What Is the Difference Between Aerobic & Anaerobic Exercise?

You may be aware that you should be taking time out of your busy schedule to exercise every week, but what you may not be aware of is how much of that time should be spent performing aerobic or anaerobic exercise. Knowing what type of physical activity is either aerobic or anaerobic can make all the difference to both your long-term health and how much time you should be spending on an elliptical machine or lifting weights. Always consult your doctor before beginning any new exercise regimen.

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise is any activity that uses your arms and legs to move your body. Your muscles are used in continuous (and generally easy-to-perform) rhythmic or repetitive motions, increasing your heart rate and respiration while building your physical endurance. Aerobic means “with oxygen” -- aerobic exercise uses oxygen to burn fat and carbohydrates, producing energy.

Aerobic Exercise Groups

The American College of Sports Medicine splits aerobic exercise into three groups, defined by varying demands of physical activity. The first group is defined by easy physical activities such as walking, jogging, cycling and climbing stairs. The second group includes moderate to intense exercise such as dance classes, hiking, swimming and bench stepping. The third group covers intense and strenuous exercise involved in skilled sports such as basketball, tennis or volleyball.

Anaerobic Exercise

Anaerobic exercise targets your individual muscles. Because you’re not jumping around and moving your entire body, this type of exercise doesn’t require oxygen, and only burns carbohydrates. Anaerobic exercise builds muscle through short bursts of strenuous activity like weightlifting or performing push-ups at high levels of intensity. This type of exercise builds your skeletal muscle, increasing your overall levels of power and strength through weight and resistance exercises using gravity and your own body weight or machines.

Aerobic Benefits

Aerobic exercise can strengthen your heart and reduce 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 also can potentially reduce your chances of developing heart disease, strokes, high blood pressure, diabetes and some forms of cancer; and it can improve your immune system and stamina. Results do vary based on individual, though, and again, always consult your doctor to help determine the best diet and exercise plan for your particular situation.

Anaerobic Benefits

Anaerobic exercise can strengthen your bones, decreasing your risk of osteoporosis. It can also improve the strength of your tendons and ligaments while also improving joint function. It can reduce the risk of potential injuries and improve your cardiac function. Lastly, anaerobic exercise can elevate your levels of good cholesterol (HDL). Again, these benefits are obtained in combination with a healthy diet, and results vary by individual.