably — but not sing.

It’s thought that a few sessions of more vigorous exercise increases fitness and protection against heart disease even more. In vigorous activity, you ‘huff and puff’ which can make talking in full sentences between breaths difficult. This happens in exercise like aerobics classes, speed walking, jogging, fast cycling, brisk rowing or sports such as football, netball and basketball.

For best results, it’s recommended you do vigorous activity for around 30 minutes, three to four days a week.

How can I get the most out of aerobic exercise?

  • Choose a form of aerobic exercise you enjoy that fits easily into your day
  • Start off slowly. Tackle low-to-moderate level activities at first and slowly increase the duration and intensity.
  • Try adding variety by including a mix of activities such as walking and cycling or walking and swimming. Exercise or dance classes at a local gym or community centre can also be fun, keep you motivated and stop you from getting bored.
  • Share your activity time with others — exercise with a friend or take your dog for a jog
  • Once you feel fitter, see every set of steps as an opportunity to boost your fitness. Because walking (or running) up steps is more challenging than on a level surface, stair climbing works your heart harder and does more to strengthen muscles in calves, thighs and buttocks. It burns up more kilojoules too. Several studies suggest that using stairs, especially when climbing, helps improve aerobic capacity and reduces your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Who is aerobic exercise suitable for?

Many activities count as aerobic, such as brisk walking, dancing and swimming. So, most people should be able to find one that suits them. If you’re unused to exercise, start slowly by walking for a few minutes at a time twice a day. Gradually increase your walking time and walk more briskly as you get fitter. Work toward walking for 20–30 minutes a day.

More vigorous forms of exercise aren’t generally recommended for some people. Check with your doctor first if:

  • you’re pregnant;
  • over 40;
  • have been leading a mostly inactive lifestyle
  • have heart disease, a family history of heart disease; or,
  • have any other major health problem.

What about avoiding injury?

Some types of aerobic exercise such as brisk walking and swimming carry less risk of injury than others. If you have arthritis, swimming is one aerobic activity that is unlikely to stress your joints. High impact activities that can stress joints, muscles tendons and ligaments include activities such as running, soccer, netball and aerobics classes. General tips to help reduce injury risk include:

  • Before you start exercising, spend a few minutes warming up the muscles that you’ll need to use. For example, walk for a few minutes before you start jogging or running. Warming up reduces the risk of straining or pulling muscles.
  • Avoid exaggerated movements that might cause an injury.
  • If your activity requires specific skills, such as rowing or swimming, expert coaching in correct technique and regular practice will help reduce injury risk.
  • If you’ve had any bone and joint problems in the past, such as problems with your knees or back, check with a sports medicine professional before starting any vigorous exercise.
  • Have the right gear for your activity. High impact activities such as running and aerobics classes and high-impact sports need suitable shoes to cushion the load on joints and muscles. Cyclists need to wear helmets.
  • If you feel pain or experience an injury while you’re exercising, stop immediately and seek medical advice. Don’t resume the exercise again until the injury is healed and you have the go ahead from your doctor.

Further information

Australian Sports Commission

Smartplay: sport safety and injury prevention program


Department of Health and Ageing (DOHA). An active way to better health: national physical activity guidelines for adults. 2005 [cited 2013, May 13]. Available from:

Meyer P, Kayser B, Mach F. Stair use for cardiovascular disease prevention. European journal of cardiovascular prevention and rehabilitation. 2009 Aug;16 Suppl 2:S17-8.

National Partnership Agreement on Preventive Health (NPAPH). How to measure yourself. [Internet]. 2010 [updated 08 October 2010]. Available from:

Rimer J, Dwan K, Lawlor Debbie A, Greig Carolyn A, McMurdo M, Morley W, et al. Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews [Internet]. 2012; The Cochrane Library 2012(7).

Rolland Y. Exercise and Dementia. In: Sinclair A, Morley J, Vellas B, editors. Pathy's Principles and Practice of Geriatric Medicine. Volume 1 & 2. Fifth ed. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd; 2012. p. 911-21.

Smith PJ, Blumenthal JA, Hoffman BM, Cooper H, Strauman TA, Welsh-Bohmer K, et al. Aerobic exercise and neurocognitive Performance: a meta-analytic review of randomized controlled trials. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2010;72(3):239-52.

The Fitness leader's handbook. Fourth ed. Egger G, Champion N, Bolton A, editors. East Roseville, N.S.W.: Kangaroo Press; 1998.

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Last updated: 13 May 2013

This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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