Aerobic and anaerobic exercise – what´s the difference?


This month on our health and wellbeing blog we are looking at how you can care for your body. In this article, as part of our detox and weight loss series, we will look at the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise. We will consider what it means for you when you are exercising, particularly if you are looking to improve your health or lose weight.

La Crisalida’s approach to exercise

Getting out and doing regular exercise is said to help improve energy levels, reduce stress, maintain a healthy weight, contribute to preventing some chronic health conditions and diseases (like cardiovascular disease) and can help to improve sleep. An important element of a healthy lifestyle is making exercise part of your daily life. However, we don’t want to do excessive exercise that can have a negative effect on your body. Additionally, not all exercise is equal – different types and ways of exercising can have different effects on your body. Understanding this can help you to make decisions about the type of exercise you need to do and how often.

One of the main aims at the retreat is to allow your body, mind and spirit to relax, so that you can find your balance, the authentic you. All of our activities are designed with this in mind.

For these reasons, we tend to favour aerobic exercise. We offer daily guided walks in the local area, regular rebounding classes and other exercise style classes, like legs, tums and bums, yoga-lates and aqua aerobics in the summer. Here on the Costa Blanca, we have two pools, one is a magnesium pool (heated in the cooler months) and we encourage you to enjoy swimming in them. Yoga complements this well, and helps with toning the body. We tend to avoid or minimise anaerobic exercise at the retreat – read on to find out why.

Aerobic versus anaerobic exercise – what’s the difference?

To understand what is meant by the terms aerobic exercise and anaerobic exercise, we need to look at how our bodies create energy and how this links to our metabolism. According to the UK’s National Health Service: “Metabolism describes all the chemical processes that go on continuously inside your body to keep you alive and your organs functioning normally, such as breathing, repairing cells and digesting food. These chemical processes require energy”.

The body has two processes of creating energy, aerobic metabolism and anaerobic metabolism.

Aerobic metabolism is the way your body creates energy in the presence of oxygen. It burns (uses) carbohydrates, fats and amino acids (all the things we get from eating food), in the presence of oxygen, to create energy.

Anaerobic metabolism is the creation of energy without oxygen. During anaerobic metabolism, the oxygen demands of muscle tissue is greater than the capacity of the circulation to supply the oxygen. This in turn leads to oxygen debt. When the debt becomes too high, the muscle stops functioning and recovery time is needed. Anaerobic metabolism can only use glucose and glycogen.

Your body will naturally use the best way of producing energy at any one time. With exercise you can affect the type of metabolism used, by doing activities that are more aerobic in nature (aerobic metabolism) or anaerobic (anaerobic metabolism).

Your body can switch between the two systems of energy production during specific sports that require short burst of sprints, tennis, and soccer etc, so technically, most exercise contains an element of both.

The minimum amount of energy your body requires to carry out these chemical processes is called the basal metabolic rate (BMR). You can measure your BMR using a Body Composition Analysis machine – we have one here at the retreat – read more in our earlier article: what is body composition analysis.

Typical aerobic exercise

Aerobic energy is most related to long duration activity, endurance exercise. Typically, your breathing and heart rate will increase, but they will be lower than at maximum (see more on this below).

Some people refer to aerobic exercise as “cardio”. Good examples include:

  • Brisk walking
  • Running (not sprinting)
  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Zumba
  • Circuits
  • Rebounding (bouncing on a mini trampoline)
  • Skipping

Technically, moderate-intensity exercise that is done at a heart rate below 85% of maximum heart rate and doesn’t include vigorous muscle contraction is classified as an aerobic exercise. If you want to monitor this yourself at home, you can calculate your own maximum heart rate (MHR) as: 220 minus <your age>. Many watches nowadays that count your steps can also monitor your heart rate.

Yoga uses aerobic metabolism, however your heart rate tends to stay lower, so most forms of yoga are not considered moderate-intensity (and therefore doesn´t fall into the definition of aerobic exercise).

Health benefits of aerobic exercise

There are many health benefits of doing aerobic exercise on a regular basis and making it part of a healthy lifestyle, including:

  • Increased lung capacity – oxygen can get into your blood more quickly.
  • Increased heart function – your heart can pump blood (and oxygen) more efficiently around your body.
  • Increased blood volume – your circulation improves.
  • Increased haemoglobin and red blood cells (red blood cells carry oxygen around the body. Our cells, tissues and organs need oxygen to function).
  • Improvements in bone density, particularly exercise that uses body weight, which can help to delay or maybe prevent osteoporosis.
  • Increased metabolism.
  • Decrease in fat – aerobic exercise can burn fat, which can help with weight loss.
  • Increase cognitive (brain) function and can help with mental health.
  • Improved endurance.

The by-products of aerobic exercise (aerobic metabolism) tend to be carbon dioxide and water, which your body can easily get rid of, through sweating, urine and respiration.

Generally, aerobic exercise results in less muscle soreness compared to anaerobic metabolism and does not create lactic acid in the body. From our point of view, aerobic exercise tends to help your body release stress, unlike anaerobic exercise.

Downsides of aerobic exercise

There are some downsides to aerobic exercise, which you need to be aware of:

  • Overuse injuries can occur due to the repetitive nature of some exercises. For example, runners might experience problems with their knees due to the long-term impact on this area through running over long distances and/ or for a long period of time.
  • You need to do other exercises or actions to build muscle, such as strength training.
  • In theory, it can take longer time than using anaerobic exercise to get the same weight loss results.
  • Doing more and more aerobic exercise can cause damage to your body and it does not guarantee weight loss. So do not keep adding more and more minutes to your exercise classes.


Typical anaerobic exercise

Anaerobic energy is most related to short bursts of activity, sprints, and heavy weights. When you are doing something at high intensity (maximum effort) for a short period of time it can be considered anaerobic exercise. This can include:

  • Weight lifting
  • Strength training
  • Sprinting
  • Short bursts on the bike
  • Climbing hills
  • Interval training
  • Fast skipping
  • Jumping

It´s about pushing your body, in particular your muscles, hard.

Downsides of anaerobic exercise

There are a number of key downsides to anaerobic exercise:

  • When there isn’t enough oxygen in the bloodstream lactic acid is produced. This can give your body additional stress (read about lactic acid below).
  • You need to include other forms of exercise as well, anaerobic training does not improve your endurance.
  • Exercising in the anaerobic zone can make you feel fatigued more quickly.
  • You might experience a burning sensation in your muscles. This happens when the lactic acid builds up.
  • You can put experience muscle soreness, the day or two after a very strong workout, which puts you off doing more exercise!

Health benefits of anaerobic exercise

Anaerobic exercise does have some health benefits, including:

  • Contributes to building lean muscle mass – think about the body builders.
  • Helps to protect our joints – the increased muscle strength and muscle mass leads to joint protection in the body.
  • Increases metabolism. After an intense workout, your metabolism functions at a higher rate of speed for several hours.
  • Increases power.
  • Regular anaerobic exercise will mean your body can tolerate and get rid of lactic acid more quickly.
  • Strength training can help to increase bone strength.

As you can see, these benefits complement the benefits from taking regular aerobic exercise. However, they do put extra stress on the body in the short term.

What is lactic acid?

Lactic acid is produced in the cells of your muscles during very strenuous exercise and is a by-product of anaerobic metabolism. During moderate activity lactic acid can leave your cells, so it does not build up. However, during vigorous activity it builds up in your muscle cells. This makes your muscles feel fatigued and like they are burning. At this point your body forces you to slow down or stop, to allow the lactic acid to dissipate.

How your body uses aerobic metabolism

When you first start exercising, you might find that you have to do only a short amount of time at relatively low intensity for your heart-rate to increase, and you cannot do the talk test. Over time, with regular exercise, you will find that you can do more and for longer. This is called the metabolic threshold, which rises as your health and fitness levels rise.

Over the day your body uses aerobic metabolism for energy for each activity you do. The food you eat renews the available energy. If you don’t eat more calories than you burn off, you won’t store extra food calories as fat. This helps when you want to maintain a healthy weight.

If you want to lose weight, you need to do more activities (use up more energy) than what you eat. Bear in mind that when you exercise you might lose fat and gain muscles, so the scales might not show much change. Look instead to your body shape and size – your body will probably become more toned with regular exercise.

At the retreat we offer rebounding classes – bouncing on mini trampolines. This is low impact on your body and great for your fitness and health. Rebounding classes keep you in the aerobic zone and are great to do at home. You can read more about our rebounding classes here. If you want to try it at home, read this article: top rebounding tips to cleanse your lymphatic system, in which we share some of our favourite moves.

Use the test talk to know if your exercise is aerobic or anaerobic

The talk test is one of the easiest ways you can monitor your exercise intensity. The idea behind the talk test is that the harder you work, the more breathless you become and the harder it is to talk.

  • Aerobic zone: You should be able to speak comfortably whilst exercising.
  • Anaerobic zone: You know you are in the anaerobic zone if you can’t exercise and speak at the same time.

The talk test is a valid and practical tool to monitor your exercise intensity, for healthy adults. The talk test has been shown to be consistent across different types of exercise (i.e., walking, jogging, cycling, elliptical trainer, stair stepper and so on).

Exercise recommendations

There are many variations in recommendations of the amount of exercise that you should do, depending upon the country in which you live.

Most recommend that you do at least four or five sessions of aerobic activity each week, of a minimum 10-minute duration (ideally longer). They usually also suggest that you do some muscle-strengthening activities, twice per week.

Remember, please talk to your doctor or health care practitioner if you change your routine or if you have any concerns about exercising.

Kick-start your exercise

Exercise is a great way to increase energy, feel better and boost your health and even have some fun.

At the retreat we focus on exercise that keeps us in the aerobic metabolism zone, as this is in line with our focus to help your body to de-stress and does not create added toxins. Once you return home, you might like to consider incorporating some strength activities, which bring your body in to the anaerobic zone a couple of times per week.

At La Crisalida we recommend that you make exercise a part of your daily life, in some form, but be mindful about your choice. Get to know your body and see how aerobic versus anaerobic exercise affects you. Perhaps try something and have fun exploring new activities.

If you are new to exercising, then start with five minutes per day. Then add another minute each time until, gradually, you reach 60 minutes or your desired level.

Knowledge is just the beginning. It´s now time to take action and find momentum to make exercise an important part of your life. Write down how you want your habits to be and how you are going to get there. For tips about how to create new habits in your life, read these article: seven steps to creating new habits (part 1) and try the visualisation in seven steps to creating new habits (part 2)

You can of course also come to La Crisalida Retreats for a kick-start. I wish you every success.

About the author

Sylvia is a talented fitness instructor who loves rebounding and juicing.