What is the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise? This is what even the biggest fitness freaks ask themselves. That’s right, some with years of teaching experience don’t understand exactly what the terms mean. On the other hand, if you only occasionally dip your toes into the world of fitness, you’ve probably still heard the terms aerobic and anaerobic exercise thrown around.
That’s because many PTs and gym instructors often use technical jargon to explain workouts, even when the meaning isn’t clear to everyone. We see this happen time and time again and many customers pretend they know what they are talking about for fear of looking a bit stupid. However, knowing the difference can be really helpful, just like knowing which shoes to wear during these types of exercises. Ours best cross training shoes the buying guide will help you there, by the way.
So if you want to know what the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise really is, look no further. In this article we talk with Charlotte Tooth (opens in new tab)global fitness instructor and founder of Body Bond online (opens in new tab), to reveal what the real meaning behind the two technical terms is so you know once and for all. No more empty expressions. ugh
Founder of BodyBond (opens in new tab) Online, Charlotte Tout is a personal trainer who has worked with numerous celebrities, professional athletes and exercise enthusiasts. She has been featured in publications including Women’s Health, The Marylebone Journal, Boots UK and Vogue. Charlotte continues to guest teach across the UK, leading classes for Sweaty Betty Live, TRX UK Summit, Body Power Expo and exclusive Harrods in-store events.
What are the differences between aerobic and anaerobic exercise?
While cardiovascular training is any form of exercise designed to improve cardiovascular fitness (how well the heart, lungs, and blood vessels work), Toth explains that aerobic and anaerobic exercise fit into this as simple terms that we use, to describe how cells in the body produce energy during exercise.
“Simply put, aerobic means with oxygen and anaerobic means without oxygen. Think about when you go for a brisk walk – something you could do for 1-3 hours,” she explains, adding that this would be considered aerobic because your body can continue to use oxygen.
“When you have to sprint to catch a bus or run to catch a ball a few meters away, you’re probably exercising anaerobically.”
Tooth adds that it is important to note that the two energy systems do not operate independently. In fact, they interact with each other to meet the necessary energy needs.
The benefits of aerobic fitness
So is aerobics better or worse for losing weight or building strength and muscle—what’s the deal?
Tooth suggests that any mention of aerobic fitness relates only to your body’s ability to meet the demands of endurance-based activities using oxygen as a fuel source.
“Aerobic fitness is the foundation of every other type of fitness,” she says. “Without aerobic fitness, your body’s ability to breathe faster, pump blood around your body and provide more oxygen to the muscles is limited.
“Everything in life is more difficult if the heart and lungs do not provide a strong base line of support!”
This means that walking up the stairs, shopping, lifting weights or swimming becomes easier if your cardiovascular fitness is good.
“By simply doing aerobic work regularly, every few days, your whole life can feel easier,” adds Toth.
Obviously, aerobic exercise won’t necessarily help you build muscle—unless you’re talking about your heart or respiratory muscles—but it will lay the foundation for good breathing and strong circulation to help your body be efficient at producing energy when it matters most.
Tooth also explains how – while most people think of aerobic exercise as a great fitness tool – it has a range of benefits that have nothing to do with changing the physical body at all.
“Aerobic activity is amazing for brain health. When we exercise, we see an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor, an important molecule in the plastic changes associated with memory and learning.”
It also leads to an increase in mood-enhancing hormones and a decrease in anxiety and stress, she says.
Benefits of anaerobic fitness
One of the main benefits of anaerobic training is the level of fitness achieved, which can translate well into sport.
“If you play football, tennis or netball, anaerobic training can help you produce results in those short movements where your body needs to sprint, serve or react quickly,” explains Toth.
“Imagine sprinting for a bus, playing tag with your child, or running to catch an Amazon delivery—your body will likely be running anaerobically.”
Training like this also provides a great psychological challenge for those who have been training for a long time, she adds.
“This type of training also complements some styles of resistance training, such as Olympic weightlifting, where many of the movements are power movements involving high levels of force and speed.”
Aerobic vs Anaerobic: Which is Better for Fat Loss?
When you exercise aerobically, the skill and strength required to perform this type of activity is usually less than what you would need to perform anaerobic activities.
“This can make aerobic activities more accessible and easier to stick to.” For this reason, I would suggest steady-state aerobic work for fat loss, such as cycling, running or swimming,” says Toth.
“Essentially, the best type of exercise for any purpose is the exercise we would actually do. Many people find anaerobic training very psychologically challenging and therefore skip training due to a lack of confidence.”
Also, remember that nutrition plays a big role in fat loss. While lots of research (opens in new tab) have found that exercise plays a big role in shifting pounds, good nutrition is also necessary. Combining the two may have the best effect.
Take, for example, how this meta-analysis published in Journal of the Academy and Dietetics (opens in new tab) found that, over the long term, behavioral weight management programs that combine exercise with diet can lead to more sustained weight loss over one year than diet alone.
Tooth agrees, adding how extremely important it is to recognize diet when it comes to changes in body composition:
“The combination of exercise and dietary changes has consistently been shown to be more effective in achieving positive body composition results than exercise alone,” she says.
If you want to add more aerobic exercise to your routine, then you should consider using some of the best exercise machines to lose weight the next time you hit the gym, or swimming has great benefits. Alternatively, you may want to incorporate more anaerobic exercise into your fitness routine and will benefit from choosing occasional HIIT workouts for fat loss or resistance training at home with some of the best adjustable dumbbells.