The Difference Between Aerobic and Anaerobic Exercise

What do aerobic and anaerobic mean?

Aerobic simply means ‘with oxygen,’ and anaerobic means ‘without oxygen.’ Aerobic metabolism is the norm when we take part in our daily exercise; our resting metabolism uses oxygen to extract energy from our food, and so provide energy for the body’s’ maintenance, digestion and blood flow. When we move about or carry out exercise, we are still using aerobic metabolism – until the exercise becomes so demanding that the lungs cannot satisfy the demand for oxygen, and then our alternative, anaerobic metabolism takes effect.

Anaerobic metabolism relies on a different set of chemical processes in the body; these do not require oxygen. However, this alternative means of utilising energy is limited, and we can usually only manage to maintain it over short bursts. Think of it like a turbocharger, which kicks in when you require that extra surge of energy. If you are forced to undertake a sudden 100 yard dash, to catch a bus for example, your body may have to go into anaerobic mode. If you are taking a steady one-mile jog at a steady pace, then aerobic metabolism will be enough to meet your body’s requirements.

Anaerobic metabolism unfortunately generates the waste product known as lactic acid; this can build up in the muscles and can lead to muscle ache as well as fatigue. The lactic acid has to be flushed out before the body can provide another burst of anaerobic exercise, which is why it can only be sustained over brief bursts. Aerobic metabolism produces carbon dioxide as a waste product – this is easily removed in the air we breathe out.

Aerobic exercise, then, is the common branch of exercise familiar to most people, and particularly useful for the heart and lungs; increased levels of aerobic activity help the body to raise its capacity for exercise, thus stimulating and encouraging weight loss. Aerobic exercise relies on glucose in the blood for energy, and the body’s blood glucose has to remain at a constant level. To lose weight you have to work off more calories than you take in from food, and maintain this for a period of time. That way the blood glucose level is supplemented by the body’s fat stores – which translate into sugar in the blood.

Aerobic exercise typically incorporates aerobic metabolism and includes activities such as cycling, dancing, football, running, swimming and racquet games. It is otherwise referred to as cardiovascular exercise because it quickens the heart-rate, as more blood is pumped around the body to give the muscles enough oxygen and glucose. A regular programme of exercise that increases your heart rate to 70% of its maximum level is thought to be the most effective formula for shedding weight while enhancing your general health. A woman can work out her maximum safe heart-rate by taking the number 225, and subtracting their age.

Anaerobic exercise is more about exercising against resistance – weight training is a common example. Aerobic exercise is better for weight loss, since it is more efficient and works off more calories. It can also be maintained over longer periods.

Anaerobic exercise is better for increasing muscle mass and core strength, and is widely used by athletes to increase power and speed.

To trim down and shed weight, it is generally recommended that you base your workout programme on aerobic exercise, at least initially, before phasing in some anaerobic exercise at a later stage, once you begin to get results. Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise help you work towards all-round physical fitness – but increasing aerobic exercise is a good start towards improving your health and losing weight.