There’s much debate about what type of exercise is better for your health: aerobic or anaerobic.
Aerobic exercise, like walking, bike riding, or running, means you’re moving your body, breathing faster, and increasing your blood flow. It’s a level of activity that you can maintain for an extended period of time.
Can you pass the “talk test” If you can somewhat comfortably hold a conversation during exercise, not talking as though you are not exercising at all but able to talk while slightly breathless, you’re at an aerobic level.
Anaerobic exercise, like sprinting or weightlifting, is short, intense activity that has you working to the max, and it can’t be sustained for long.
Which is better for weight loss? Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise has benefits, and you should incorporate each into your routine. But, if your primary concern is shedding fat, anaerobic exercise is the way to go.
The science behind aerobic vs. anaerobic
The difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise comes down to oxygen levels.
In aerobic, or “with oxygen” exercise, your muscles have enough oxygen to produce the energy needed to perform. Anaerobic “without oxygen” exercise means oxygen demand is greater than oxygen supply and you can’t keep up with the energy your body is demanding. This leads to lactate production and eventually the cessation of exercise.
Why anaerobic exercise is better for fat loss
Aerobic exercise, or steady-state cardio, is performed at a steady, low to moderate pace. This type of exercise, which utilizes slow-twitch muscle fibers, is great for cardiovascular conditioning and improving muscular endurance.
While it’s commonly thought that this low-intensity cardio is optimal for fat loss, think again. While it does use a higher percentage of fat for energy as opposed to muscle glycogen, the total amount of energy burned at this level is lower than during anaerobic exercise for a given period of time. This means that for most people, extended periods of aerobic exercise are needed to achieve significant fat loss. This often results in a plateau.
Anaerobic exercise is performed in the form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), where you rotate high-intensity intervals with recovery intervals. This is beneficial for several reasons.
First, you can get in an intense workout in a fraction of the time. If time is a limitation for you, a HIIT session is a great option. You’ll exhaust your muscles and burn more calories than you would in the same amount of time doing steady-state cardio.
Burn more calories
Second, you’ll burn more calories in that amount of time. At the end of the day, the harder your workout is, the more calories you’ll burn. HIIT will cause your caloric expenditure to be higher than if you just walked or casually rode your bike for the same period of time.
Third, you’ll build muscle and increase your metabolism. HIIT requires your fast-twitch muscle fibers to engage in exercises like sprinting, plyometrics, and weightlifting, which increase muscular size and strength. This means you’ll be increasing muscle mass, which will in turn speed up your metabolism as muscle burns more calories that fat.
The afterburn effect
Fourth, you’ll experience the afterburn effect. The afterburn effect’s scientific name is excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). EPOC is the amount of oxygen required to return the body to its resting state. HIIT sessions stimulate a higher EPOC because you consume more oxygen during them, which creates a larger deficit to replace post-workout. This means you’ll continue to burn calories even after your HIIT session is over.