Cardio vs. Aerobic vs. Anaerobic: Are They The Same?

Cardio vs. Aerobic vs. Anaerobic

Have you ever wondered if cardio, aerobic or anaerobic exercise are all the same?

There’s no shortage of fitness jargon that can seem confusing.  But, don’t worry. I’m here to explain the differences so that you know which type of exercise is best for you, and how to implement it correctly into your workouts.

So, what’s the difference between cardio vs. aerobic vs. anaerobic?  Cardio and aerobic exercise are the same, but they refer to slightly different mechanisms. When we exercise, our breath and heart rate increases to pump oxygen and blood to our muscles.  “Cardio” refers to processes related to the heart, whereas “aerobic” refers to exercises using oxygen. When exercise doesn’t use oxygen, like in short sprints, this is called anaerobic exercise.   

So, that’s the technical definition.  But, which type of exercise should you do based on your fitness goal? Let’s explore these concepts further.

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What Does “Cardio”, “Aerobic” and “Anaerobic” Exercise Mean? 

What are the difference between cardio vs. aerobic vs. anaerobic exercise?

What are the difference between cardio vs. aerobic vs. anaerobic exercise?

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1. Cardio Definition

Cardio is a catch-all term that broadly refers to any form of exercise that increases your heart rate.

Typically, when we talk about “cardio” we’re referring to activities, such as running, cycling, swimming, or rowing.  Cardio can include weighted activities too, but it’s usually done in a circuit-style fashion with the goal of increasing your heart-rate over a longer period of time rather than lifting weights to increase strength, power, or muscle mass.

Cardio is what most people refer to when they are talking about “aerobic exercise”.

However, as I’ll describe next, there is one slight technical difference.  Although, this technical difference doesn’t really matter so much for the lay-person.

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2. Aerobic Definition

Aerobic exercise is any form of exercise that uses oxygen.

If you’re involved in activities where you’re sweating and breathing heavy, this means that your body is requiring oxygen and it’s a form of aerobic exercise.

During cardio and aerobic exercise your heart rate and oxygen intake both increases. However, while “aerobic” and “cardio” are used interchangeably, “aerobic” refers to using oxygen when exercising, and cardio refers to your heart pumping.

Therefore, though cardio and aerobic exercise are technically different, they are occurring simultaneously.

When you do a cardio workout, you are working aerobically.

So the rest of this article I will refer to cardio and aerobic together, simply because you can’t have one without the other.

What DOES NOT Count As Cardio/Aerobic Exercise?

Many exercises DO NOT count as aerobic or cardio exercise.

These include weightlifting, strength training, speed training, and power training.

With these exercises, you will experience a brief rise in heart rate and oxygen intake.

However, the heart rate and oxygen intake are not sustained for long enough to be classed as aerobic exercise.

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3. Anaerobic Definition

Anaerobic exercise is not cardio or aerobic exercise.  It’s a different category of exercise onto itself.

Anaerobic exercise refers to exercise without using oxygen.

It’s the type of exercise that requires short bursts of energy, such as when you’re lifting weights to improve strength, or when you sprint a short distance.

Anaerobic exercise uses Type II (fast-twitch) muscle fibers. Fast-twitch muscle fibers are activated when the body nears maximum exertion, especially for short bursts of power and speed.  In contrast, they aren’t used for longer endurance activities.

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This style of exercise uses more oxygen than the lungs and heart can supply to the body (sometimes also known as metabolic resistance training).  Therefore, it can cause a high amount of lactic acid in the blood, which can lead your muscles to burn out and fatigue.

At that point, you’ll need to slow the pace of your exercise down so that your muscles can be fueled by oxygen, which switches the type of activity from anaerobic to aerobic.

What DOES NOT Count As Anaerobic Exercise?

Any exercise that is performed at a low intensity, especially over long distances or durations, does not count as anaerobic exercise.

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Is Cardio, Aerobic, Anaerobic Exercise Better For Weight Loss?

This is a common question: which type of exercise will help us fast-track the weight loss process?

It’s first important to recognize that exercise is not the only requirement for a good weight loss plan.

Your strategy should include being in a calorie deficit and using progressive resistance training over the course of several weeks and months.

With that said, both cardio/aerobic and anaerobic exercise can help burn more calories.

Here’s how it works:

Muscles are like engines.

They require fuel to function.

But instead of gasoline, our muscles use fat and carbohydrates as their fuel.

Oxygen helps to breakdown the fat and carbohydrates in order to keep our engines running.

The more capable our body is at consuming oxygen, the more fuel (fat and carbohydrates) we can burn, the more fit we are, and the longer we’re able to continue exercising.

Adding either cardio/aerobic and anaerobic exercise to your weight loss routine will increase your weight loss potential.  So consider both types to be advantageous.

However, the difference between the two is that:

  • Cardio/aerobic exercise will help you burn energy while you’re performing the activity.

  • Anaerobic exercise helps you to continue burning fuel several hours after your activity.

While anaerobic exercise has clear benefits in helping you burn more calories following your workout, it’s a more intense type of exercise.  So it can’t be the only type of exercise you do 100% of the time or you might feel like you’re getting burnt out.

Therefore, a good weight loss strategy should include both cardio/aerobic and anaerobic exercise.  At the end of this article, I’ll provide some sample workouts you can try.

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Should Your Cardio vs. Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Activity Change Based On Your Fitness Goals?

If you’re someone who wants to specialize in one type of exercise over another, then you should focus on developing your capacity for either cardio/aerobic or anaerobic activity.

For example, if you’re a powerlifter or Olympic weightlifter, then performing large bouts of aerobic activity won’t help you toward your ultimate goal.

Similarly, if you’re a runner who does half marathons, then doing a large portion of your workouts with anaerobic exercise wouldn’t be optimal either.

With that said, it has been shown that cardio for powerlifters and strength training for runners have tangible side benefits.

It all comes down to a balanced training approach where you’re mostly specializing in your targeted activity and then integrating other qualities of training on an as-needed basis or during the ‘off season’.

If you don’t have a clear specialization in mind, for example, you don’t want to compete in a strength sport or you don’t have any goals of running a marathon, what type of exercise should you do?

According to the Mayo Clinic,  the Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity per week. There is limited specific guidance on conducting anaerobic exercise in isolation. Recent research findings have suggested that when combining aerobic and anaerobic exercise sufficient rest of more than 6 hours in between is essential.

Practically speaking, you could structure one workout where you do cardio/aerobic exercise for a low to moderate intensity workout, and alternate it with anaerobic exercise on another day.

Let’s go over some examples of the type of workouts you can do.

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Exercise Examples (Aerobic vs. Anaerobic)

Types of aerobic and anaerobic exercises

Types of aerobic and anaerobic exercises

1. Examples of Cardio/Aerobic Exercise

Low Intensity Steady State (LISS) training is a type of aerobic exercise. Its benefits include increasing heart muscle mass, improved removal of metabolic waste and use of fat as an energy source instead of sugar.

Aerobic exercise is any type of cardiovascular conditioning. You will not be breathless during these activities as your body is continuously consuming enough oxygen for you to power through.

It can include activities like:

  • Brisk walking (the simplest form of aerobic exercise)

  • Swimming,

  • Running

  • Cycling

  • Jump rope

  • Heavy cleaning

  • Gardening

2. Examples of Anaerobic Exercise

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a form of anaerobic exercise that combines interval training and cardiovascular exercise. During a HIIT workout, you alternate between intense anaerobic exercise and less intense recovery periods and repeat until failure.  HIIT based workouts are extremely popular. Advantages include their potentially large effects on exercise capacity and small time requirements.

In addition to HIIT workouts, other examples of anaerobic exercise include

  • Sprints

  • Weightlifting

  • Isometrics

  • Plyometrics

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Benefits of Cardio/Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise can play a positive role in the management and prevention of health conditions including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, age related diseases and depression,  for example.

1. Improves cardiovascular disease and diabetes

Aerobic exercise is generally recommended for people with or at risk of heart disease. According to the American Diabetes Association, aerobic exercise has several benefits in Type I and II diabetes. Further research confirms that both aerobic or anaerobic exercise can also regulate insulin levels and lower blood sugar.

2. Reduce obesity

Aerobic exercise is highly recommended by several national and international public health agencies for weight management. A team of researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center found that clinically significant weight loss (4.3 – 5.7%) in both overweight men and women was achieved over a 10 month period at either 400 or 600 kcal exercise intensity.

3. May mildly delay, slightly improve Alzheimer’s symptoms

Exercise can improve brain health in older adults. A study found that older adults who did aerobic exercise saw three times greater level of improvement in brain function.

4. Has antidepressant treatment effects

Recent research has confirmed that aerobic exercise (45 minutes, moderate intensity, 3 times a week for 9.2 weeks)  had a significantly large antidepressant effect.

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Risks of Cardio/Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise has lots of health benefits. There are also associated risks which have to be considered. Whilst suitable for most people, there are circumstances in which you may wish to consider seeking further advice from a suitable healthcare professional. Havard Health recommends talking with your physician if you have a chronic health problem or symptoms that affect your ability to engage in regular exercise before proceeding further.

Benefits of Anaerobic Exercise

In general, anaerobic exercise is beneficial in many areas including weight management and improved physical performance.

1. Supports weight loss by burning more calories and can also save you time

Anaerobic exercises allow you to get an intense workout in a shorter time frame. A
big advantage if time is a limitation for you. With a HIIT workout for example, you will exhaust your muscles and burn more calories in the same amount of time if you were doing steady-state cardio.

2. Builds and strengthens muscles

If you’re doing anaerobic exercise such plyometrics, isometrics, or sprinting, you can increase the size and quantity of the powerful fast-twitch fibers.

3. Better lactic acid tolerance can improve work capacity

Anaerobic exercise results in production of lactic acid. The lactic acid build up can cause exercise fatigue. However, the more you engage in anaerobic workouts the greater your tolerance will be to the increased levels of lactic acid. This will eventually improve your strength and muscle endurance.

4. Stronger bones

Some types of anaerobic exercise such as resistance training have been shown to be highly beneficial for the preservation of bone and muscle mass and reducing the risk of osteoporosis .

Risks of Anaerobic Exercise

Although anaerobic exercise is beneficial, there are some risks.

  • Anaerobic exercise is hard on your body and heart. It is not typically recommended for fitness novices. A basic level of fitness is required engaging in HIIT workouts in particular safely and effectively.

  • There is an increased risk of injury due to the explosive and forceful nature of HIIT anaerobic exercises such as plyometrics, sprinting and weightlifting.

Sample Cardio/Aerobic Workouts

You can do cardio/aerobic exercise at home, at the gym, in a park or whereever suits you.  This type of exercise requires little to no equipment.

Don’t forget to warm up before any exercise and cool down afterward.

  • Brisk walking: 30 minutes daily

  • Jump Rope: steady state jump rope for 10 – 30 minutes

  • Jumping Jacks: 2 – 3 sets of 15- 30 reps each. You can increase your reps to 100 overtime

  • Running or jogging: steady state for 20 to 30 minutes

Sample Anaerobic Workouts

For anaerobic exercises, you generally require a bit more space and in some cases equipment.

If you are new to anaerobic exercise it is best to build up your fitness first. This ensures you conduct the exercises safely.

  • HIIT Interval Sprints (treadmill): 1 minute jog followed by 30-second sprint, repeat until 1km or 10 minutes reach

  • Sprints (race track): Sprints of 50 – 200 meters followed by walking or jogging recovery repeated until failure

  • Plyometrics workout:  Combine squat jumps, lunge jumps, box jumps, and low hurdles into an anaerobic circuit. Increase the number of reps with increasing fitness.

Final Thoughts

Cario and aerobic exercise are used to refer to the same type of exercise, even though there are some technical differences related to the system that are working inside the body. The important differentiator that you need to understand is that aerobic exercise uses oxygen and anaerobic exercise doesn’t. When structuring a workout plan, you want to include both forms of exercise to have a balanced training approach. That is, unless, you are trying to specialize in one form of exercise over another. because you’re a specific type of athlete.

About The Author

Dr. Bahijja Raimi-Abraham

Dr. Bahijja Raimi-Abraham

Dr. Bahijja Raimi-Abraham is a pharmacist and Lecturer in Pharmaceutics at King’s College London. Bahijja’s research is focused on Ageing and Global Health. Bahijja is the first graduate of the University of East Anglia School of Pharmacy to be awarded a Ph.D. and more recently won the Outstanding Woman in STEM Precious Award. Prior to her current position as Lecturer in Pharmaceutics at King’s College London, Bahijja held positions at University College London (UCL) as an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) postdoctoral researcher position and at the European Medicines Agency (EMA) as a seconded Quality National Expert. In her spare time, Bahijja plays netball and enjoys working out using Fitbod. She also likes street art and trying new recipes.