Know the Difference: Examples of Aerobic and Anaerobic Activities

If you've been exercising out for any length of time, there's a good chance you've heard people talk about aerobic workouts, such as jogging at a moderate pace, and anaerobic workouts, such as a run that takes you up and down hills.

Including both aerobic and anaerobic workouts in your overall fitness plan will help maximize the benefits to your health. (Image: UberImages/iStock/GettyImages)

What determines whether or not the activity you're doing is aerobic or anaerobic comes down to oxygen levels. Exercise can be aerobic (with oxygen), anaerobic (without oxygen) or a combination of both.

Get Moving With Aerobic Exercise

Activities are considered aerobic or "with oxygen," if they stimulate your heart rate and cause your breathing to increase and they can be performed at a level that can be maintained for an extended period of time.

  • Reducing the risk of developing heart disease, hypertension, obesity and type 2 diabetes
  • Managing chronic health condition such as high blood pressure and high blood sugar
  • Strengthening your heart and keeping your arteries clear; lowering LDL cholesterol and increasing HDL cholesterol
  • Warding off cognitive decline
  • Increasing stamina
  • Improving mood and managing certain mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety

Examples of aerobic exercise include walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, cardio equipment (elliptical, stairclimber, stationary bike), aerobic classes and hiking.

Activities that are considered aerobic use fat, with the help of oxygen and carbohydrates, to provide a steady supply of energy for activity. Unlike anaerobic exercises, the intensity of aerobic exercise is lower and doesn't require fast and powerful contractions to produce force.

However, aerobic exercises can become anaerobic if performed at a level of intensity that is too high. For example, if you're cycling on a spin bike and increase the tension or get out of the saddle too much, your heart rate may not have a chance to go back down to the aerobic range. That's why longer workouts need to have built-in recovery breaks that allow your heart rate to return to your aerobic training zone.

Anaerobic Exercise Examples

Anaerobic exercise is considered short-lasting, high-intensity activity, where your body's demand for oxygen exceeds the oxygen supply available.

Let's say your anaerobic workouts consist of heavy squats, deadlifts and bench. Typically, when you finish a set of heavy squats, you're out of breath and you know there's not much gas left in the tank to squeeze out a few more reps. So, you take a step back from the squat rack and rest for a few minutes before climbing back under the bar to rep out another set.

Unlike the nice, easy jog you took the day before that relied primarily on the aerobic system, lifting weights — which is an anaerobic exercise — requires a huge amount of energy to produce large amounts of force.

However, this force only lasts between a few seconds to less than 3 minutes because anaerobic respiration doesn't produce energy fast enough to meet the demands of your body. That's why you need to take a break in between sets.

Other examples of anaerobic sports and exercise include sprinting, high-intensity interval training and powerlifting.

The benefits of regularly performing anaerobic exercise include:

Combining Aerobic and Anaerobic Workouts

Lots of athletic activities and certain exercises rely on both energy systems. Soccer, for example, requires an athlete to alternate between quick bursts of sprinting, which is anaerobic, and longer stints of jogging, which is aerobic.

Someone training for a marathon will rely primarily on the aerobic system while exercising. However, if they incorporate other methods of training during their workouts such as sprints or hill repeats, they will activate the anaerobic system (while going full force), before transitioning back to the aerobic system as soon as steady-state running resumes.

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