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How to Increase Aerobic Fitness

author image Wendy Fryer
Wendy Fryer holds a Master of Science in exercise physiology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has more than 15 years of experience managing health clubs and working with clients.
How to Increase Aerobic Fitness
Running on the beach is a great aerobic exercise Photo Credit: Ryan McVay/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Improving aerobic fitness is a goal for most people, from beginning exercisers to elite athletes. Just a few of the benefits of aerobic fitness are lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol and less risk of obesity, Type II diabetes and heart disease. While there are a wide range of aerobic activities to choose from, improving aerobic capacity really depends on the frequency, intensity and duration of the exercise session.

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The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week. When starting an exercise program, you should start out slowly and gradually add in more days as you become stronger. For most people, doing 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three times per week is a good place to start. When three days feels manageable, add in a fourth day and continue until you are able to exercise five to six days per week.


To improve aerobic fitness, exercise intensity needs to be between 70 and 85 percent of your target heart rate. In order to calculate your target heart rate, you must first determine your maximum heart rate, which is 220 minus your age in years. Then multiply that number by 0.70 to determine the lower limit of your target heart rate and by 0.85 to determine the upper limit. When you start out you should try to keep your heart rate at the lower end of your target heart rate range, but as you get more fit, you should work to increase it to the upper limit.


If you are new to exercise you should aim for 10 to 20 minutes of aerobic exercise per session. Over time, gradually increase your exercise time until you can exercise continuously for 60 minutes. A good rule of thumb is to add no more than 20 percent per week to ensure your body has time to adapt to the stress that is being placed on it. For example, if you exercise 20 minutes per session this week, plan to exercise 24 minutes per session next week.


Mixing very intense bouts of cardiovascular exercise with periods of recovery is a very effective way to improve your aerobic fitness. Although there are many ways to structure an interval workout, one option is to exercise intensely for one minute (85 percent of maximum heart rate) followed by two minutes of active recovery (55 to 60 percent of maximum heart rate). Repeat that cycle for the duration of your workout. Intervals are not easy and should be done cautiously. Start with short bouts of intense exercise and longer recovery periods and gradually build up from there. Always consult with your physician before starting intervals or any exercise program.

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