Having a basic understanding of aerobic and 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 using the best exercise bikes (opens in a new tab)playing sports or playing a team sport.
Generally, aerobic exercise is classified as cardio activity that lasts longer than two minutes and includes sports like running and cycling. Anaerobic exercises are generally classified as short, intense movements (think sprinting and jumping).
However, some scholars have argued that these classifications are unnecessary and reductive. We spoke to Alan Ruddock, senior lecturer in sport and exercise physiology at Sheffield Hallam University, to find out more.
What is aerobic and anaerobic exercise?
In simple terms, aerobic means “with oxygen” and refers to the body producing energy using air. Anaerobic means “without oxygen” and refers to the body producing energy without using air.
When you do aerobic exercise, you rely on oxygen as your main source of energy. During more intense periods of anaerobic exercise, your body needs to get energy quickly, so it relies on stored glucose instead.
However, we actually use both energy systems for most forms of exercise – so you can’t really categorize some activities as purely aerobic or anaerobic.
“The way we assess aerobic exercise is through a face mask on an athlete running on a treadmill or a bike,” Ruddock explains. “We assess their oxygen consumption and we can use this information to determine the aerobic contribution to a particular task.”
Ruddock explains that in these tests, the team never finds an exclusive dominance of aerobic or anaerobic energy intakes – there is only ever a predominance.
Ruddock is an Accredited Sport and Exercise Scientist and Fellow of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Science. 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 range of sports and has co-authored more than 25 scientific manuscripts .
To support this thesis, a study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport (opens in a new tab) found that a 100-meter sprint was fueled by 21% aerobic energy for men and 25% for women. So, although a sprint is primarily an anaerobic activity, much 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 due to their misuse.
In an article by Sports medicine (opens in a new tab) Sports scientists Karim Chamari and Johnny Padulo suggest researchers and practitioners use the terms explosive exertion, high-intensity exertion, and intensive endurance exertion instead.
What is predominantly aerobic or anaerobic exercise?
Whether an exercise is primarily aerobic or anaerobic depends on its intensity and duration. As a general rule, the longer the duration of an exercise, the greater the aerobic predominance. This is partly because the intensity of an exercise decreases the longer you do it.
There are other ways to separate the two types of exercises. Predominantly aerobic exercise is something with an intensity of 75% of maximum heart rate and it is something that a person can continue for a long time. Examples include long-distance running or playing a team sport. Explosive activities like weight lifting or sprinting are mostly anaerobic. Meanwhile, high-intensity interval training is in the middle.
If you focus on predominantly anaerobic activities (explosive and intense movements), be sure to incorporate sufficiently long recovery periods between sessions.
“If you repeat a predominantly anaerobic exercise – like a six to 10 second sprint – on the tenth repetition there is a reduction in the amount of anaerobic energy and the aerobic system kicks in. If there is no short recovery time, it gets pretty aerobic at the end,” Ruddock says.
This is supported by research in the Journal of Physiology (opens in a new tab) which showed that power output was primarily derived from the aerobic energy system during the tenth repetition of a six-second sprint when athletes only had a 30-second recovery time.
What are the benefits of aerobic and anaerobic exercise?
For general fitness, both 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 disease. If you want to lose weight or get in shape, your body will need more heavy aerobic exercise, but this must be supported by primarily anaerobic strength training to avoid injury.
In comparison, anaerobic exercise is important for strength, coordination, and maintaining 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 contribute to 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 offer medical advice and readers should consult their doctor or health care professional before adopting any diet or exercise regimen.