Benefits of Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise — and How to Add Both to Your Routine

Read this explainer to finally understand the differences between anaerobic and anaerobic exercise.

Women Running Together
Photo: Getty Images

The terms 'aerobic exercise' and 'anaerobic exercise' get thrown around by health and fitness professionals with the same frequency that Gen Z spits out the terms "bet," "suss," and "no cap." But while TikTok can familiarize you with the latter, this article is the best guide to the former. Below, a complete breakdown of the the benefits of aerobic vs. anaerobic exercise, including how to incorporate each into your routine.

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise: The Basics

Just as a car needs fuel to move, so does your body. Whether you're moving or grooving on the trail or treadmill, fast or slow, with or without weights, your body needs some fuel to feed that activity and through multiple sources, explains certified strength and conditioning specialist Bill Daniels, C.S.C.S., N.A.S.M. C.P.T., owner of training platform Beyond Fitness Online.

The type of fuel your body usesto perform that exercise is what determines whether or not the exercise falls under aerobic vs. anaerobic exercise. If your body uses oxygen as fuel, it's considered an aerobic exercise, while if your body uses energy stored in your muscles instead, it's considered anaerobic exercise, explains Rachel Straub, C.S.C.S., Ph.D., co-author of Weight Training Without Injury. "Aerobic simply means energy production 'with oxygen,' and anaerobic means energy production 'without oxygen,'" she says.

What Is Anaerobic Exercise, Exactly?

Anaerobic exercises are the opposite of endurance activities. "Anaerobic exercise can only be performed for a very short period of time," says Straub. Anaerobic exercise includes the likes of a 100-yard dash, 50-yard front crawl sprints, breakaways during a soccer or football game, one rep max tests, and HIIT. They all involve pushing yourself to your limit — for a very limited amount of time.

During these types of exercise, your body does not use oxygen for fuel. Instead, your body either uses the molecule creatine phosphate to create ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is an energy molecule stored in your muscles, or your body calls on glycogen (glucose, aka sugar, stored in your muscles) for energy, explains Straub.

Which of the two types of fuel your body uses depends on the length of the sprint. If the sprint is under 10 seconds, your body uses ATP, but if the sprint is between 10 and 90(ish) seconds, however, your body uses stored glycogen, as Shape previously reported. In the latter scenario, your body uses ATP for the first 10 seconds, then glycogen for the remaining 80 seconds.

The Benefits of Anaerobic Exercise

When it comes to promoting health, anaerobic exercise brings a lot to the table. Find out how the movements can benefit your muscles, increase your athletic ability, and more.

Makes You a More Explosive, Powerful Athlete

If you want to become faster, more explosive, or more powerful, you'll need to train your anaerobic energy system. You tap into your anaerobic energy system every time you do short bursts of movement, explains Daniels. The more you train that energy system, the more powerful those movements become. Anaerobic training can make you snappier during movements such as the snatch and clean, as well as more explosive during plyometrics and run sprints. In one small study published in The International Journal of Analytical and Experimental Modal Analysis, a group of male volleyball players who performed anaerobic training "showed significant improvement in agility and explosive power" compared to a control group.

Improves Your Overall Health

Even if you aren't training for a specific sport, you should be training anaerobically, says Straub. Why? Training the anaerobic system improves bone mass, metabolism, mood, strength, aerobic power, and cardiovascular health, she says.

Helps Strengthen Your Muscles and Joints

"Anaerobic exercise is typically the form of exercise advised to optimize muscle mass," says Straub. After all, athletes who want to optimize their muscle mass usually combine a short, taxing work period with some rest.

The perks of putting on muscle mass cannot be overstated, according to Antoinetta Vicario, P.volve's vice president of talent and training. "Building lean muscle mass helps mitigate sarcopenia, which is the inevitable loss of muscle mass due to aging, particularly over the age of 40," she says. "Muscle strength also supports joint health and is part of optimizing your metabolism."

Okay, So What Is Aerobic Exercise?

"Aerobic exercises are exercises that you can do for a sustained period of time," says Straub. Certainly, you can perform aerobic exercise for longer than 90 seconds.

Aerobic exercises are exercises that are considered classic cardiovascular exercises, says Straub. Common aerobic exercise examples include a 10K run, a long bike ride, a loop around the reservoir with your dog, or a jaunt on the elliptical. During these and other aerobic exercises, your heart rate generally hovers somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of your maximum heart rate, says Straub. To identify this range, find your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. Then, multiply that number by 0.7 and 0.8.

While you perform aerobic exercise, your body starts off by burning glycogen stores in your muscles for fuel. Depending on your recent diet, that could last your body anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes. Once yourglycogen stores are used up, your body begins to use oxygen to make ATP (which, again, is a type of energy source). More specifically, your body uses the oxygen that's present to transform stored fat into fuel, explains Straub. The process of turning fat into fuel isn't a quick one, which is why it cannot be used during a shorter workout.

The Benefits of Aerobic Exercise

Need another reason to hit the gym for some cardio? Aerobic exercise offers some noteworthy perks.

Improves Your Overall Health

Aerobic exercise offers many of the same health benefits as anaerobic exercise, according to Straub. "Aerobic exercise can also be used to improve endurance (though aerobic endurance), bone mass (if impact is involved), power, metabolism, and mood," she says.

May Promote Fat Loss

Generally speaking, because your body taps into stored fat for fuel during aerobic exercise, it's associated with faster fat loss than anaerobic exercise, says Straub. That fat loss can be a plus if you have certain weight loss or body recomposition goals.

May Reduce Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

Aerobic exercise's most notable benefit, however, is the improvements it can make to your cardiovascular health. One study published in the journal Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine found a "robust" association between regular aerobic exercise and a decrease in death from heart disease, as well as a reduction in the overall risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Translation: Incorporating aerobic exercise into your regular routine can help keep your heart healthy.

How to Choose Between Anaerobic vs. Aerobic Exercise

Curious about which type of exercise you should prioritize? Or, exactly how to divide your workout schedule into aerobic and anaerobic sections? Here are a few things to consider.

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise: For Improving General Health and Fitness

For an exact breakdown of how much anaerobic vs. aerobic exercise to include in your routine, Vicario recommends leaning on the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommendations for physical activity as a starting point.

ICYDK, the HSS recommends that adults log either 150 to 300 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (a brisk walk, slow jog, chill cycle, etc.) or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (boot camp, CrossFit, tempo run, etc.) each week. Plus you should incorporate moderate strength activities two days per week, which qualifies as additional anaerobic training.

If you're just starting out, you may want to consider opting for the moderate aerobic activity option. Generally speaking, there is less of a learning curve with aerobic exercises than there is with anaerobic exercise. Safely performing anaerobic exercise generally requires greater exercise experience than safely performing aerobic exercise, according to Daniels.

On a similar note, another advantage of aerobic exercise is that it's generally less taxing mentally, emotionally, and physically than anaerobic exercise, says Straub. "Therefore, this form of exercise tends to be best for improving long-term health as people tend to be more compliant," she says. "At the end of the day, exercise (regardless of the type) is only beneficial if performed regularly."

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise: For Building Endurance

While the general HSS recommendations are a good starting point, your exact breakdown should take into account your fitness goals, says Daniels. If you want to be able to run, bike, swim, or row for X period of time or X distance, the scales should shift toward aerobic exercise. Meaning that marathon runners, ultra-marathoners, triathletes, and adventure racer aficionados should plan on favoring "slow and go" workouts over "fast and crash" workouts.

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise: For Building Muscle

Whether you want to hulk up or bulk up, i.e., add muscular strength or mass, you're going to want to focus your attention on strength work via anaerobic training. The same applies if your goal is to win an Olympic lifting competition, which requires you to max out your deadlift, squat, and bench press, notes Daniels.

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise: For Improving Speed

Anaerobic work is queen at making you faster. So, if you need to dash or dart, sprint or spring, you're going to want to prioritize anaerobic work, says Daniels. The exact exercises you do will vary based on your specific goals, but you can expect plyometrics.

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise: For Calorie Burn and Weight Loss

To maximize your calorie burn all day long, you're going to want to incorporate a combination of aerobic and anaerobic exercise.

Since your heart rate is high for a prolonged period of time, you'll probably burn more calories during your aerobic workouts. However, muscle is metabolically active, which means it burns more calories (rather than fat) even after you leave the gym and hit the couch, explains Vicario. Research suggests that anaerobic activity creates a greater calorie burn after the workout compared to aerobic activity, as Shape previously reported.

"All forms of exercise can burn calories and can be used to promote weight loss," says Straub. "Therefore, a blend of aerobic and anaerobic exercise is ideal for increasing calorie burn or losing weight."

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise: For Breaking Through a Plateau

If your workout is feeling stale or your progress has stalled, consider oscillating back and forth between which form of exercise you prioritize, recommends Daniels. "One option is to do four to six weeks of aerobic exercise, and then try doing two to three weeks of anaerobic exercise, before repeating the cycle," he says. "Changing up your routine in this way can help you blast through plateaus and increase motivation."

Anaerobic vs. Aerobic Exercise — Which Is Better?

All in all, neither type of exercise is better than the other. Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise offers a long list of health and fitness benefits, which is why experts recommend incorporating a combination of the two into your workout regimen. "The exact blend of aerobic and anaerobic exercise you choose should be based on your personal fitness and health goals," says Straub. "But some mix of both is ideal."

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles