It’s a commonly asked question. But how many people really know the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise? Or how the difference is used to maximise your fitness goals?
We’ll start off this guide with an explanation of each type of exercise. Follow on with some examples. Then outline the health and fitness benefits of both.
What is aerobic exercise?
An exercise maintained at a moderate pace/intensity for an extended length of time is aerobic.
The energy required for aerobic exercise is created by a combination of oxygen and glucose. The waste products are water and carbon dioxide.
During aerobic exercise oxygen used in the production of energy is replenished in the body at broadly the same rate as it is burnt. This constant replenishment of energy source is the reason that aerobic exercise can be maintained over an extended period.
Examples of aerobic exercise include:
- Cardio based gym equipment such as rowing machines or cross trainers
- Walking / hiking
What is anaerobic exercise?
Effectively the opposite of aerobic. Anaerobic exercise is high pace/intensity and can only be carried out for short time periods.
Anaerobic means in the absence of oxygen, energy is produced solely from glucose and produces lactic acid as a waste product. This lactic acid is oxidised afterwards to produce carbon dioxide and water.
During anaerobic exercise oxygen is not replenished quickly enough to meet the body’s needs. The build up of lactic acid contributes to muscle fatigue and produces that burning sensation in your muscles.
Examples of aerobic exercise include:
- Sprinting (running, cycling swimming)
- High intensity interval training
- Resistance training such as weight lifting
- Sports requiring regular high intensity activity such as squash, football, or combat sports
What are the benefits of aerobic exercise?
The benefits are numerous, and include:
Strengthens your heart and lungs
The heart is a muscle like any other, exercise will strengthen it just like using any other muscle. Using your cardiovascular system will improve its efficiency. A stronger heart muscle means it lasts longer.
Increases the number of calories you burn
The more energy you expend the more calories you burn, it’s that simple! A calorie deficit (consuming less than you expend) can lead to burning more of the body’s fat store. Therefore help drop fat and lose weight.
Improves stamina and endurance
Improvements to your cardiovascular system contributing to stamina and endurance gains. Your muscles adapt to being used more often, becoming more efficient. Where at the the end of the day you felt tired, you will have more energy. Giving you more time to spend with your family or partner.
Exercise releases endorphins, naturally occurring hormones secreted within the brain and nervous system. These trigger positive feelings sometimes described as being euphoric. Endorphins reduce stress levels. Also warding off feelings of anxiety and depression, and boosting self-esteem. Endorphins also act as a sedative, improving your sleep, and improved sleep has many benefits.
Strengthens bones and joints
Your bones and joints are living tissue just like muscles. They respond to the stimulus of exercise in just the same way, adapting to become stronger. Stronger bones with greater mass ward off the risks of osteoporosis in later life.
Aerobic exercise can act as a stimulus to hormones associated with appetite. Studies have shown that it can suppress levels of ghrelin, a hormone which increases appetite. It also increases levels of peptide YY, a hormone that suppresses appetite. When looking to control calories aiming to lose weight, this suppression to your appetite is a great help.
Decreases blood pressure
The strengthening of your heart from exercise means that it requires less effort to pump blood around your body. Therefore your heart requires less force to pump. Resulting in decreasing force on arteries, lowering blood pressure. Lower blood pressure reduces risks of heart problems such as heart attacks and coronary artery disease. It also decreases the risk of strokes.
What are the benefits of anaerobic exercise?
Just as in aerobic exercise there are numerous benefits of anaerobic exercise:
Improved muscle strength
Short, intense bursts of exercise increase the amount of fast twitch muscle fibres. It is these fibres that the body calls on to perform activities requiring an extra amount of “oomph”. For example putting on a burst of speed or lifting a heavy object.
Increases in muscle mass
Your muscles will experience micro-tears from the intense bursts of exercise required of the body during anaerobic exercise. The body repairs these micro-tears after exercise and responds to the stimulus by adapting the muscles. They become stronger, more toned, and larger.
Muscle tissue burns more calories than fat. Therefore increases in your muscle mass resulting from anaerobic exercise result in a boosted metabolism. Muscles remain hungry for hours after high intense exercise. They will continue to burn fuel at a higher rate than at rest. This can help in weight management, if you are looking to create a calorie deficit and burn fat.
Boosts VO2 Max
This is the maximum amount of oxygen your body is able to consume during exercise. Anaerobic exercise helps push and increase the limits of your VO2 max. In turn, this also benefits you in everyday life when quick bursts of energy are needed. As well as improving your endurance for aerobic activities.
If you are just starting out, including anaerobic exercise into your routine will increase post-exercise soreness. As you progress your muscles will become used to having to recover. They adapt to remove waste products of exercise more efficiently.
Increase bone strength and density
In just the same way as a described above for aerobic exercise. Placing stimulus on bones means they adapt and grow stronger. Warding off osteoporosis.
Improves joint protection
Strengthening the muscles around your joints provides greater stability. The more stable the joint the less the likelihood of injury to the ligaments and tendons. When recovering from joint injuries a physio will prescribe a set of specific exercises to build muscles around the affected joint.
But wait, does exercise ever really depend on just one of these?
Okay, so the reality is that when you exercise your body doesn’t only rely on one or other of aerobic or anaerobic energy production. There is no switch turning one off and turning the other on. It is more accurate to view increase in exercise intensity as a transition from aerobic to anaerobic energy production. With greater reliance on anaerobic at the higher end of intensity scale.
An example of this would be picturing your energy use at rest, relying solely on aerobic energy production. Start to walk, not being out of breath means you’re at the aerobic end of the scale. Starting to run you breath more heavily, the body still focuses on aerobic energy. Although it is moving toward anaerobic energy production. Then start sprinting, taking your body into anaerobic energy production. You can not breath heavily enough to provide all energy from oxygen. This pace can only be achieved for a limited amount of time.
Is aerobic or anaerobic exercise better for your health & fitness?
The answer to this depends on your goals and objectives.
Both are very good for your health; a well-rounded fitness regime should include both kinds of exercise in order to gain from all of the benefits of both.
Differing goals should mean a different emphasis on one or the other, but shouldn’t mean one type is excluded completely.
When starting an exercise program after a period of inactivity you should focus initially on aerobic while your body adapts to exercise. After time, you build levels of anaerobic exercise as muscles, joints, heart and bones will be ready for it.
When goal is stamina and a leaner body type, emphasis should be on aerobic exercise.
If you are looking to build strength, muscle, and a bigger physique, then focus on anaerobic exercise to stimulate muscle growth.
Weight loss goals would benefit from a mixture of both.