Updated 14th April 2022

How aerobic exercise can improve physical, mental, and heart health

Exercise helps you stay healthy, get stronger, and feel great, but there’s more than one type. 

Aerobic exercise involves using your larger muscles, like those in your arms and legs. The aim is to get your heart pumping more quickly, meaning you breathe harder and faster. That’s why it’s also known as cardiovascular exercise.

When you take brisk walks, swim, run, cycle, or dance, you’re doing aerobic exercise. And your body will thank you for it.

Your lungs and heart get used to this higher rate of activity and become stronger over time. This helps them work better. Aerobic exercise can also help you manage other factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol that can contribute to your risk of heart disease.

But it’s not only your heart and lungs that get the benefits of aerobic exercise. It can help you sleep better, support your immune system, boost your mental health, and maintain your brainpower.

Unpublished research by ZOE also suggests that people who exercise regularly have better blood sugar control, which is important for your long-term health. 

ZOE runs the largest nutritional study of its kind, with over 15,000 participants so far. It’s shown that everyone responds differently to food and that these responses are linked to your overall health, including your heart health.

Our research also suggests that eating the right foods for your body — and the bacteria that live in your gut — may help manage your risk of long-term conditions like heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, as well as your likelihood of gaining belly fat. 

You can take a free quiz to learn how ZOE can help you to eat the best foods for you.

Read on to find out more about the benefits of aerobic exercise, some types you can try, and how much is the right amount.

What is aerobic exercise?

Aerobic exercise involves large muscles that feed on oxygen, like the biceps, triceps, and shoulder muscles in your arms or the quads in your legs. 

It relies on your heart and lungs getting oxygen to your muscles. You breathe harder and faster to take more oxygen from the air, and your heart beats quicker to pump blood loaded with oxygen straight to your muscles through your arteries.

Aerobic exercise is any continuous exercise that:

  • uses the large muscle groups

  • keeps a rhythm going in your movements

What counts as aerobic exercise?

Repetitive, rhythmic exercises involving your larger muscle groups might include:

  • jogging

  • swimming

  • hiking

  • cycling

  • jumping jacks

  • sports that involve continual movement, like tennis, basketball, or soccer

But it’s not just dedicated training time that counts as an aerobic activity. The following might not feel like exercise when you’re doing them, but the American Heart Association (AHA) give them as examples of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity:

  • gardening, especially intense work like hoeing or digging

  • a brisk walk around the block

  • a slow cycle in the woods

  • a social dance

Exercise can and should slot into your life in a fun way that supports, rather than interrupts, your daily routine.

7 benefits of aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise helps your heart, lungs, and immune system work better, and it also boosts your mental agility and well-being. 

1. It makes your heart stronger

Given how much work aerobic exercise puts your heart and lungs through, it should form a key part of any heart health plan. Your heart is a pump, and strengthening it helps keep your blood flow efficient and regular.

Aerobic exercise increases the volume of blood being pumped by the heart. Each heartbeat moves more blood so your heart doesn’t have to work as hard. This means a slower resting heart rate and reduced blood pressure. 

2. It helps balance your cholesterol

Cholesterol isn’t all bad — in fact, your liver makes its own. “Good” cholesterol — known as HDL or high-density lipoprotein — helps remove more harmful types of cholesterol from your body. 

“Bad” cholesterol — LDL or low-density lipoprotein — can sometimes lodge in the walls of your blood vessels. Keeping your arteries clear of this “bad” cholesterol and avoiding blockages is crucial for preventing heart disease and stroke. 

A 2017 article published in The World Journal of Cardiology found that aerobic exercise can increase your “good” cholesterol and reduce your “bad” cholesterol.

3. It lowers your blood pressure

Aerobic exercise can help reduce your blood pressure — so much so that a 2020 review of 15 studies recommends it as a treatment for chronic high blood pressure alongside medication.

High blood pressure is one of the main causes of stroke. If blood regularly puts too much pressure on the walls of your blood vessels, it can increase their risk of clogging or bursting. During a stroke, a blood clot or a burst blood vessel can block blood flow to the brain, meaning that it goes without vital oxygen.

High blood pressure doesn’t cause noticeable symptoms until it reaches a severe stage. Making aerobic exercise part of your routine is one of the best ways to help prevent it.

4. It supports your immune system

Your immune system responds directly to exercise. 

Immediately after physical activity, more disease-fighting cells like white blood cells and proteins called cytokines start moving through your bloodstream. These target infections and harmful organisms in your body.

One small study involving people aged 66–84 found that the more exercise they did as part of their routines, the less likely they were to have had upper respiratory infections like colds and flu, and the less time these lasted.

Regular runners may also have a lower risk of dying from pneumonia and lung disease than those who don’t run.

Join our mailing list

Sign up for fresh insights into our scientific discoveries and the latest nutrition updates. No spam, just science.

5. It improves your blood sugar control

It’s perfectly normal for your blood sugar to rise and then fall after you eat. But regular large “spikes” and “crashes” in blood sugar levels have been linked to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

Unpublished research by ZOE scientists found that exercising after you eat reduces how much your blood sugar levels rise during the 2-hour window following a meal. 

People in the high activity group — who were active for more than two-thirds of this time — had an average of 35% lower blood sugar levels than those who were in the low activity group — who were active for less than a third of the time.

Those in the medium activity group had, on average, 18% lower blood sugar levels than the low activity group.  

Exercise can reduce your blood sugar responses after you eat.

Of course, exercising after you eat isn’t always practical. But regular exercise, even if it’s not after you eat, is good for your blood sugar control after meals in general, according to unpublished ZOE data. 

Another great way to keep your blood sugar in check is to eat the right foods for your unique metabolism in the first place.

ZOE runs the largest nutritional study in the world. The data we’ve collected show that everyone responds differently to food.

Our at-home test tells you about your individual blood sugar and blood fat responses to food, as well as the makeup of the bacteria that live in your gut, which also plays a part in your risk of long-term illnesses like heart disease.

The ZOE program gives you personalized nutrition advice to help you choose what’s best for your body. 

You can take our free quiz to learn more.

6. It could boost your brain and mental health

Exercise can have significant benefits in terms of your brain function and how you feel.

In a 2018 review of studies, researchers found that exercise boosts blood flow to the brain, improving memory, attention, and psychological well-being.  

Specific studies also suggest that regular exercise improves academic performance when you’re young and reduces your risk of dementia as you grow older. 

Aerobic exercise may also help people to manage mental health conditions. A 2021 review found that most research linking physical exercise with positive mental health outcomes involved aerobic exercise. 

It also concluded that an increasing amount of research supports both aerobic and anaerobic exercise for managing the effects of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The researchers accept that more research is needed, though, as people respond to exercise in different ways.

7. It helps you sleep better

According to research, the more you move, the better you snooze.

A 2018 review of nine studies found that exercise — particularly aerobic exercise — can help people with sleep disorders improve the quality of their sleep as effectively as counseling approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). 

Another study found that participants who did aerobic exercise for 6 months fell asleep more quickly and stayed asleep longer than a less active group.

Exercise, as we’ve seen above, can also help reduce the effects of anxiety and depression — one of which is insomnia, or not being able to fall and stay asleep. Exercise releases chemicals called endorphins that relieve pain and make you feel good, which may help you counter those bedtime jitters.

Summary

Aerobic exercise is a type of physical activity like running, swimming, or cycling that uses your larger muscles and increases the amount of oxygen you take in. 

It also includes less intense activities like vigorous gardening or a brisk walk. It’s important to tailor your exercise to your fitness level and aim to build from there.

Aerobic exercise can help to strengthen your heart and lungs, improve your cholesterol levels, reduce your blood pressure, boost your immune system and your mental health, and reduce your blood sugar levels after you eat.

The ZOE program can help you to manage your blood sugar levels and reach your long-term health goals by telling you the best foods for your unique metabolism.

You can take a free quiz to find out more.

Sources

Aerobic exercise affects sleep, psychological wellbeing and immune system parameters among subjects with chronic primary insomnia. African Health Sciences. (2020). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC8351861/  

Aerobic vs anaerobic exercise training effects on the cardiovascular system. World Journal of Cardiology. (2017). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC5329739/ 

American Heart Association recommendations for physical activity in adults and kids. (2018). https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/aha-recs-for-physical-activity-in-adults 

Cardiovascular effects and benefits of exercise. Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine. (2018). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6172294/

Cholesterol. (n.d.). https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol 

Effect of aerobic exercise on cognition, academic achievement, and psychosocial function in children: A systematic review of randomized control trials. Preventing Chronic Disease. (2013). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3809922/

Effects of physical exercise on cognitive functioning and wellbeing: biological and psychological benefits. Frontiers in Psychology. (2018). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC5934999/ 

Exercise and dementia prevention. Practical Neurology. (2020). https://pn.bmj.com/content/20/3/234.abstract

Exercise and sleep. (2022). https://www.sleep.org/how-sleep-works/exercise-affects-sleep/ 

Exercise can improve sleep quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PeerJ. (2018). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC6045928/ 

Exercise for stress and anxiety. (2021). https://adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/managing-anxiety/exercise-stress-and-anxiety 

Exercise reduces ambulatory blood pressure in patients with hypertension: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of the American Heart Association. (2020). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC7955398/ 

How high blood pressure can lead to stroke. (2022). https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/health-threats-from-high-blood-pressure/how-high-blood-pressure-can-lead-to-stroke 

Physical activity for immunity protection: inoculating populations with healthy living medicine in preparation for the next pandemic. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases. (2021). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC7195025/ 

Physical activity guidelines for Americans. (2021). https://health.gov/our-work/nutrition-physical-activity/physical-activity-guidelines 

Target heart rates chart. (2021). https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/target-heart-rates 

The role of exercise in management of mental health disorders: an integrative review. Annual Review of Medicine. (2021). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC8020774/ 

The symptomatology of upper respiratory tract infections and exercise in elderly people. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. (2000). https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2000/01000/The_symptomatology_of_upper_respiratory_tract.8.aspx

Upper respiratory tract infection. StatPearls. (2021). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532961/ 

What is physical activity? (2022). https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/heart/physical-activity