Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise

People often ask what’s the better way to get in good shape, aerobic exercise or anaerobic exercise?

The answer is: why pick one!?

Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise are important to your overall health. If possible, you should do your best to get some of each. Today, I’ll briefly cover some of the reasons why.

First, we have to understand the difference between aerobic and anaerobic activity. It’s a pretty simple division. If breathing is enough to maintain the activity for longer than, say, 45 seconds…it’s probably an aerobic activity. That is to say: it’s exercise fueled by oxygen consumption. If the exercise is too demanding to maintain for that long, it’s probably anaerobic. This is because oxygen consumption isn’t enough to provide the necessary muscular energy to perform anaerobic exercises. Instead, the creatine phosphate/stored ATP system is called upon first—an energy source that usually runs out of fuel after only 10 seconds—and blood glucose and muscle glycogen called upon after that (usually lasting in high-intensity situations only another 20-30 seconds; though this is a kind of simplistic/reductive review of this energy system, it’s all we’ll have time for today).

It turns out, human beings evolved to do aerobic activity. Walking, jogging, running, rowing, etc… are activities that we excel at naturally. Some of this has to do with how we evolved to hunt (for a fun time-killing activity, try Googling ‘pursuit predation’ or ‘persistence hunting’). Aerobic activity is, unsurprisingly, therefore very good for us. Aerobic activity can increase your general endurance, improve your overall heart and lung health, and even better your overall mood. It’s also been correlated with an overall longer life. Why wouldn’t you want those things? Geeze, guess it’s time to hit the treadmill, huh?

But then what about anaerobic activity? Well, there are plenty of benefits there, too. Anaerobic activity can be very difficult and extremely demanding on the body, but at great costs come great benefits. Anaerobic activity builds lean muscle, torches body fat, and can even raise your resting metabolism. Cool stuff. So, what do you say to some sprint intervals and a little weight lifting?

Human beings did not evolve to do as much anaerobic activity, so many people find it very challenging. Don’t be dissuaded by the initial difficulties of high-intensity exercise!! The end results are well-worth the soreness. If you have doubts about your abilities or technique, a good trainer may be a wise investment: a capable trainer should be able to adjust each exercise (as well as the overall workout) to your general fitness level, should quickly learn how to motivate you, and should be able to help correct your exercise technique to avoid strain and injury. You may still experience lingering soreness during those first 2-4 weeks, but you’ll be surprised how quickly your body adapts to anaerobic and strength training after that.

Oh, another great thing? All exercise is linked to improved bone density with age.

Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise have tremendous benefits to offer. There are probably dozens of articles on the internet that will argue that one is necessarily better than the other for [whatever reason they come up with], but those articles kind of miss the point: you don’t have to choose. You can do both. Health isn’t about the relentless pursuit of a single type of training or even a single type of fitness. It’s not strength or endurance, it’s strength and endurance.

And don’t forget to stretch, either. It’s strength and endurance and flexibility.