Both aerobic and anaerobic exercises are beneficial for a person’s health, although each benefits the body in different ways.

Aerobic exercises are endurance-type exercises that increase a person’s heart rate and breathing rate over relatively long durations. Anaerobic exercises are exercises that involve short bursts of intense activity.

Examples of aerobic exercise include brisk walking and riding a bicycle. Sprinting and weightlifting are forms of anaerobic exercise.

In this article, we outline the similarities and differences between aerobic and anaerobic exercise. We also explain some of the potential benefits and risks of these two types of exercise and how often people should perform each one.

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Both aerobic and anaerobic exercises are beneficial, but they can differ in duration and intensity.

Below are some definitions of aerobic and anaerobic exercises.

Aerobic exercises

Aerobic exercises are endurance-type exercises in which a person’s muscles move in a rhythmic and coordinated manner for a sustained period.

People refer to these exercises as aerobic because they require oxygen to generate energy. Aerobic exercises increase a person’s heart rate and breathing rate to supply more oxygen to the body’s muscles.

Examples of aerobic exercise include:

Anaerobic exercises

Anaerobic exercises are those that involve short, intense bursts of physical activity.

These exercises are anaerobic because they do not involve an increase in the absorption and transportation of oxygen. During anaerobic exercise, the body breaks down glucose stores in the absence of oxygen, leading to a buildup of lactic acid in the muscles.

Examples of anaerobic exercises include:

The main differences between aerobic exercise and anaerobic exercise are:

  • how the body uses stored energy
  • the intensity of the exercise
  • the length of time that a person is able to maintain the exercise

Aerobic exercises tend to be rhythmic, gentle, and of longer duration. Anaerobic exercises tend to involve short bursts of high intensity activity.

Generally speaking, aerobic exercise helps increase endurance, whereas anaerobic exercise helps increase muscle mass and strength.

A 2017 review notes that both aerobic and anaerobic exercises are beneficial for the cardiovascular system. Both exercise types help by:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), either type of exercise helps lower a person’s risk of the following health conditions:

The American Psychological Association note that exercise of any type is beneficial for mental health, as well as physical health.

While both types of exercise provide a variety of benefits, these may differ slightly.

Benefits of aerobic exercise

In general, aerobic exercises increase the heart rate and breathing rate and boost circulation. In this way, they improve a person’s cardiovascular health.

Some potential benefits of aerobic exercise include:

A 2015 study investigated whether regular aerobic activity reduced a person’s mortality risk. The study found that people who engaged in a total of 1–2.4 hours of light jogging over two or three runs per week had a significantly lower risk of mortality than those who did not exercise.

However, people who practiced strenuous jogging appeared to have the same mortality risk as those who did not exercise at all. This finding suggests that moderate aerobic exercise can help reduce the risk of mortality but that high intensity aerobic exercise may not confer any added advantage.

Risks of aerobic exercises

Aerobic exercises are beneficial for most people. However, people should talk to a doctor before they begin practicing aerobic exercise if they:

Doctors may be able to make specific exercise recommendations or suggest sensible restrictions to help a person ease into regular aerobic exercise.

A person with a sedentary lifestyle should also ease into physical activity gradually. The sudden introduction of long duration, high intensity aerobic exercise may put unnecessary stress on the body.

Benefits of anaerobic exercises

Similarly to aerobic exercise, anaerobic exercise has beneficial effects on a person’s cardiovascular health.

However, in comparison with aerobic exercise, anaerobic exercise demands more energy from the body within a shorter time frame. As such, anaerobic exercise may be particularly beneficial for people who are looking to lose body fat.

Anaerobic exercise also helps a person gain or maintain muscle mass and increase bone density.

Risks of anaerobic exercises

Anaerobic exercise is typically more demanding on the body and requires higher levels of exertion. As such, people should ensure that they have a basic level of fitness before engaging in intense anaerobic workouts.

People with underlying health concerns should talk to a doctor before adding any anaerobic exercise to their regular workout routine.

It can also be beneficial to work with a personal trainer when trying anaerobic exercises for the first time. A personal trainer can ensure that the person performs the workouts correctly to reduce the risk of overexertion or injury.

People can think of aerobic exercises as sustained forms of exercise.

Common examples of aerobic exercise include:

  • brisk walking
  • hiking
  • dancing
  • swimming
  • cycling

People can think of anaerobic exercises as quick, intense workouts.

Examples of anaerobic exercises include:

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommend that adults practice either 150–300 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75–150 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic activity each week. They note that increasing the amount of exercise will provide greater health benefits.

Moderate aerobic activity includes activities such as brisk walks and gentle bike rides. The rule of thumb is that a person should be able to talk comfortably while doing these activities.

More vigorous aerobic activities include long distance running and more intense cycling. Vigorous aerobic activities allow a person to reach their weekly aerobic activity requirements more quickly.

The HHS Department recommend that adults perform moderate intensity or higher intensity muscle-strengthening activities on at least 2 days of the week. Examples include weightlifting and resistance training.

When performing muscle-strengthening exercises, it is important that people work out all of the major muscle groups rather than focusing solely on the muscles in the upper or lower body.

Aerobic exercises are endurance-type exercises that increase a person’s heart and breathing rate over a sustained period. Anaerobic exercises involve short, intense bursts of physical activity.

Both types of exercise are beneficial for a person’s cardiovascular health. They also provide mental health benefits.

People with cardiovascular conditions or other underlying health issues should talk to a doctor before starting any workout routine or adding new exercises to an existing routine. A doctor may provide recommendations or restrictions to reduce the risk of overexertion, injury, and other health complications.