The Benefits of Aerobic Exercise

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Many who are facing the challenge of being overweight or obese wonder what type of exercise they should engage in, and which kind of exercise will help with weight loss and weight maintenance. There is good evidence that aerobic exercise leads to sustained benefits not only for losing weight and keeping it off ​but also for long-term cardiovascular fitness and general health and well-being.

What Is Aerobic Exercise?

Strictly speaking, aerobic exercise includes any form of exercise that raises your heart rate for a sustained period of time due to the increased demand for oxygenated blood to working muscles and body systems.

This is often also classified in lay terms as “cardio.”

In his book, Aerobics Program for Total Well-Being, Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper defined aerobic exercise as an “endurance activity which takes place over a relatively long period and depends on establishing a balance between the intake and expenditure of oxygen.”

Dr. Cooper developed the Aerobics Point System approximately 45 years ago, and determined that aerobic exercise was the best type of fitness activity to produce benefits for both the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, improving not only circulation but overall health.

Some examples of common activities that count as aerobic exercise are walking, swimming, jogging or running, cycling, dancing (such as Zumba) and cross-country skiing, to name but a few.

Benefits Beyond Weight Loss

The majority of studies have found that combining aerobic exercise with dietary changes is required in order to lose weight, but exercise also plays a key role in maintaining weight loss.

However, the benefits of aerobic exercise extend far beyond exercise alone.

One study of nearly 100 obese older adults found that those who added exercise to their dietary weight-loss strategies had greater improvement in physical function. Other studies have found that aerobic exercise can improve lung function, obstructive sleep apnea, and may even help prevent or delay cognitive decline.

Aerobic exercise also has a favorable effect on the cholesterol, or lipid, profile. It only takes a small amount of weight loss (5% to 10%) to see significant reductions in triglyceride levels, for instance. Aerobic exercise can also help lower LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) and raise HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol). By these mechanisms and others, regular aerobic exercise greatly lowers the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.


Cooper KH. Aerobics Program for Total Well-Being: Exercise, Diet, and Emotional Balance. Bantam 1985.

Cooper Health Tips: Top Five Aerobic Exercises. Accessed online at on November 21, 2014.

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Johns DJ, Hartmann-Boyce J, Jebb SA, et al. Diet or exercise intervention vs combined behavioral weight management programs: a systematic review and meta-analysis of direct comparisons. J Acad Nutr Diet 2014;114:1557-1568.

Villareal DT, Chode S, Parimi N, et al. Weight loss, exercise, or both and physical function in obese older adults. N Engl J Med 2011;364:1218-1229.

Brunzell JD. Hypertriglyceridemia. N Engl J Med 2007;357:1009-1017.

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