When it comes to our workouts, we tend to compartmentalize them into strength training or cardio (with a little stretching and recovery thrown in for good measure). But another way to think about them is whether they are aerobic (things like jogging, spinning, etc) or anaerobic (a Tabata workout, for example). The most basic way to describe the difference lies in the oxygen consumption associated with each. “Aerobic exercise is when you exercise with oxygen, and anaerobic exercise is done without oxygen,” says Luke Milton, celebrity trainer and founder of Training Mate.
Aerobic vs anaerobic exercise
“Your body has the ability to create energy in order to produce motion and activity without the need for consuming oxygen,” says Fitting Room trainer Ben Lauder-Dykes of anaerobic exercise. “Aerobic is the opposite, so these are activities and energy systems, which can only be created when oxygen is present.” As you could imagine, operating without oxygen can’t last for that long of a time (considering the fact that we need oxygen in order to, um, live). “If you want to pick something heavy up really quickly, your body uses the anaerobic system, because it can produce power quickly,” says Lauder-Dykes. “You can lift a few items where you’re not relying on that lag time, waiting for your body to consume oxygen.
So, when our bodies are using muscular function to produce force, we have an energy system that allows us to produce more power and do that without relying on the external energy source of oxygen being present.” To put this into perspective, the shorter the burst of energy, the more likely you are to have anaerobic exercise, while the longer your form of fitness stretches, the more likely you are to switch into aerobic exercise. “Think about going for a run and going as fast as you can,” says Lauder-Dykes. For about 10 to 30 seconds, he says, you’d be able to maintain the highest level of intensity, but then your heart rate would shoot up and that energy would be depleted, and you’d need to re-oxygenate your cells. “This is when you go into aerobic training, where the intensity is lower and you’re not exhausting the muscles,” he says. “It involves running on a continuous loop where you have time to inhale oxygen and transport it throughout your body.”