The phrase "aerobic exercise" probably evokes associations with Denise Austin's mom's jazz classes or exercise videos. Or maybe you use the term as a synonym for cardio. Most of these assumptions are correct, but aerobic exercise can be a bit more complicated - and it really comes down to the intensity of your training.

What exactly are aerobic exercise, and which workouts count as such? To help you decode all this training jargon, we spoke to experts who break it down so you can incorporate aerobic exercise (and its counterpoint, anaerobic exercise) into your workouts. Find out exactly what these words mean for your fitness - and for your health.

What are aerobic exercise?

When you do aerobic exercise, you move large groups of muscles (think of your legs, buttocks, and core) simultaneously, usually rhythmically and for longer periods of time, explains Dr. Michele Olson, CSCS, senior clinical professor of sports science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, AL. "Your breathing is getting faster, and so is your heart rate to about 60 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate, but not above that maximum," says Olson.

All aerobic exercise counts as cardiovascular activity, so you'll often hear the word "cardio" instead of "aerobics." (FYI, however, not all cardio is aerobic, but more on that below.) So you can label activities like running, swimming, cycling, and even brisk walking as aerobic exercise.

Key to Aerobic Movement: “You need to be able to stay active for more than two minutes with sufficient oxygen intake,” explains Noam Tamir, CSCS, owner of TS Fitness in New York. This means that even as your breathing rate increases, you shouldn't be gasping for air. "The intensity is usually light to moderate, so you can continue for about 30 to 60 minutes without increasing your heart rate significantly."

While most aerobic exercise falls into the low to medium intensity category, there are different levels. "Low-intensity aerobic exercise builds endurance, such as brisk walking or maybe group dance-inspired fitness," explains Olson. This would hit the lower heart rate range of, say, about 60 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. Moderate intensity aerobic work involves a heart rate of 70 to 80 percent of maximum and can include training such as step aerobics and jogging. Finally, high-intensity aerobic training increases your heart rate by 80 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate. For this, you can do twirling, running faster, or running up stairs. However, it stops doing it with effort on all sides.

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What is the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise

In summary, aerobic activity involves sustained physical exertion, typically for 30 to 60 minutes, while keeping your heart rate constant at 60 to 90 percent of your maximum. You are able to inhale and exhale evenly, keeping your pace because the oxygen you take in is sufficient. (Aerobics literally means "in the presence of oxygen"). Aerobic exercise is more duration and less intensity, says Tamir. "Your body uses both fatty acids and carbohydrates for fuel in order to maintain submaximal exertion," adds Olson.

On the other hand, anaerobic exercise is where maximum effort plays a role. This is another form of cardio where you should only be able to stay active for about 30 seconds before needing a break. It should be quite difficult to catch your breath during this type of training (anaerobic means "no oxygen"). Explosive exercises such as plyometry, sprinting, and even weightlifting are examples of anaerobic exercises. "The body uses phosphocreatine and carbohydrates as fuel [for anaerobic exercise] because they can be broken down quickly," explains Olson. "Fats take too long to break down as an energy source."

Interval training and circuit activities are strong examples of activities that typically involve both anaerobic and aerobic fitness. “In these classes, you push to the max for short periods followed by less intensive breaks,” explains Olson. "It improves both anaerobic and strength performance, and also maintains aerobic fitness during tact."

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What are the health benefits of aerobic exercise?
Cardio days provide some of the best days for your cardiovascular system (hence the name), but the benefits extend beyond your heart. "Aerobic activity lowers blood pressure and blood lipids, and normalizes blood glucose levels," explains Olson. All of this will help you live longer and lower your risk of diseases like diabetes.

With tons of research backing up these aerobic benefits, the American Heart Association recommends people do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week. In addition to fighting the risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, it can also help keep your brain fit, improve bone health (even more so if you do it frequently and with little impact), and fight depression.

Moreover, the more aerobic exercise you do, the better you can handle it. Aerobic training can increase the size and strength of slow twitch muscles - those involved in longer, long-term training efforts, such as long-distance running. It can also improve VO2 max, the main fitness level indicator that shows how much oxygen your body can take in and use. With everything to do with increased endurance, says Tamir - in everyday life, regular aerobic exercise also simply means that you can run to catch a bus or walk for miles without feeling tired.

How to practice aerobics at home:
While typical aerobic activities include jogging, swimming, cycling, rowing, and brisk walking (just to name a few, of course), circuit workouts also work. "All you have to do is exercise with the required heart rate and intensity to be able to maintain it for a longer period of time," says Tamir.

If you don't feel like going outside or even leaving the house, but still want to do some aerobics, there's a perfect solution: this weight training program from Tamir. Do the following 12 exercises, 30 seconds each and 5 rounds, with as little rest between exercises as possible:

  • High knees
  • mountaineers
  • Jumping butts
  • Strikes / worms
  • Lunges alternating with body weight backwards
  • High jumps
  • Squats with body weight
  • Side jumps
  • Walking lunges
  • Rompers
  • Toe taps to a block or step

Something to remember while doing this circuit: work at a moderate intensity so moving from movement to movement without interruptions shouldn't be too difficult. If you need a break, go a little slower. You'll get better every time.