Aerobic fitness is measured by how much oxygen you can breathe in and deliver to your working muscles (i.e. your VO2 max). Your aerobic fitness level can be improved by doing activities that require large muscle groups to continuously work together- walking, running, biking, step aerobics, swimming, dancing, skating, and etc. Often these activities are groups together as “cardio” exercises because they improve the health of your heart and lungs (the cardio respiratory system).
Aerobic exercise stimulate many positive physiological adaptations including:
- Strengthening of the heart
- Increasing the number of small arteries that circulate blood
- Stimulating growth of mitochondria in your muscles (energy producing component of a cell)
In comparison, strength training adaptations include:
- Increasing the size of muscle fibers
- Improving neural pathways to make commands from your brain more efficient
- Improving bone density
We’ve all heard that exercise offers a ton of health benefits. These include, but are not limited to:
- Reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis
- Longer life
- Weight Loss
- Lower stress levels
- Improved mood
- Increased cognitive function
It is important to remember that when articles discuss these benefits, it is primarily aerobic fitness and not strength training that is tied to these positive outcomes.
If you’re not motivated by the health benefits, the performance benefits should both surprise and motivate you to make improvements to your aerobic fitness level. A study in 2009 took a look at snowboarders on the World Cup circuit and they found that aerobic fitness, tested on a stationary bike, was the strongest predictor of finishing positions. Another study that surprised many took a look at the physiological characteristics of 24 golfers on the Canadian national team and the results found a strong correlation between aerobic fitness and tournament performance.
In order to practice harder and perform at your best for a longer period of time, I would recommend making aerobic activity a habit. In order to make the habit stick, try to incorporate aerobic activities that you genuinely enjoy doing. In order to get an effective aerobic workout in you need to make sure you are working an intensity above 50% of your VO2 max. For example, during a soccer game players often work at about 70% of their VO2 max. Benefits of aerobic adaptions in sport depend on how continuously and vigorously you play.
What to take from this article:
- Aerobic activity is necessary for optimizing health and performance
- Sports are an excellent option to improve aerobic health (some sports are better than others)
- If you aren’t playing any sports right now, consider reigniting that old passion for the game or learning a new one!
Hutchinson, A. (2011). Which comes first, cardio or weights?: Fitness myths, training truths, and other surprising discoveries from the science of exercise (pp. 76-79). New York: HarperCollins.
A.G Monteiro et al, ”Comparison of physical characteristics and performance among elite snowboarders, “Journal of Medicine and Physical Fitness, 2008, 48(4),438-442.
Hans-Peter Platzer et al., “Comparison of physical characteristics and performance among elite snowboarders, “Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2009, 23(5), 1427-1432.
Wells, G. et al., “Physiological correlates of golf performance,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2009, 23(3), 741-750.
You’ll never get a harder slap shot or bigger arms by peddling away on a bike. Because of this, there are many people who channel their efforts solely towards anaerobic activities in order to achieve their fitness goals, often neglecting other types of exercise - especially when they don’t enjoy aerobic exercise. But from both an athletic performance and health perspective, skipping out on aerobic activity is not a good choice.
Owner of Bieman Fitness and Personal Trainer