Aerobic vs Anaerobic Exercise

Written by
8fit Team @ 8fit
two women running up stairs outdoors
Written by
8fit Team @ 8fit
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Humans have been performing aerobic and anaerobic exercise since the beginning of time, but we’ve only been using the terms since the 1960s. Chances are, you’ve heard terminology like this at the gym or a fitness class, but perhaps you didn’t realize there’s a difference between the two.

Wondering what the benefits are and if one’s better for you than the other? You’ve come to the right place – we’ve prepared a little overview for you, so keep reading to see which type of exercise works best for your needs.

Aerobic and anaerobic exercise: A very short history

The term aerobic derives from the Greek word for air. It translates roughly as with air. Logically enough, the term anaerobic has the same derivation – it means without air.

Interestingly, the words were first coined in 1861 by biologist Louis Pasteur, the mind behind pasteurization. He coined the terms as he was studying germ science, using them to describe processes that require either the presence or absence of oxygen.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the words made their way into popular culture. In 1968, American doctor Ken Cooper published a book titled Aerobics, his seminal work studying how aerobic exercise could combat cardiovascular disease. Sometimes regarded as the starting point for the modern-day fitness movement, this book brought cardio into the limelight.

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Aerobic vs anaerobic exercise: The key differences

Aerobic

Aerobic exercise includes any kind of activity in which your current oxygen intake is sufficient. In other words, your body doesn't need additional energy from another source (like from sugar).

Put more simply, an aerobic session will get you slightly out of breath, but it won't cause you to huff and puff like a sprint might.During an effective aerobic workout, your heart rate reaches up to no more than 70 percent of its maximum rate. It includes exercises that you can sustain for relatively long periods of time such as light jogging, swimming and brisk walking.

Anaerobic

Unlike aerobic workouts, during anaerobic exercise, our oxygen supplies aren’t sufficient enough to meet the energy demands being placed on our bodies.

When we do intense exercises, our bodies may find themselves in an oxygen deficit, leaving our muscles to look elsewhere for the energy they crave. In instances like this, the body turns to glycogen – sugars stored in the body – instead of oxygen for fuel.

It’s only possible to sustain anaerobic exercises for short bursts of time, unlike aerobic exercises which you can maintain for longer periods. Anaerobic activities include high-intensity interval training (HIIT), heavy weight lifting, sprints and jumping rope.

A bit of science: Glycolysis, lactate and phosphagens

By now we know that aerobic exercise uses oxygen to replenish the energy in your body while anaerobic exercise uses other sources. But how about we dig a little deeper into the science? Let’s begin with glycolysis: the process that occurs when your body converts glucose into energy. Whenever you exercise, your body triggers glycolysis, but not always in the same way.

Aerobic and anaerobic activity triggers two different types of glycolysis – one that requires oxygen, one that doesn't. Time to break it down!

Aerobic glycolysis

Aerobic glycolysis uses oxygen to break down fat molecules to create energy inside your muscles. Although the aerobic glycolytic system can produce large amounts of continuous energy, it’s a relatively slow process. That's why it functions well during less intense activities such as running, cycling or swimming.

Anaerobic glycolysis

Anaerobic glycolysis doesn’t need oxygen to make energy and only occurs during high-intensity exercise. It’s further broken down into two types:

  • The ATP-PC system: This happens during the first moments of intense exercise before any sort of discomfort from exertion kicks in. It works by breaking down stored reserves of two phosphagens – adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and phosphocreatine (PC) – in the muscle cells.

  • The anaerobic glycolytic system (fast glycolysis): After around 10 seconds of intense exercise, the fast-glycolytic energy system kicks in. It produces ATP by breaking down carbohydrates and sugars stored in the liver and skeletal muscles. However, after around 45 seconds, this process slows down too.

Eventually, the body produces a substance called lactate (sometimes called lactic acid) which is what causes the burning sensation we get when we’re giving our all while running or doing a Tabata.

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How much aerobic exercise should I do?

According to the American Heart Association, the average adult should get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity.

Examples of moderate-intensity activities include:

  • Brisk walking (at least 2.5 miles per hour)

  • Water aerobics

  • Dancing

  • Gardening

  • Tennis

  • Cycling (slower than 10 miles per hour)

Examples of high-intensity activities include:

  • Hiking uphill

  • Running

  • Swimming laps

  • Aerobic dancing

  • Active gardening

  • Cycling (faster than 10 miles per hour)

  • Skipping

How much anaerobic exercise should I do?

Just like with glycolysis, anaerobic exercise can also be divided into two types:

  • Steady-state anaerobic exercise: This is also known as a tempo workout. It involves slowly increasing the intensity of the exercise until you reach 80 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate (MHR). You should maintain this for two to 20 minutes.

  • Interval anaerobic exercise: Interval training requires you to reach 80 to 90 percent MHR as quickly as possible and to maintain it for intervals of varying lengths and intensity.

If you’re new to working out, it’s best to start with a tempo workout and work your way up to high-intensity exercises.

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Aerobic vs anaerobic exercise: How do you know which one you’re doing?

When has your body switched from aerobic exercise to anaerobic? There's an easy and non-technical way to figure it out: the talk test.

During gentle aerobic activity, such as walking, you should be able to chat comfortably. When walking turns into jogging, you’ll probably be able to talk, but not necessarily sing. However, once you’ve switched to a sprint, you’ll most likely find it impossible to utter a sentence without pausing for breath – when you’ve reached this level, you’ve made it to the anaerobic state.

What are the benefits of aerobic vs anaerobic activity?

All exercise will make you fitter, help you lose weight and (as multiple sources suggest) lighten your mood. However, there are important differences between aerobic vs anaerobic effects

Benefits of aerobic exercise

Broadly speaking, aerobic exercises will burn calories only when you are performing the activity, and they’ll also help you develop stamina.

Meanwhile, anaerobic exercises will burn calories even when the body is at rest. They can aid your stamina, but also help you develop strength and muscle mass. When you do aerobic exercise regularly, you’ll be able to lower your blood pressure and your resting heart rate, which is good for the entire body. You may also lose weight, sleep better and improve your chances of living longer. Still, there are many more unexpected benefits.

One major benefit is that you may have better brain power. According to a study published in Neurology, exercise can help you think more clearly. Not only that, but aerobic exercise can help lower your levels of anxiety and stress, while also improving your immune system. Maintaining optimal health with aerobic exercise can help reduce your blood pressure, your risk of stroke and certain types of cancer.

Benefits of anaerobic exercise

When you do regular anaerobic exercise, your body will be able to handle lactate more efficiently, effectively managing the burning sensation you get when working out and allowing you to sprint longer or lift heavier weights.

This extra power can give you long-term benefits such as:

  • Higher endurance – your other workouts may get easier.

  • Stronger muscles – your body could store more energy as muscle mass.

  • Weight loss – anaerobic exercises tend to be better at burning fat than aerobic exercises

  • Better moods – like aerobic exercise, anaerobic exercise can improve your mental health.

And of course, anaerobic exercise encourages post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), also known as the after-burn effect – which can cause your body to burn calories even after you've finished exercising.

The final say

The most effective workout regimen includes a mix of both aerobic and anaerobic activities. Doing both can help you feel better mentally, benefit from more energy and improve your physical fitness. At 8fit, we’ll plan it all out for you. Download the app and get a customized plan to help you achieve your specific goals – no matter your level!

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