Aerobic vs Anaerobic Exercise

Most people are familiar with the term “aerobic exercise”. They know it refers to various forms of exercise that get the heart pumping while increasing one’s rate of breathing. Many also know that there are great benefits from other forms of exercise, such as weight lifting or bodyweight exercises. These are forms of anaerobic exercise. What people might not know is why experts in the medical and fitness communities promote both types of exercise. In this post, we will break down aerobic vs anaerobic exercise so that readers may understand why both forms of exercise are necessary for a well-rounded exercise plan.

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercises use oxygen as their fuel. There are many forms of aerobic exercise including jogging, bicycling, dancing, soccer, and swimming. During these types of exercises, one’s rate of breathing increases, and the heart begins to pump faster. The heart pumps oxygen-rich blood to muscles and other tissues throughout the body. These muscles and other tissues use the oxygen from the blood as their fuel, allowing them to meet the increased demand for movement.

Aerobic exercise is great for strengthening the heart and lungs. During aerobic exercise body metabolism increases, thus burning additional calories and fat. There is also evidence that a person’s metabolism runs at a faster rate for a certain period of time after they are finished exercising. Aerobic exercise also increases a person’s level of endorphins, chemicals that can help improve a person’s mood. It is the increase of endorphins, also known as “runner’s high”, that many people experience after going for a run.

Anaerobic Exercise

The term “anaerobic” actually means “without oxygen”. This form of exercise typically involves intense bursts of activity where the demand for oxygen exceeds the current supply. In the case of anaerobic exercise, when oxygen supplies are exhausted, the body turns to the glycogen stored in muscle tissue as the primary source of fuel. Through the process of glycolysis, glycogen is converted into glucose sugar in the bloodstream. The glucose is then used for energy by muscles and other tissues.

Anaerobic exercise requires quick bursts of intense energy. Anaerobic exercises include activities such as weight lifting or strength training, sprints, full bodyweight exercises (squats, lunges, push-ups), and high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Anaerobic exercise is great for increasing muscle strength and power. Strong, healthy muscles burn more calories even at rest, helping individuals to lose weight more easily. Strong muscles provide endurance for aerobic types of exercise and they also help individuals perform everyday tasks such as carrying groceries, lifting grandchildren, or doing yard work.

How Physical Therapy Can Help

While both of these forms of exercise are definitely beneficial, for some, they may be in a position where they cannot engage in regular exercise. Some individuals have a sports injury or an injury stemming from a vehicle accident. Others may be easily injured because they have arthritis and/or their muscles are weak from a sedentary lifestyle. In other cases, while recovering from a lengthy injury, it’s not uncommon for a person to fall into a deconditioned state, meaning they have lost their former state of physical fitness. Regardless of the reason, not everyone is in the position where they can partake in either aerobic or anaerobic exercise.

This is where a series of physical therapy appointments can offer tremendous help. A physical therapist assists individuals who require professional help to recover from an injury. A PT can help decrease one’s pain, thus allowing the individual to move more freely. As a patient feels better, a PT can introduce stretches that will improve range of motion, eventually introducing strengthening exercises designed to combat weakness. If there are any impairments that could possibly reintroduce injury upon a patient’s normal resumption of activity, a trained physical therapist can provide tips and exercises on how to avoid re-injury.

Lastly, along with the patient’s physician, a physical therapist can determine when their patient is ready to engage in normal levels of both aerobic and anaerobic activity. If you would like to know more about how physical therapy can help a patient prepare for healthy exercise, please contact Cawley Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation at 570-208-2787.


Written by Dr. Jesse Yurko DPT