Difference between Aerobic and Anaerobic Exercise

Published on April 16, 2016

Fitness and health are one of the major concerns of the past decades. You can hardly imagine that 150 years ago anyone would go and pay for getting some hard physical work; nowadays going to the gym or fitness class is a common way to spend your free time after a working day in the office.

As fitness takes a more and more prominent place in our lives, we learn more about types of exercises, their benefits, proper forms and differences from each other.

One of the most common ways to divide all physical activity into types is to characterize each exercise mode as aerobic or anaerobic.

In this article we are going to find out what all that means: what is the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise and their consequent impact on the athlete’s body?

Learning what type of physical activity is aerobic and which is anaerobic will help you smartly improve your long-term shape and health and see how much time you should spend on these exercises.


Aerobic vs Anaerobic Exercise
Aerobic exercises

To define aerobic and anaerobic exercises it is necessary to understand the following science: to perform any types of physical exercises the body requires glycogen produced from glucose. This is the main fuel source in the body that is stored in the muscles and the liver.

For this glucose-to-glycogen transformation we need oxygen. If there is an adequate oxygen supply during the exercise, we denote it as aerobic respiration.

Aerobic exercise (also referred to as “cardiovascular” or simply “cardio” exercise) can include almost any low to medium intensity exercise that is fueled by the aerobic energy-producing mechanism.

“Aerobic” in Latin means “involving oxygen”. Most often aerobic exercises can be performed for quite long periods of time (more than a few minutes) without fatigue. If muscle cells receive adequate amounts of fuel and oxygen, they can contract and release continuously without breaks for rest.

Basically, the aerobic state includes even sitting and resting, as the same mechanisms are used for maintaining energy supply, but they are of really low intensity, so can’t be called “aerobic exercise”.

During aerobic exercises the muscles work in continuous rhythmic motions; the heart rate is increased to approximately 50-70% of its maximum rate; respiration is also rhythmic and quite frequent.

Most popular examples of aerobic exercises are connected with endurance and include medium to long distance jogging, swimming, walking, cycling, using cardio machines at the gym and medium-intensity dancing.

Regular aerobic exercises are extremely beneficial to human health. They help us to lose weight, improve the performance of cardiovascular and respiration systems, increase endurance and speed up the metabolism. Cardio is great to prevent depression, chronic diseases of the heart and lungs and diabetes, as well as for stress reduction.

Anaerobic exercise
Anaerobic exercise

Anaerobic exercise is any physical exercise of medium to high intensity that leads to building up lactate in muscles. When an athlete performs anaerobic exercise, the body moves to the so-called metabolic threshold – a state when consumed oxygen is not enough to supply the muscles and the body uses other sources of energy producing lactic acid (or lactate) as a by-product.
Anaerobic exercise mode doesn’t use oxygen for fueling the performance. There are two sources of energy for this type of activity:

  • adenosine triphosphate and creatine phosphate;
  • anaerobic glycolysis.

Anaerobic activity can’t last for a long time without rest, usually from a few seconds to about 2 minutes, as any activity that lasts longer than two minutes should have a large aerobic metabolic component.

The difference between aerobic and anaerobic activity is easy to feel during the action as the exercise intensity increases. Anaerobic exercises are used by athletes to build up strength, speed and power as well as by bodybuilders to develop muscle mass and form.

An examples of anaerobic exercises is weight training that implies sets and a specified number of repetitions, high intensity interval training etc.

Anaerobic exercises help to maintain and build up muscles that are necessary to overall fitness and health, help to keep internal organs in place and avoid a lot of problems with the spine and joints. Weight training as one of the most popular type of anaerobic exercise should be added into any fitness routine on a regular basis to improve the functional performance of the body, its health and aesthetics.

Aerobic vs Anaerobic exercises

What is the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise? To put it simply, the difference comes down to oxygen use. It is present with aerobic exercise and not necessary for muscle work during anaerobic exercise.

An interesting fact is that the same exercises performed with different intensity can be called either aerobic or anaerobic. For example, jogging or riding a bicycle are usually considered to be aerobic exercises, while weight lifting is considered to be anaerobic.

But what if jogging becomes more intense and turns into the sprint and riding a bicycle takes place in the mountains? People can hardly push so hard for a long time without breaks; they require more oxygen than they can inhale, so other energy supplying mechanisms start working and the exercise turns into anaerobic.

On the contrary, if weight training implies working with a 1-pound dumbbell any athlete will be able to do a lot of repetitions and even bicep curls may have a large aerobic component.

The intensity at which athletes perform the activity and the metabolic threshold mentioned above (that may vary in the same athlete depending on their fitness level at the moment) determine if the exercise is aerobic or anaerobic.

There is a test to determine what type of exercise an athlete is performing at the moment. It is called “the Talk Test”. During aerobic activity, such as walking, a person should be able to actively participate in a dialog. When the speed is increased and walking turns into jogging, the person still can talk, but can’t sing anymore. Switching to a sprint, it is impossible to pronounce a long sentence without pausing for breath. It means that the aerobic state has changed to anaerobic.

Another interesting difference between these two states is that anaerobic energy expenditure is extremely difficult to calculate accurately, while there are a number of proved methods to do so with aerobic expenditure depending on the energy sources used.

So how should an ideal workout schedule look to maintain the right fitness level and stay healthy? First of all, such a schedule should include both aerobic and anaerobic training. The American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of mid-intensity aerobic exercise (such as walking) at least 5 times a week and at least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity on 3 days per week.

Anaerobic exercise in the form of high-intensity muscle strengthening should be included in the workout schedule at least twice a week. The recommended duration is at least 15-30 minutes.

Comparison Chart

Aerobic exerciseAnaerobic exercise
Involves oxygen in energy productionDoesn’t involve oxygen in energy production
May last longer than 2 minutesLasts from a few seconds to 2 minutes, then a pause is required
Increases endurance, improves cardiovascular systemIncreases strength, improves bone density, builds up muscles