America has an obesity problem. The National Institutes of Health estimates that two in five adults are overweight and one out of every three adults are obese. Though a healthy diet has the biggest impact on our waistline, the amount of exercise we get makes a big difference, too.
In addition to quantity, the quality and type of exercise we engage in also matters. "Aerobic exercise is a cornerstone of physical fitness," says Austin "Ozzie" Gontang, a licensed psychotherapist at Pacific Pearl of La Jolla and the director of the San Diego Marathon Clinic.
What is aerobic exercise?
Aerobic exercise, also known as cardio, "involves activities that use large muscle groups rhythmically and continuously, raising the heart and breathing rates," explains Gontang. He says that the word "aerobic" means "with oxygen" because it's a type of physical fitness that uses oxygen to meet energy demands during exercise.
Another defining aspect of aerobic exercise is its accessibility to many people through a wide range of activities such as running, cycling, swimming, brisk walking, dancing, hot yoga, using an elliptical machine and playing basketball and other sports. "Many forms of aerobic exercise can be done with minimal equipment and can be adapted to various fitness levels," says Gontang.
What are the health benefits of aerobic exercise?
While aerobic exercises that demand more of the body also yield better outcomes, all forms of cardio have health benefits. These benefits include blood sugar control, muscle and bone growth, reduced diabetes risk, boosted immune health and improved cardiovascular health since "regular aerobic exercise strengthens the heart and lungs," says Gontang. He adds that aerobic exercise can also help lower blood pressure, improve circulation, increase lung capacity and blood flow to the brain and improve sleep quality.
David Herzberg, a physical therapist and owner of Launch Physical Therapy and Sports Performance Center in Phoenix, echoes many similar health benefits that come with doing aerobic exercises and adds that cardio can also help with weight loss/weight management, lower cholesterol levels and enhanced strength, endurance and mobility. "Regular aerobic exercise will improve the quality of your life and prolong your lifespan," he says.
Any such benefits are only likely to be acquired, however, when one is willing to spend the time quality exercise requires. "It's generally advised to engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise per week," says Gontang.
Cardio for weight loss: What experts say you should do to shed pounds.
What are the best aerobic exercises?
While different aerobic exercises focus on different outcomes such as targeting specific muscle groups or improved mental health, the primary goal of cardio should be doing something you enjoy enough you'll want to keep at it. Some aerobic exercises to consider incorporating into your weekly routine could include swimming, cycling, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), Pilates and weightlifting or other forms of resistance training such as push-ups, lunges, squats or planks.
Herzberg says it's hard to beat the convenience and emotional and physical health payoff of jogging or running especially. "You can just go out your front door and enjoy the beautiful ambiance of the outdoor environment," he says. "Jogging or running is also a good option for aerobic conditioning since you can manage the speed and duration in which you perform it."
Gontang agrees, and similarly praises the accessibility and simplicity of brisk walking as yet another aerobic exercise option. "Walking can be done by nearly anyone and improves cardiovascular health, aids in weight management and is gentle on the joints," he says.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What is aerobic exercise? Cardio health benefits, examples explained.