Aerobic and Anaerobic Defined
Aerobic exercise is what we usually call “cardio.” Aerobic actually means “with oxygen.” This type of exercise stimulates the heart rate and breathing, which controls the amount of oxygen that gets to the muscles to help them burn calories for fuel. But it doesn’t usually increase the amount of oxygen needed by your body so much, that you’re unable to continue the exercise for more than a few minutes. You are able to continue it. This kind of exercise is usually low to moderate intensity.
Anaerobic exercise means, you guessed it, “without oxygen.” It’s usually a short duration high intensity activity like lifting weights, climbing stairs, or sprinting. And in this case, your body’s need for oxygen exceeds the supply available so you usually become out of breath in just a few moments. This kind of exercise is usually high intensity.
Just to be clear, one of the primary differences between the two is intensity. A leisurely walk or jog that starts out as an aerobic exercise, quickly becomes an anaerobic exercise when turned into a sprint. Same thing with a treadmill, a bike, and low-impact cardio classes. The intensity determines whether the exercise is aerobic (with oxygen) or anaerobic (without oxygen).
Which Will Burn More Fat, More Quickly?
Now that you know the differences, you’re probably wondering, “Which is better, aerobic or anaerobic activity?” When looked at in opposition to each other, they each have their pros and cons. They’re both beneficial, both will improve your health and fitness, and the answer really depends on your goals and your capabilities (what your starting level of fitness is).
But I imagine that most of you are interested in which type of exercise will burn more fat and which will do it in the shortest amount of time. Each will burn fat but here’s how it’s accomplished:
How Aerobic Exercise Burns Fat
With aerobic or cardio training, you burn calories which reduces your scale weight. Notice that I said scale weight. When you just lose scale weight, you’re losing both body fat and lean mass which includes muscle. Your clothes might fit you better, but it’s possible that you’ve just become a smaller version of what you were before you started exercising. If your body fat was in the 30% or more range (which is considered obese), you might still have 30% body fat even though you weigh less and wear smaller sizes.
The reason for this is that with low intensity cardio the weight you’re losing is both fat and muscle. Remember what I’ve said before, the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn, even at rest. This is because muscle requires more of your body’s energy for maintenance than fat does. More muscle equals higher metabolism. Also, as your body adapts to the stress put on it by low intensity cardio, you’ll find yourself having to exercise for a longer period of time to get the same benefit. This is what’s commonly known as a “plateau.”
So, while low intensity cardio will burn fat, it will take a much longer workout to achieve the same fat- burning benefit as anaerobic exercise.
How Anaerobic Exercise Burns Fat
Anaerobic exercise builds muscle, which increases your metabolism and reduces body fat. (A quick note, both forms of exercise have far more benefits than I’m discussing here. I’m just focusing on the fat burning aspect).
Now, I’m not just talking about resistance exercise like lifting weights. Remember I said that “cardio” exercise can become anaerobic, by increasing the intensity.
Picture this in your mind- imagine you’re watching the Summer Olympics. You’re sitting in the track and field stadium. It’s time for the 10,000 meter long distance race. The long distance runners pour on to the track. What do their physiques look like? They’re usually very thin, bordering on skinny. While they have very little fat, they also have very little muscle, especially on their upper body.
Now, the sprinters take their place on the track for the 100 meter run. What do their physiques look like? Sprinters have heavily muscled legs and heavily muscled upper bodies.
Each has the physique they need for their sport. Long distance runners are better at expending a smaller amount of energy over a longer duration, a longer period of time. Distance running is a low to medium intensity sport. Sprinters, need to deliver a large burst of energy over a shorter period of time, which is why they need more muscle. Sprinting is a high intensity sport.
Anaerobic Exercise Is More Efficient
While they both burn fat, anaerobic exercise is the more efficient way. This isn’t just a matter of my opinion.
In July, 1994, the journal, Metabolism, reported on a study of fat loss, comparing two groups of young adults. One group was subjected to a 20 week endurance training program (aerobic exercise) while the other was subjected to a 15 week high intensity interval training program (anaerobic exercise).
The aerobic group worked its way up to 45 minute long sessions of low intensity exercise. The anaerobic group worked its way up to (15) 30-second long and (5) 90 second long intervals of high intensity exercise with a longer period of recovery between each interval of exercise.
Now check this- The aerobic group burned more calories in total than the anaerobic group, but, and this is a big but, the anaerobic group lost 9 times more fat per calorie burned. Wow! That’s a huge difference!
The reason is what’s called the after-burn effect. When you do high intensity interval training, you continue to burn calories long after you stop exercising. Your basal metabolic rate, the amount of calories you burn at rest, becomes elevated and that higher rate can last up to 48 hours.
You might be saying to yourself, ‘OK, but what about cardiovascular fitness?” Cardiovascular fitness has to do with the strength of your heart and lungs and is measured by the amount of oxygen your heart and lungs can supply through the blood cells to your muscles. This measurement is known as VO2 max.
Well, another study that was published in1997 in Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise compared medium intensity aerobic training with high intensity anaerobic interval training. The conclusion was that while the medium intensity aerobic training group increased their VO2 max or cardiovascular fitness by 10%, the high intensity interval training group increased their VO2 max by 14%.
In addition, the high intensity interval training group increased their anaerobic capacity, the ability to continue exercising even with decreasing amounts of oxygen, by 28%.
So, the high intensity anaerobic activity proved to be better for cardiovascular fitness than the aerobic activity. And there’s your answer.
In my opinion, the best way to reach your goal of becoming more healthy and more fit is a combination of resistance exercise and high intensity interval training. I lift weights every other day 3 times each week. And 3 times a week, on the other days, I’ll do an 8-10 minute high intensity interval training routine.
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