Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise: Which is Best for You? Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise: Which is Best for You?

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise: Which is Best for You?

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise: Which is Best for You? Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise: Which is Best for You?

by Janet Ashforth

The Biggest Bang for Your Butt

You hit the In-N-Out drive-thru last night on your way home from work. You were hungry and tired, traffic was terrible and your willpower was at its lowest point. So you caved. One double cheeseburger animal style and large fry later and the guilt has set in. You’re wondering what you need to do to fix it. You know that aerobic exercise burns fat and calories, but you’ve heard that anaerobic exercise may be even more effective. You’re just not sure which one is going to help you burn off that cheeseburger the fastest.

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic

So what’s the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise? In a word, oxygen. Aerobic means “in the presence of oxygen.” You’ll know you’re in an aerobic state if you’re moving at a moderate, sustainable pace and you can hold a conversation.  As you move, the oxygen available in your cells breaks down glucose and fat and turns it into a substance called ATP, which is then used as fuel for your activity. Examples of aerobic activity include:

  • Walking
  • Jogging
  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Sex
  • Any other activity that gets your heart rate pumping

Conversely, anaerobic exercise is “in the absence of oxygen.” Anaerobic activity breaks sugar molecules down into a substance called pyruvate, which is then used for short, powerful bursts of energy. Your body is essentially forced to do this since there is not enough oxygen present in your cells to make ATP. Anaerobic activity cannot be sustained for long periods and you won’t be able to have a conversation simultaneously. It includes activities like:

  • Sprinting
  • Jumping
  • Weight-training
  • Pull-ups
  • Push-ups
  • A totally different kind of sex


A Cheeseburger-Worthy Workout

When it comes to burning off your cheeseburger, which type of exercise is best? You might think aerobic exercise is the obvious choice since you’re burning fat as fuel while you work out, right? It’s also great for your heart and lungs and will help you maintain your current fitness level.

But it’s not that simple. Yes, aerobic exercise is good for you and burns some calories and fat. However, when you stop your workout, that’s it. The exercise did not challenge your body enough to make any major changes.

On the other hand, the intensity level of anaerobic exercise causes you to burn many more calories which come indirectly from your stored fat. Also, your metabolism stays elevated for hours after an anaerobic workout, burning even more calories. Anaerobic activity places significant metabolic stress on your muscles. Your muscles then go through a repair process which leads to increased muscle mass and a permanently higher metabolism. In general, anaerobic exercise will make you a 24/7 calorie burning machine with lean, defined muscles. But you can only do it for a few minutes at a time.

So is anaerobic exercise definitely the way to go? Actually, the surprising answer is you should do both! The most effective workout is a combination of both types of exercise, giving you a best-of-both-worlds advantage.


When you combine aerobic and anaerobic exercise in one workout, it’s known as high-intensity interval training (or HIIT). According to the American College of Sports Medicine, HIIT training has been shown to improve: 

  • Aerobic and anaerobic fitness
  • Blood pressure
  • Abdominal fat and body weight (while still maintaining muscle mass)
  • Cholesterol levels
  • Cardiovascular health
  • Metabolism

The US National Library of Medicine notes other amazing benefits of HIIT including reduced appetite, lower insulin levels, and improved glucose tolerance. Since anaerobic exercise cannot be sustained for long periods, combining it with aerobic exercise gives you an extended workout while offering the benefits of intense anaerobic exercise.

Plan and Execute

Now that you know that combining aerobic and anaerobic exercise will give you the best results, it’s time to plan your fat attack. High-intensity interval training is a butt kicker, so you’ll need to design a workout around your current fitness level. If you’re a beginner who doesn’t exercise much, you will need to slowly incorporate intervals. If you exercise regularly, you can start out with more intensity.

Regardless of your fitness level, the first step is to calculate your target heart rate. Simply take 220 and subtract your age. The sum will be your target heart rate. Then you can plan a workout that incorporates intervals. You should exercise at 40 to 50 percent of your target heart rate during your resting phase and 80 percent of your target heart rate during the high-intensity intervals.

Follow the exercise advice below based on the category that best describes your current fitness level.



You’re a beginner if: 

  • You don’t exercise regularly.
  • You find exercise difficult.
  • Your overall fitness level needs improvement.


Start with:

  • Fifteen seconds of active or passive rest at approximately 50 percent of your target heart rate.
  • Thirty seconds of high-intensity work at approximately 80 percent of your target heart rate.


Choose an aerobic exercise—like the treadmill. Warm up for 5 minutes and then perform three to four intervals of high-intensity exercise for 30 seconds, following each with 15 seconds of rest. Rest can be active or passive. If active, work at about 50 percent of your target heart rate.


As your fitness level improves, slowly increase the number of 15/30 intervals you do during your workout. Gradually work your way up to 8 to 10 high-intensity intervals during your workout. Do HIIT one to two times per week and then slowly increase the frequency of your HIIT workouts. But remember to listen to your body and don’t push yourself too hard too fast.



You’re intermediate if:

  • You exercise two to three times per week.
  • You’re fit but have room for improvement.
  • You can perform 30 to 45 minutes of cardiovascular exercise at different intensities.


Start with: 

  • Eight to ten intervals of 30 seconds of high intensity followed by 15 seconds of passive or active rest.


Choose an aerobic exercise and incorporate 8 to 10 HIIT intervals throughout your workout one to two times per week. Gradually increase the number of intervals and/or increase your high-intensity intervals to 45 seconds followed by 15 seconds of rest.



You’re ultra-fit if:

  • You never miss a workout.
  • You’re in great shape.
  • You consistently do both aerobic exercise and weight lifting.


Start with:

  • One-minute high-intensity intervals followed by 30 seconds of rest.


If you want to take your workouts to the next level, choose an aerobic exercise and incorporate high-intensity intervals throughout your entire workout. Begin with one to two HIIT sessions per week and then gradually increase your frequency.


Janet Ashforth has been a personal fitness trainer for over 20 years and currently owns her own fitness company. She uses fitness training, yoga, meditation, nutritional guidance and massage to guide her clients in health and wellness. Ashforth has held certifications from the American Council on Exercise and American College of Sports Medicine, and is also a licensed massage therapist. 


  1. McCall, P. 2014, September 30. 8 Reasons HIIT Workouts are so Effective. Retrieved from
  2. ND. ACSM 2014 Interval Training Retrieved from
  3. Boutcher, S. 2010, November 24. High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat Loss. Retrieved from