The Differences Between Cardio Physical, Aerobic and Anaerobic Exercise

Different forms of training affect our bodies in different ways

When we think about exercise, we tend to just think of it in very general ways — perhaps a session at the gym, going for a swim, or taking a walk. In reality, there are specific types of workouts that bring very different benefits to our bodies and overall fitness. There are differences between cardio, aerobic, and anaerobic exercise. We all know that regular exercise and a protein-rich diet are essential parts of a healthy life (not to mention being good for the heart and the mind), but it’s clear specific activities work our bodies in different ways. 

Muscle build vs. endurance activities

Depending on what you’re hoping to achieve from your exercise routine, doing different activity forms will bring benefits to specific parts of your body. For example, lifting weights will tone and build particular areas of your physique; however, you might not feel it’s had the same benefits on your levels of endurance or overall fitness. On the other hand, going for a long run doesn’t necessarily build muscle mass, even though we all know it makes us feel healthier and improves our circulation and general stamina.

The three main types of fitness routine

Exercising with weights
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As demonstrated by the above example, it’s evident that specific training types work our bodies in very distinctive ways. When we work out, our heart and breathing rates increase in an attempt to supply more oxygen and blood to our muscles. However, the intensity of this movement varies depending on the type of exercise we’re doing.

Two of these training forms — cardio and aerobic exercise — are mostly similar, interchangeable terms; however, a third type of activity (anaerobic) works quite differently. To give a general overview, the three main categories of exercise are:

  • Cardio: Any activity that increases the heart rate, in turn pumping oxygen around the body.
  • Aerobic: A direct reference to the pumping of oxygen around the body (hence the similarity between cardio and aerobic exercise). Any activity that uses oxygen to fuel your muscles can be considered aerobic.
  • Anaerobic: Typically, intense exercise that doesn’t use much oxygen (e.g., sprints or quick weightlifting routines).

So, that’s the outline. But how does that break down into specific activities, and perhaps more importantly, how will each affect your body and overall fitness? To answer that, we need to explore each activity type in more detail.

The definition of cardio exercise

Cardio (also referred to as cardiovascular and sometimes cardio physical) exercise is any fitness activity that increases your heart rate and stimulates the movement of oxygen around your body. 

Although the term is often misused, when we speak about ‘cardio’ fitness, we should really be referring to more extended endurance activities such as swimming, cycling, running or walking, anything that increases your heart rate over a sustained period.

Cardio can encompass weight exercises, too. However, again, only if performed in a sustained fashion — e.g., circuits in the gym as part of an overall workout plan instead of short, muscle-building workouts.

As mentioned above, for most people, the terms cardio and aerobic are mostly interchangeable. However, if you want to get precise, there is a significant difference between the two.

The main attributes of aerobic exercise

The term ‘aerobic’ refers to any style of fitness routine that uses oxygen. So, as a general statement, any exercise that makes you breathe faster or heavier and makes your body sweat would be classified as aerobic.

Most people use the terms cardio and aerobic to refer to the same types of workout. However, if you want to be slightly pedantic about the terminologies, aerobic means using oxygen, whereas cardio refers to increased heart rate. Both occur simultaneously in exercise (as a result of each other). Strictly speaking, they are independent terms.

For most people, however, the terms mean the same thing. It is essentially sustained exercise resulting in increased heart rate and oxygen intake.

The definition of anaerobic workouts

Exercises with weights
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An anaerobic workout is quite different in that it isn’t sustained over a long period, and hence typically results in just a short increase in heart rate and faster breathing. 

Anaerobic fitness requires only short bursts of energy. For example, this includes weightlifting, power sprints, or strength training. In general, these exercises are designed to increase muscle mass rather than improve your overall fitness levels. 

Anaerobic fitness exercises stimulate Type II muscle fibers (also known as fast-twitch muscles). These fibers are sparked to life when your body reaches maximum exertion periods and is particularly useful for short bursts of power or speed. As you might expect, sprinters and short-distance runners have particularly well-developed Type II muscle fibers.

Another critical difference is anaerobic exercise. It typically results in periods of muscle burn as it uses more oxygen than your heart and lungs can supply. This results in an increase of lactic acid in the blood. Which, in turn, causes the burning sensation in your muscles. 

A little confusingly, after anaerobic exercise, the body will switch into the aerobic mode as it attempts to replenish oxygen and blood supplies to the tired muscle.

The best type of exercise for weight loss 

For many people, the primary aim of exercise is to reduce or control weight. However, it’s essential to remember that training is just one part of a well-structured weight control plan. Of equal importance is your diet, and you should be mindful that your body will probably need more food rather than less when you begin your exercise regime. 

Structuring a well-rounded diet complemented by a comprehensive exercise program is essential to see the best results. Remember to include extra dietary supplements like Myprotein’s Impact Whey Isolate protein to add additional nutrients to your diet.

When performed alongside a regulated diet, both cardio and anaerobic exercise will help you lose or control your weight. However, both do so in slightly different ways:

  • Cardio exercise uses the body’s energy as you train
  • Anaerobic exercise uses the body’s energy long after you’ve finished the activity

Fat and carbohydrates are the fuels that power our bodies, so keeping a strict tally on both (through both exercise and dieting) will lead to the best results in controlling weight gain. However, in short, both aerobic and anaerobic exercise will help you lose weight. 

Featured Image by Andrzej Rembowski from Pixabay