Difference Between Aerobic and Anaerobic Exercise

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on July 18, 2023
4 min read

Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise can be great additions to your workout routine. They each provide health benefits and help keep you physically fit. The difference between them is the way your body uses energy to do them.

Aerobic exercise is cardiovascular conditioning that strengthens both your heart and lungs. The word “aerobic” means “with oxygen,” as this kind of exercise is fueled by the oxygen that you get from breathing.

As you exercise, your muscles need more oxygen, which is carried by the blood, to keep going. This causes your heart rate to go up and makes you breathe deeply and quickly. While doing aerobic exercise, your small blood vessels get wider so that they can carry more oxygen to your large muscle groups, like the arms, legs, and hips.

When doing aerobic exercise, you should aim to do the activity for at least 30 minutes or longer. This kind of activity includes repeated, continuous movement.

Chances are you are familiar with some examples of aerobic exercises already. Experts recommend that you do these kinds of exercises for at least half an hour, three to seven times each week. Aerobic exercises include:

  • Running or jogging
  • Walking, especially at a brisk pace
  • Swimming
  • Rowing
  • Cycling or biking
  • Jumping rope
  • Step aerobics
  • Skiing 
  • Stair climbing
  • Dancing
  • Using cardio machines like a treadmill or elliptical

If you’re just starting an aerobic workout routine, or if you haven’t been active in a while, start out slowly. Warm up for 5 to 10 minutes, increasing the pace as you go. After you warm up, aim to do your activity of choice for at least 5 minutes. Each day, add a little more time to your exercise routine, picking up the pace as you go. Be sure to include a cooldown, such as walking or stretching.

Anaerobic exercise is high-intensity exercise that’s meant to be short and fast. Your body doesn’t need oxygen as the source to keep your muscles going, but instead uses the energy that’s already stored in your muscles. Anaerobic exercises are only meant to be repeated for 10 to 15 seconds, as these powerful movements usually can’t be sustained for long.

The main purpose of anaerobic exercise is to build muscle mass. When following an anaerobic exercise routine over the course of several months, your muscles experience hypertrophy. This causes them to increase in mass and power through the stretching, contraction, and damage done to the muscles during the exercise.

Examples of anaerobic exercises include:

When you do anaerobic exercise, you push your body to work at your highest level of effort. Any activity at this level that doesn’t carry oxygen to the muscles is considered anaerobic.

To start an anaerobic workout, like weightlifting, warm up for 5 minutes, either walking, stretching, or jogging. Begin by working your large muscle groups first, like the arms and legs.

Do 1 to 3 sets of 8 to 15 repetitions. The weights that you choose should be heavy enough that by the last repetition, your muscles are ready to stop. Choose eight to ten different exercises to do. Afterward, cool down by stretching.

One of the main benefits of aerobic exercise is the impact it has on your cardiovascular health. This kind of exercise makes your heart and lungs stronger and is shown to reverse and prevent heart disease.

Aerobic exercise is shown to lower your chances of other conditions, including:

Aerobic exercise might also help you to control your weight. Along with a healthy diet, regular aerobic exercise can help you maintain or lose weight. ‌

It may also improve your mood. As you exercise, your body releases endorphins — chemicals in your brain that can help you feel relaxed. This helps you ease. It might lead to a better night’s sleep, too.

During anaerobic exercise, you burn calories and improve your cardiovascular health, just like during aerobic exercise. While the biggest benefit of anaerobic exercise is creating muscle mass, there are others.

Resistance training, like lifting weights, can help you to gain bone mass and density. This can help keep your bones strong as you get older. Resistance training also improves blood glucose control, which helps your body use insulin and blood sugar more efficiently.

Anaerobic exercise can also improve both your mood and cardiovascular health the way that aerobic exercise does.