Aerobic Versus Anaerobic Exercise

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2023

Aerobic and anaerobic exercises are 2 distinct types of physical activity. They each have unique traits, benefits, and limitations. But they both help improve overall fitness. Knowing the differences between aerobic and anaerobic exercise can help you tailor your workouts to meet your fitness goals.1,2

What is aerobic exercise?

Aerobic exercise, often called “cardio,” is the type of exercise most people are familiar with. It involves continuous, rhythmic movements over an extended period of time. During aerobic exercise, oxygen is delivered to your muscles. Your heart rate increases, and your breathing quickens.1,2

Aerobic exercises are performed at a moderate intensity that can be sustained over a period of time. Some examples of aerobic exercise are:1,2

  • Brisk walking
  • Jogging
  • Cycling
  • Hiking
  • Swimming
  • Dancing

There are many benefits of aerobic exercise. It can help:1,2

  • Improve heart health
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve circulation
  • Aid in weight loss
  • Improve lung function
  • Increase metabolism
  • Reduce stress and boost mood

What is anaerobic exercise?

Anaerobic exercise is vigorous physical activity in which you push yourself to the highest limit. This type of exercise involves short bursts of intense activity. With anaerobic exercise, you need energy fast. So, rather than rely on oxygen, your body taps into glycogen that is stored throughout your body for energy.1,2

Examples of anaerobic exercise include:1,2

  • Weight lifting
  • Strength training
  • Body-weight exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, squats, and lunges
  • Sprinting
  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT)

Anaerobic exercise helps build and maintain lean muscle mass. It also helps:1,2

  • Boost metabolism
  • Increase overall strength
  • Improve balance
  • Enhance bone density

How are they different?

Aerobic exercise is lower-intensity movement, performed at a steady pace for a period of time. Anaerobic exercise is short bursts of high-intensity activity.1,2

Another key difference is the effects each has on the cardiovascular system. Your cardiovascular system is made up of your heart, blood vessels, and blood. Aerobic exercise raises your heart rate and breathing rate, increasing the delivery of oxygen to the muscles. Over time, this improves overall fitness and endurance.1,2

In contrast, anaerobic exercise focuses on muscle strength and power. This also helps improve bone mass density over time.1,2

Are there any limitations?

Both anaerobic and aerobic exercises can be great for your overall health. But they do have some limitations.

Because of its intensity, anaerobic exercise may lead to strain on muscles and joints, if you are not careful. It also requires plenty of recovery time between workouts to allow the body to repair and rebuild muscle tissues.1,2

On the other hand, aerobic exercise alone may not be enough if you want to build strong, lean muscles.1,2

Combine both into your fitness routine

Aerobic and anaerobic exercises are both important, and they complement each other. If you are able, try combining the 2 types. This approach is often called "cross-training." It can improve your heart health, burn calories, and build strength all at the same time. For example, you could walk briskly for 20 minutes, followed by 10 minutes of lifting weights.1,2

Health experts recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise throughout the week. It does not have to be complicated. In fact, the simpler it is, the better. If it helps you get motivated, try tracking your steps on your smartphone or watch. Or coordinate your exercise with a friend.1,2

There are lots of activities to choose from. Learn what feels good for your body, and do that. It may be dancing, hiking, swimming, playing tennis, jogging, Pilates – the list goes on and on!

Some is better than none

For those with limited mobility, it can be hard to exercise. But try to do what you can. Even a small amount of exercise is better than none. There are many activities that may be accessible to people with certain disabilities or limited mobility. The following are low-impact and easy on the body:3

  • Elliptical machine training
  • Aqua-jogging
  • Chair exercises
  • Chair yoga
  • Stretching

Before starting any kind of fitness routine, always talk to your doctor. And if you are new to exercise, remember to start slowly to prevent injury.

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