Is 30 minutes a day of aerobic exercise the magic bullet you’ve been looking for? With benefits ranging from heart disease prevention to stress reduction, it’s one of the best things you can do for your health.
Aerobic exercise - a type of movement such as walking or bicycling that gets your heart pumping and increases your oxygen intake - can help you live longer and healthier and can help you prevent and manage chronic health conditions.
Take a look at the many benefits associated with aerobic exercise. Get motivated to reap the rewards.
How your body responds to aerobic exercise
During aerobic exercise, you repeatedly move large muscles in your arms, legs and hips. Aerobic fitness, also called cardiovascular fitness, refers to the ability of your heart, blood vessels and lungs (cardiovascular system) to supply fuel during sustained physical activity.
When you’re aerobically fit, your body more efficiently takes in and uses oxygen to sustain movement more efficiently. To sustain repetitive muscle movement, your body:
- Takes in more oxygen. You breathe faster and more deeply to maximize the amount of oxygen in your blood stream.
- Pumps blood faster and more forcefully. To produce energy and deliver oxygen more effectively to the rest of your body, your heart beats faster. The force of each beat of your heart increases to maximize blood flow to your muscles and back to your lungs.
- Increases the diameter and number of small blood vessels. To get more oxygen to your muscles, small blood vessels (capillaries) dilate and carry away waste products, such as carbon dioxide and lactic acid. Over time, more capillaries will actually develop in the muscle to provide for more efficient oxygen delivery and waste removal.
- Avoids overheating. Your body warms up when you repeatedly move your muscles. To compensate for the rise in temperature, your body releases heat into the air as you breathe out. You also lose heat, water and minerals as you sweat.
- Releases endorphins. Regular aerobic exercise releases endorphins, your body’s natural painkillers.
Your body is a complex machine that will get stronger and more efficient as it adapts to a regular program of aerobic exercise.
Aerobic exercise helps you live longer, live healthier
Taking part in regularly scheduled aerobic exercise can help you prevent certain diseases and manage others. It can also help you feel better.
Prevent certain diseases and conditions
Aerobic exercise can help:
- Reduce your risk of coronary artery disease. Heart disease is one of the top causes of death for men and women in the United States. If you’ve had a Heart attack, achieving a higher level of aerobic fitness can help prevent a second attack.
- Reduce your risk of developing hypertension (high blood pressure). If you have high blood pressure, aerobic exercise can help lower it.
- Improve blood fats. Exercise increases the concentration of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) and decreases the concentration of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) in your blood.
- Reduce your risk of Stroke. Improving blood fats results in less build-up of plaques in your arteries. Deposits of plaques in blood vessels leading to your brain can result in a stroke.
- Reduce your risk of developing some cancers, including breast, colon, prostate and endometrial cancer.
- Reduce your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Aerobic exercise helps you control your weight, reducing the likelihood of your being overweight or obese, conditions that can lead to type 2 diabetes.
- Ward off viral illnesses. Aerobic exercise helps activate your immune system and prepare it to fight off infection. People who exercise regularly are less susceptible to minor viral illnesses, such as colds and flu.
Manage diseases and conditions
Aerobic exercise can help:
- Lower your blood sugar levels if you have Diabetes. Keeping your blood sugar within target range can help you avoid long-term complications of diabetes, such as kidney failure or heart disease.
- Manage your weight. Combined with a healthy diet and appropriate strength training, aerobic exercise can help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
- Strengthen your heart muscle. A stronger heart can pump more blood for every heartbeat, which means your heart doesn’t need to beat as fast during rest or exercise.
- Improve blood flow to all parts of your body. A stronger heart muscle pumps blood more efficiently.
- Relieve chronic muscle pain and fibromyalgia. Aerobic exercise stimulates the growth of tiny blood vessels (capillaries) in your muscles. This helps your body deliver oxygen to your muscles more efficiently and remove irritating metabolic waste products, such as lactic acid.
- Boost your mood. Aerobic exercise can ease the gloominess of depression and the tension associated with anxiety.
- Build strong bones. Weight-bearing aerobic exercise, such as walking, can reduce your risk of Osteoporosis and its complications. Low-impact aerobic exercises - such as swimming, cycling and pool exercises - can help keep you fit without putting excessive stress on your joints, making these exercises good choices if you have conditions such as arthritis.
Feel better and enjoy life more
Aerobic exercise can help:
- Increase your stamina. Aerobic exercise may make you tired during and right after the activity. But over the long term it can increase your stamina and reduce fatigue.
- Manage your stress. A session of aerobic exercise after a stressful workday can help you relax.
- Improve your sexual performance. In 2003, scientists at Harvard School of Public Health found that men who ran at least three hours each week reported sexual functioning like that of men two to five years younger.
Stay active and independent as you get older
Aerobic exercise can help you:
- Maintain your mobility. Maintaining a program of regular aerobic exercise keeps your muscles efficient and strong, which can help you stay steady on your feet as you get older. If you rely on a wheelchair, aerobic exercise that focuses on your arms, shoulders and upper body - rowing or cross-country skiing using a sit-ski, for example - can help your upper body stay strong while improving your cardiovascular health.
- Stay independent. As you age, aerobic exercise can help your muscles stay strong, which will help you avoid falls and fractures.
- Extend your lifespan. People who engage in cardiovascular exercise appear to live longer than those who don’t.
Regardless of your age, weight or athletic ability, aerobic exercise is good for you. Is there a particular health benefit that motivates you to get moving?
Many ways to achieve aerobic fitness
Achieving a higher level of aerobic fitness can be fun because there are many activities from which to choose. Among the many options are:
- Aerobic dance
- Cross-country skiing
- Aquatic exercise
- Stair climbing
- Elliptical training
Walking is a popular form of aerobic exercise. It’s simple and inexpensive. All you need is a pair of comfortable walking shoes that fit your feet. You can even benefit from time spent doing routine aerobic activities such as gardening or housework.
Get your body moving to experience the health benefits
You now know about the health benefits of aerobic exercise and how it affects your body. Let the health benefits inspire you to seek a higher level of aerobic fitness. Live longer and stay healthier with just 30 minutes a day.
Revision date: July 6, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD