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Aerobic vs Anaerobic Exercises – Main Differences, Benefits, and Risks

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In recent years, more and more trainers started applying various aerobic and anaerobic principles to their workouts. This is because each type of workout works towards a different goal for the person who is doing it. So, what are those exercises after all? In this article, I will put aerobic vs anaerobic exercises and compare them in a way that you can fully understand their principles and start using them for your own benefit.

The main idea of aerobic exercising is that your body’s heart rate and breathing increase gradually and are sustained over a certain period. By doing that, you are maximizing the amount of oxygen that reaches your muscle tissue. Good examples of that are doing swimming laps, jogging, or cycling on longer distances. Anaerobic exercises, on the other hand, are much more intense and are categorized as short bursts of energy during which your muscles don’t rely on their primary source of energy (oxygen) but rather reach into their stored supplies such as high-energy phosphates such as ATP. These bursts are not very long compared to aerobic training and are usually performed at maximum effort. That being said, let’s now dive deeper into each type of exercise and see how they affect our bodies, what their benefits are, and if there are any known risks of overdoing them…

Aerobic Exercise

When you think of aerobic exercises you can think of anything that doesn’t make you lose your breath out of exhaustion. Basically anything from a fast-paced walk to swimming and cycling on longer distances. Running (apart from sprinting) is also mostly an aerobic activity. These exercises are performed in a surplus of oxygen in our bodies and our muscle cells use that same oxygen as their primary form of fuel.

For people who want to maintain a good health and an active mind and body, aerobic workouts are the best way to stay in shape. Let’s see a few good examples now…

Types of aerobic activities

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Here are some of the best-known examples of aerobic exercises and workouts:

  • Jogging
  • Swimming (average paced)
  • Walking (brisk pace)
  • Zumba dancing
  • Winter sports like skiing and snowboarding
  • Cycling (moderate pace on even terrain)
  • Stairs

All these activities have the potential to become anaerobic exercises if you push too hard. For instance, a simple jog can turn anaerobic if you pick up the pace and your heart rate goes above 80% of HRMax (more on that in the anaerobic section). Swimming and cycling are also really easy to go into the anaerobic section of your cardiovascular system if you aren’t moderate with your efforts.

Benefits of aerobic training

The benefits of aerobic training are fare more pronounced and long-lasting than the ones you get from anaerobic workouts. Some of the main ones are the reduced risk of heart attack and other heart-related issues, the reduced risk of type 2 diabetes or strokes.

Aerobic exercises also help with weight loss, high blood pressure, and a weak immune system. On top of that, there are a number of psychological benefits you get such as improved mood, fewer mood swings, reduced feeling of fatigue throughout your day, and a feeling of accomplishment.

There are a number of studies that also indicate that people who regularly do aerobic exercises live longer on average than people who don’t exercise as much.


The risks of aerobic training are, in general, fewer than the ones from anaerobic exercises. They involve muscle and joint-related injuries to people that are new to these types of workouts. This is why it is important to start slowly and build your way up. If you are new to jogging, start by doing 5-minute jogs and add 5 more minutes to every next workout until you reach a steady and moderate 45-minute jog.

How often should you do aerobic exercises

Since these exercises aren’t very demanding, cardiologists recommend doing at least 4 or 5 30-minute moderate workouts per week or at least 3 higher-intensity aerobic workouts 3 times per week. As you progress, feel free to add weights or even high-intensity workouts to your weekly routine. Remember to take a day off after 2 or 3 consecutive days with aerobic training.

If you are wondering when exactly it is best for you to do your aerobic run, then I suggest checking out my detailed article on that topic. Now, let’s take a look at anaerobic exercising…

Anaerobic Exercise

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As I mentioned, your body usually trains in an abundance of oxygen which is properly supplied to your muscles by the increased heart and breathing rate. By going up into your heart rate zones, and further increasing the intensity of your workout, your cardiovascular system will stop being able to distribute enough oxygen to your muscular system. At that moment, your muscle cells will start using other metabolic pathways to supply their energy and will effectively stop using oxygen, or at least use it in very small amounts. During this period of anaerobic training, your muscles grow stronger, your fat supplies are lowered and you build more high-intensity endurance, meaning you are essentially raising your own body’s upper bar.

These anaerobic activities also increase your endurance for easier everyday tasks such as hiking, playing with your kids, dancing, or other aerobic activities. In a way, you teach your muscle cells how to function properly and burn other fuel supplies even if there is enough oxygen coming in.

Your heart rate is one of the best indicators of how much oxygen your body is consuming and whether or not your muscles are working in aerobic or anaerobic conditions. You can monitor your heart rate with a chest strap or a wristband, or simply use one of the following methods to measure it without the help of a device. Usually, your body starts relying on anaerobic mechanisms at the end of Zone 3 and in Zones 4 and 5, when your heart rate goes above 80% of your HRMax.

Types of anaerobic activities

here are some of the best examples of anaerobic training:

  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT) – HIIT has been gaining more and more popularity over the past few years mainly due to its numerous benefits. It helps your body burn fats easier and trains your muscle and cardiovascular system through anaerobic exercises which are intense (as the name suggests) and done in short intervals allowing little breaks between them.
  • Lifting heavy weights – Lifting is often done in an anaerobic fashion, especially if you are trying to lift weights which are at your body’s upper limits. In those short bursts, you aren’t breathing in enough oxygen, so your muscles start relying on other energy sources.
  • Callisthenics – callisthenics and different type of jumps (box, squats) are an excellent addition to your anaerobic training mainly due to the short, high-intensity movements you perform.
  • Sprints – Whether you are running, swimming or cycling, short sprints will always be a good way to keep your endurance up and keep pushing your body forward. the more anaerobic training you do for any of these sports, the more you will be able to sustain high-intensity periods. For instance, the more swimming sprints you do, the higher speeds you will be able to sustain for longer periods of time at a single burst.

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Benefits of anaerobic training

Some of the main benefits you get out of anaerobic training are that you increase the high-intensity threshold of your body. Think of it like that – the more you train in those upper revs of your body, the longer you will be able to sustain those efforts in the future. For instance, runners run within their Heart rate zones 4 and 5 when their bodies work primarily in aerobic conditions, so that they can sustain faster paces for longer durations in the future. That can be either longer sprints or just a fast-paced mile run at the end of your half marathon.

Anaerobic training also helps you build muscle mass and reduce the fat percentage in your body. It is also a great way to strengthen your bones and joints.


As you may have already guessed, anaerobic exercises can be quite harsh on our bodies. This is why this level of workout intensity is generally not recommended for beginners. Before you start adding anaerobic elements to your workouts, consult your physician so that he clears you of any potential risks to your cardiovascular system.

For HIIT and weight lifting, you might also want to get an instructor to show you the correct form of the exercises and movements in order to prevent any potential injuries from a poor form or lack of stability.

How often should you do anaerobic exercises

Depending on your needs, anaerobic exercises can be distributed differently throughout the week. The general rule of thumb is to give your body at least a full day of recovery after a high-intensity anaerobic workout. Also, try keeping these workouts to no more than 3 per week.

I usually prefer having a very light stretching and general warm-up exercising on the day after anaerobic training, just to keep my body active but some people prefer taking a full day off with no training whatsoever. I recommend at least doing an active stretching session or yoga.

Which one is better for weight loss?

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While aerobic workouts improve the state of your cardiovascular system, they generally work in abundance of oxygen and improve your slow-twitch muscle fibers. Anaerobic workouts, on the other hand, makes the muscle fiber consume much more glycogen for their energy fuel as opposed to aerobic exercises. In other words, it takes far less time to lose a certain amount of weight by doing high-intensity interval training, than it would take you doing moderate-intensity aerobic exercises such as jogging and swimming. For most people, this will result in the well-known plateau from which they won’t be able to progress upwards unless they step up their game and work their way up in the higher heart rate zones.

The general rule of thumb here is that the harder the workout is the more calories you will burn. The longer you can sustain those high efforts, the greater the result will be both for weight loss and for muscle gain. So, in theory, if you want to lose fat but keep your muscles or even grow them, high-intensity anaerobic workouts are the way forward.

Muscle tissue also burns far more calories than any other tissue in our bodies. What this means is that once you start building more muscles and making your muscle fibers stronger and more metabolically active, you will naturally start burning more calories as a whole. This creates a great circle of effects which is started by anaerobic training and will also lead to further and further fat loss over time unless you stop at some point and maintain your current state.

The last benefit of anaerobic training is the so-called EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption). What this means is that after you are dong with your high-intensity workout, your body will keep consuming oxygen and using calories in order to get things back to your normal (rest) state. Aerobic exercises have a much lower EPOC compared to anaerobic ones.

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Final Words

If you are still wondering between aerobic vs anaerobic exercises, know that you can simply workout in both these days. A healthy workout routine consists of a few aerobic sessions per week combined with 1-3 anaerobic ones put in-between them. What you shouldn’t forget, though, is to actively rest between high-intensity workouts and take a full day off after a heavy day of training. That way you can promote the long-term health of your joints and muscles and prevent most injuries.