You hear these two words all the time, but what do they actually mean?
When it comes to health and fitness, many of the terms involved can sail right over our heads. We’ve all heard terms like “aerobic capacity” and “anaerobic threshold” but knowing what they mean is what matters. As important forms of training that can work to your benefit in different ways, we should know what they are and how they work so we can maximize performance inside and out of the gym.
Aerobic exercise and anaerobic exercise are forms of cardiovascular conditioning, or cardio, and the terms refer to the presence, or absence, of oxygen (1). Your fitness goals will come in handy when choosing between one or the other, or a mix of both. Aerobic exercise relies on increased breathing and heart rate for a longer, more sustained amount of time, like cycling or running. Anaerobic exercise centers around short bursts of energy and are performed at maximum effort for shorter intervals to include something like high-intensity interval training.
The benefits of each type of exercise are certainly dependent on your goals or sport specific needs if they exist. Knowing your body and how best to train will determine whether to focus more on aerobic or anaerobic work, but ultimately, a mixture of both would be more than beneficial. The benefits of both forms of exercise will work to enhance performance as well as other health and fitness needs but knowing these two terms will get you on a track towards whatever your goals may be.
Aerobic exercise means “with oxygen” and consists of increased heart rate and a longer duration, thus requiring the presence of oxygen to create energy. During any kind of aerobic exercise, your body will use carbs and fats for fuel, which can only be done when oxygen is present (2). So while energy for this type of activity is produced slowly, over time your body builds up a great base to put away in storage. When the time comes, you can tap into that fuel storage and power whatever aerobic exercise you are performing. This energy powers activities or exercises where large muscle groups are used in rhythmic or repetitive motions.
The benefits of aerobic exercise allow for an overall positive outlook on your health and fitness. It can help with weight loss or control and can even lower blood pressure. Stimulating your immune system, it can work for you to keep you healthy and cognitively, it can help improve mood (3). Since this form of exercise requires a constant increased heart rate, it can increase stamina, strengthen your heart, and reduce overall levels fatigue.
Counter to aerobic exercise, anaerobic exercise works to create energy without the presence of oxygen. The body works to break down carbs from blood glucose or glucose stored in the muscles for energy, and while this is an effective way to do so, it only lasts for a short period of time (4). This makes anaerobic exercise great for short, intense physical activity that can be done without oxygen in the blood. The more intense the exercise, the faster your body is depleted of that energy supply and fatigue will settle in. While you may be fit, anaerobic exercise can work to push your limits for a couple of minutes to find just how well your body can handle these short, intense workouts.
The most common exercise that is an anaerobic one is high-intensity interval training. Pushing yourself for a set amount of time (example being 20-30 seconds) and giving ample rest time (example being 30-40 seconds), you can really work your anaerobic threshold to see overall growth. The benefits of anaerobic exercise are great for those looking to burn fat while also keeping on, and even building, muscle (5). It will push you past any plateau you may be hitting and allow you to reach for new goals when it comes to health and fitness.
Which Works Best?
Each of these exercises work best in their own respective ways. It would be a disservice to put one over the other because ultimately someone’s workout routine and the exercises involved may work for them and a million other people, or it may just work them and them alone. Aerobic exercise is great for those looking to stay healthy and stay active when it comes to hiking, running, swimming, or any other exercise you can do for a prolonged duration. Since it aids in immune health, cognitive function, and weight management, aerobic exercise should be your go to if you are looking to stay fit with continued exercise.
Anaerobic exercise is one of those to be used for those looking to see gains in strength and muscle growth without having to do an hour or more of cardio each day to stay fit. By performing these shorter intervals, you allow your body to work harder but for a shorter period of time to really get an elevated heart rate and your body relying on quick energy stores. HIIT is a great example of this (6) but also heavy weightlifting or sprints. Knowing your body and what works best is the end goal and seeing whatever your desired gains are come to fruition requires knowing the benefits of both forms of exercise.
Both aerobic exercise and anaerobic exercise can really work for your overall benefit if you know exactly how to place them in your workout routine. Having a mix of both will work to your benefit to provide not only the benefits of both but also ample time to rest and recover. Whether you do a longer form of exercise in aerobic, or shorter, more intense bursts in anaerobic, you can elevate your performance, strength, and weight management goals by knowing exactly how each one benefits you. As you continue to progress and build a better cardio foundation, you will see huge gains and a boost of confidence in knowing your fitness is growing strong.
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- Scott, Christopher (2005). “Misconceptions about Aerobic and Anaerobic Energy Expenditure”. (source)
- Rapoport, Benjamin I. (2010). “Metabolic Factors Limiting Performance in Marathon Runners”. (source)
- Perini, Renza; Bortoletto, Marta; Capogrosso, Michela; Fertonani, Anna; Miniussi, Carlo (2016). “Acute effects of aerobic exercise promote learning”. (source)
- Perez-Guisado, Joaquin; Jakeman, Philip M. (2010). “Citrulline malate enhances athletic anaerobic performance and relieves muscle soreness”. (source)
- Carey, Daniel G. (2009). “Quantifying differences in the “fat burning” zone and the aerobic zone: implications for training”. (source)
- Laursen, Paul B.; Jenkins, David G. (2002). “The scientific basis for high-intensity interval training: optimising training programmes and maximising performance in highly trained endurance athletes”. (source)