An example of aerobic exercise. Photo by Lorenzo Gaspar
Columns Lifestyles of the Fit and Healthy

Aerobic vs. anaerobic exercise — it comes down to oxygen


When exercise takes place, we are moving our bodies with the intention to better our health. There are many different ways to work up a sweat, each placing different demands on our heart and activated muscles. The two main forms of cardiovascular activity are aerobic and anaerobic. Selection of either can be influenced by a person’s age, goals and level of fitness. Either way, we have to make time to move, but knowing what moves are best for us and our body can help us make better, more effective and informed choices.

Aerobic exercise is done at low to moderate intensity and means “with oxygen.” Walking, jogging, cardio machines like the Elliptical, cycling and swimming are common modalities. A person is able to sustain this activity for more than a few minutes as their heart rate is elevated.

Regular aerobic activity is beneficial to the heart, improves stroke volume (blood pumping mechanism), and the body becomes more efficient with oxygen use. Activity level still allows you to hold a conversation because becoming breathless is not the goal. The body is moving at a steady state, and using slow twitch muscle fibers.

Anaerobic exercise is much more intense, as the participant is working toward their maximum output and effort. This would be like sprinting, which means the duration is much shorter but faster. High intensity interval training (HITT), has become recently popular for this type of exercise.

The demand of oxygen is greater than the supply, which means eventually the body is working “without oxygen.” Then other energy sources are triggered. When there is not enough oxygen, lactic acid builds quickly, which is why anaerobic activities can only last for a short time (at most two minutes). The body then uses glycogen, which equates to carbohydrates.

The best workout involves both styles. Neither type is better for a person than the other. The two complement one another. Some people claim that aerobic activities are more leisurely and enjoyable whereas anaerobic exercise is more time efficient and demanding on the body.

Both burn fat, improve cardiovascular health by strengthening the heart and lungs, prevent cardiovascular diseases, improve immunity and help us like what we see in the mirror.

Not all exercise is created equal, because every body type is different. The bottom line is that movement is medicine to the body. Find what is enjoyable, doable, and accessible for you. The body is empowered when treated with exercise. The lifestyle of the fit and healthy person makes exercise a priority, no matter what type, treating their body like the temple it is.