Having a basic understanding of aerobic vs. anaerobic exercise is a great starting point if you want to get in shape, lose weight, or improve your athletic performance. Both forms of activity can be incorporated into a workout, whether it’s using the best exercise bikes (opens in a new tab)go to the gym or play a team sport.
Aerobic exercise is typically classified as cardiovascular activity lasting more than two minutes and includes sports such as running and cycling. Anaerobic exercise is usually classified as short, intense bursts of movement (think sprinting and jumping).
However, some researchers have argued that these classifications are useless and reductive. We spoke to Alan Ruddock, Professor of Sport and Exercise Physiology at Sheffield Hallam University, to find out more.
What is aerobic and anaerobic exercise?
Simply put, aerobic means “with oxygen” and refers to the body producing energy by using air. Anaerobic means “without oxygen” and refers to the body producing energy without the use of air.
When you do aerobic exercise, you rely on oxygen as your primary energy source. During more intense bouts of anaerobic exercise, your body needs to get energy quickly, so it relies on stored glucose.
However, we actually use both energy systems for most forms of exercise, so you cannot classify certain activities as purely aerobic or anaerobic.
“The way to assess aerobic exercise is by putting a face mask on an athlete running on a treadmill or bike,” says Ruddock. “We assess their oxygen uptake and can use that information to determine the aerobic contribution to a particular task.”
Ruddock explains that during these tests, the team never finds an exclusive dominance of aerobic or anaerobic energy inputs – there is only one predominance.
Ruddock is a Chartered Sport and Exercise Scientist and a Fellow of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences. Currently Laboratory Director of the Sport and Physical Activity Research Center in Sheffield (UK), he has provided physiological support to Olympians, Paralympians, World, Commonwealth, European and British Champions in a variety of sports and has co-authored more than 25 scientific manuscripts. .
To support this, a study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport (opens in a new tab) found that a 100-meter sprint was powered by 21% aerobic energy for men and 25% for women. So even though a sprint is predominantly an anaerobic activity, a good portion of the energy during exercise can still come from the aerobic system.
As such, Ruddock says it’s important not to use the terms aerobic and anaerobic exclusively and to understand that all exercise uses both energy systems.
Some sports scientists have even called for the terms aerobic and anaerobic to be replaced because of their misuse.
In a Sports Medicine article (opens in a new tab) Sports scientists Karim Chamari and Johnny Padulo suggest that researchers and practitioners should use the terms explosive efforts, high-intensity efforts, and intensive endurance efforts.
What is predominantly aerobic or anaerobic exercise?
Whether an exercise is predominantly aerobic or anaerobic depends on its intensity and duration. As a general rule, the longer the duration of an exercise, the stronger the aerobic predominance. This is partly because the intensity of an exercise will decrease the longer you do it.
There are other ways to separate the two types of exercise. Predominantly aerobic exercise is something at an intensity of 75% of maximum heart rate and is something that a person can continue for a long time. Examples include running long distances or playing team sports. Explosive activities such as weight training or sprinting are predominantly anaerobic. Meanwhile, high-intensity interval training is in the middle ground.
If you’re focusing on predominantly anaerobic activities (explosive, intense movements), make sure to incorporate long enough recovery periods between sessions.
“If you repeat a mostly anaerobic exercise, like a six- to 10-second sprint, by the 10th repetition there’s a reduction in the amount of anaerobic energy and the aerobic system kicks in. If there’s only a short recovery time, it gets pretty aerobic. in the end,” Ruddock says.
This is supported by research in the Journal of Physiology (opens in a new tab) who showed that power production was derived primarily from the aerobic energy system in the tenth repetition of a six-second sprint when the athletes had only a 30-second recovery time.
What are the benefits of aerobic and anaerobic exercise?
For general fitness, aerobic and anaerobic are important for different reasons.
Aerobic exercise is important for cardiovascular health, because it keeps the heart and blood vessels healthy and reduces the risk of heart-related diseases. If you’re looking to lose weight or get in shape, your body will need more intense aerobic exercise, but this should be backed up with mostly anaerobic strength training to avoid injury.
In comparison, anaerobic exercise is important for strength, coordination and maintenance of muscle mass. The American Heart Association recommends strength training at least twice a week to help protect the body from injury and maintain mobility in old age.
Anaerobic activity will also help with metabolic health, which means the body is able to respond to food in a beneficial way, reducing the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
This article is not intended to provide medical advice and readers should consult their physician or health care professional before adopting any diet or exercise regimen.