What Is the Difference Between Aerobic & Anaerobic Exercise?

What Is the Difference Between Aerobic & Anaerobic Exercise?
What Is the Difference Between Aerobic & Anaerobic Exercise? (Image: Bojan89/iStock/GettyImages)

As if exercising wasn't hard enough, the terms for different types of exercise can be difficult to understand. Two terms you should know are aerobic and anaerobic, because they refer to how your body produces energy during exercise. This helps you understand how your body burns fat and how you can build endurance, strength and power to improve your overall fitness and performance.

Aerobic Exercise

You're likely familiar with the term aerobic from aerobics classes. Aerobic exercise uses oxygen to create energy. During aerobic exercise, the body burns carbohydrates and fats, which can only be done in the presence of oxygen.

Energy for aerobic activity is produced slowly but in great supply. This type of energy primarily powers activities in which your muscles are used in continuous rhythmic or repetitive motions, moderately increasing your heart rate and respiration while building your physical endurance.

Aerobic exercise can be performed for long periods of time, because there is plenty of energy available. Examples include taking an aerobics class, going for a walk, riding the elliptical machine at the gym or running a marathon.

Male instructor training woman with dumbbells
Anaerobic exercise targets your individual muscles. (Image: Chris Clinton/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Anaerobic Exercise

Anaerobic energy can be created without energy. The body breaks down carbohydrates from blood glucose or glucose stored in muscle to produce energy. It can produce this type of energy very quickly but in limited supply.

This type of energy generally last between 30 seconds and 3 minutes, depending on the intensity of the activity. The more intense the activity is the faster your body uses its quick anaerobic energy supply. That means you can only sustain very intense activities for a short period of time.

Examples of activities that use anaerobic glycolysis include running sprints, lifting heavy weights and explosive jumping.

Aerobic Exercise Benefits

portrait of a young male doctor checking a patient's blood pressure
Always consult your doctor to help determine the best diet and exercise plan for your particular situation. (Image: George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Aerobic exercise strengthens your heart and reduces your resting heart rate, while increasing the number of red blood cells that help distribute oxygen throughout your body. It also helps with weight loss if you combine it with a healthy, calorie-controlled diet.

Aerobic exercise can also potentially reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes and some forms of cancer; and it can improve your immune system and stamina.

Anaerobic Exercise Benefits

Anaerobic exercise strengthens your bones and muscles and builds muscle mass and power. Anaerobic exercise can also improve endurance and cardiorespiratory efficiency by increasing VO2 max. VO2 max is a measure of your body's ability to take up and use oxygen during exercise.

Anaerobic exercise is also effective at burning fat because it increases your metabolism. Intense anaerobic exercise increases your metabolic burn in the 24 hours following your workout, but it also builds muscle which leads to improved metabolism all the time.

Aerobic and Anaerobic Working Together

How your body creates energy isn't black and white. In many situations, your body may draw on both types of energy. For example, sports like soccer, tennis and volleyball require endurance -- supported by aerobic energy -- but they may also require short, powerful bursts -- supported by anaerobic energy.

In addition, when you first start an aerobic activity, such as going for a run, your body uses anaerobic energy because it's readily available. Once that store has run out, your body turns to aerobic energy for the rest of your workout.

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