Should I do Long Duration or Short Duration Cardio for Health and Aesthetics?

In the past 5 years or so the term “Interval Training” and “Tabata” workouts have sure gone up in popularity, along with Crossfit as a style of exercising/training.

In general, what these workouts have in common is that they are shorter in duration, highly intense, and use a different type of energy system then if we were to go out for an hour long run.

There are two main types of energy systems we use when we exercise- aerobic and anaerobic.

Roughly spearking you can think of :

Anaerobic training as super short and intense workout, lasting usually less than 90 seconds. It’s a form of exercise you can’t use oxygen for and therefore we experience an accumulation of pyruvate, combining with hydrogen ions, creating a byproduct that eventually causes us to stop exercising.

Aerobic training is longer duration, greater than 2 minutes all the way up to walking/running for 24 hours! This system uses oxygen and the byproducts don’t accumulate, so it can be sustained for much longer.

energy graph

Interval Training: Anaerobic Training: Glycolosis

Interval training (Tabata is a form of interval training) utilizes the anaerobic energy system. For example, in your Tabata class you have 20 seconds of intense work followed by 10 seconds of rest. In the 20 seconds of work the intention is to work MAXIMALLY- really hard, and build up that lactate. In your ten seconds of rest you have a short period of recovery before you have to go again. This style of training is fantastic for conditioning your anaerobic energy system and teaching your body to handle lactate. By increasing your bodies ability to work anaerobically and handle it’s lactate you indirectly also increase your overall endurance and ability to use oxygen.

Anaerobic training is FANTASTIC for boosting the metabolism, for losing weight, and for building increased muscle mass. When we train anaerobically we put our system into an overall oxygen debt (called EPOC), and as a result our body has to work especially hard for hours after in order to bring it back up to baseline. What this means is that for the few hours after you train and are just sitting at your desk your metabolism is revved and you are burning calories! More calories burned while sitting at a desk= easier to lose weight. Even though if you look at the exercise zone chart this type of activity isn’t in the “fat burn zone”, it in fact burns more fat overall because of it’s effect on increasing the metabolism after activity and for the rest of the day.


The anaerobic training zone appears above the “fat loss” zone, but in fact the after math of training anaerobically leads to a greater amount of fat burned.  Chart borrowed from:


So how do you do it?

  • Choose a length of time that you will train for (example 20 minutes). Then choose one exercise, or a variety of exercises that you will do on each interval (let’s keep it simple here and talk about running).
  • Set up a timer that will beep for you when you are done your work and rest intervals (or keep an eye carefully on the clock).
  • You can choose any type of interval time you’d like, and they each have value. For example you could do 1 minute work and one minute rest, or you could choose 20 seconds work and 10 seconds rest. They each have their own benefits, but we won’t dive too into that here.  If you are new- perhaps start with 30 seconds work followed by 30 seconds rest.
  • Start with your work interval and run as hard as you can such that you are getting your heart rate as close as you can to 85 % of it’s maximum. (Your maximum heart rate is 220-age). So for example if you are 40, 85 % of your max heart rate is 220-40= 180 X .85= 153. If you aren’t wearing a heart rate monitor you could also just try to get yourself to the point where you are feeling breathless and can’t carry on a conversation (8-10 out of 10 of intensity).
  • When your timer beeps to finish your work interval bring the intensity way down (you can go as low as you want here, even stop the activity briefly). Allow yourself to recover during the short rest period.
  • And that’s it! Repeat until the end of the timer interval you set initially (20 minutes)!
  • I recommend 1-2 bouts of anaerobic training in a week. This can be done on it’s own one day- or after a strength training session!


Things to keep in mind when doing interval training:

  • It’s only good if you go HARD on the ‘work’ intervals. IF you aren’t going hard, you aren’t accumulating the byproducts that your body has to work harder to clear, and you are most likely using your aerobic energy system. This basically means even though you are doing a fancy Tabata interval training class you are basically conditioning your body just like you would going on a jog.  (This is the same if you are lifting weights but lifting really light weights, you aren’t getting the same anaerobic benefits as you would if you lifted a little heavier).
  • Interval training can be done using a traditional cardio method (running, biking) or using weights and body weight exercises.
  • A typical interval training session can be anywhere from 4-30 minutes. If you are ‘interval training’ for more than 30 minutes you are probably not training hard enough, and are using your aerobic energy system.
  • This type of exercise is not for people with medical conditions, injuries, or are new to fitness. Build a good solid base of fitness before you challenge your body in this manner.
  • Don’t forget a good warm up first

Aerobic Training

This type of training can be any type of activity (walking, jog, run, cycle, weight lifting) that keeps your heart rate between 60 and 75 % of your maximum heart rate. This zone is usually known as the “fat burn” zone or your aerobic endurance zone. You use fat as fuel because the intensity is low enough that fat can be   mobilized and used as a source of fuel during the exercise. (In anaerobic training you use your stored carb sources as fuel because the activity is too intense to mobilize fat).

Aerobic training is much simpler than anaerobic. Simply hop on a bike and keep your heart rate in the proper training zone for 30-60 minutes per session, 1-2 days a week.

You burn a lot of calories during the activity.


To train aerobically keep your heart rate between 60 and 75 of it’s maximum heart rate.


Is one better than the other?

  • From a health perspective I truly believe that one of the methods of cardio is not better than the other, and I think both sould be included on a weekly basis, let’s dive into that a bit further.

There are pros and cons to choosing each style of training and I will highlight some of them here:

Interval (Anaerobic Trainig) Aerobic Training.
When a person is trained in anaerobic training they use a higher percentage of fat, enhance the body’s production of enzymes to burn fat, and activate pathways that lead to muscle development. 1 Tends to burn carbs, and then activates pathways that can be degrading to muscle.
More calories burned overall from the increase in metabolic state. More calories burned in an individual exercise session.
Plenty of evidence to show that anaerobic conditioning is inferior to aerobic in terms of losing belly fat. Aerobic training is usually done for a longer period of time. Prolonged exercise is stress to the body. Stressed out bodies accumulate fat in the belly area.
Do half the amount of work for more results. Work longer for half the amount of results.
Creates an optimal hormonal state for burning fat. Can cause hormonal challenges due to the increase in cortisol (stress hormone) produced during longer more intense exercise sessions.
Creates an optimal training environment for building lean muscle mass. Tends to degrade muscle mass.




Based on this chart you can see that anaerobic conditioning may be the way to go if aesthetic goals are your main priority (aka building lean muscle and burning fat). BUT I am an advocate of not ditching your aerobic activity completely. Aerobic activity is still shown in the research to strengthen the heart and lungs , improve circulation, reduce blood pressure, improve oxygen trasportation, increase the number of red blood cells, improve mental health, reduce stress, and lower depression, as well as increased cognitive capacity (brains structural connections, gray matter, new neuron growth), decrease risk of osteoporosis. It also trains the body to store more fat and carbs in the muscles for better endurance, trains the body to use fat better during exercise.  And don’t forget about activities of daily life.  If you are looking to train your body to be able to hike, ride your bike far, be up on your feet all day, or chase after your kids all day don’t forget about the importance of building your endurance and aerobic energy systems for these purposes.


In order to create an optimal program that provides us with the highest level of overall general fitness I believe an exercise program should consist of 2-3 anaerobic training sessions a week (10-30 minutes), 1-2 aerobic training sessions (30-60 minutes), 2-3 weight training sessions (hitting all the bang for your buck exercises like squats/deadlifts/pulling/pushing),  yoga, and as much naturally movement as possible. This way you have all your health and aesthetic basics covered for a healthy good looking body!

I hope that cleared a few things up for you, let me know if you have any questions!

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