Dr. Richard Maurer, ND
Anaerobic versus aerobic? It’s like meat versus vegetables—it’s not an either-or, I know. Anaerobic and aerobic are on the same team and work together for 99.9 percent of our natural activities. What I am referring to when I say anaerobic and aerobic are these two systems1.
Short-term / Lactic acid system pathway
This short-term energy system (STES) kicks in when strenuous exercise is maintained past the first ten seconds and this is what we refer to as anaerobic—which is to say that the oxygen demand in your muscle cells is greater than the supply of oxygen.
Long-term Energy: The Aerobic System
You are still producing lactate in the long-term energy system (LTES), because the short-term pathway is still active, but since it is less strenuous, the O2 supply is equal to the O2 demand. Consequently, your unstrained muscles do not “build up” lactate because it can be effectively converted back into glucose.
The commonly held belief that lactic acid causes the muscular burn follows or occurs during strenuous activity is not true. The lactate levels correspond to the acidity caused by the buildup of ions, in this case the excess Hydrogen ions.2 Surprisingly, the lactate is produced to help alleviate the tissue irritation from the excess H+ ion. Researchers conclude, “If muscle did not produce lactate, acidosis [from positive Hydrogen ions] and subsequent muscle fatigue would occur more quickly and exercise performance would be severely impaired.”
Take a second here. The very compound that athletes, trainers and doctors routinely blame for causing pain and burning is actually part of the natural cure. Training and exercising in a manner that produces lactic acid is likely beneficial well beyond sport – allowing your body to recover from destructive tissue acidosis, which results from inflammation, not just exertion.
So what kind of exercise is best for your health? Research a decade ago found that most health parameters improve when people exercise in the metabolic transition between aerobic and anaerobic activity.3 Exercise researchers say it this way:
“The point of transition from aerobic to anaerobic metabolism may be an appropriate level of exercise training intensity as it appears to be effective and safe [but . . .] Exercise intensity that exceeds the point of transition from aerobic to anaerobic metabolism is accompanied by a quadratic decline in affective valence.”
Let me translate. The space that lies on the uncomfortable side of aerobic exercise is where you derive the most health benefit, but exercising past this point is unpleasant and emotionally leads you to withdraw and potentially quit. The researchers of this particular study posit that too much exercise in this unpleasant arena will result in poor compliance over time.
Here is what I do. When I do strenuous circuits as described in the Metabolic Fitness Recovery Workout. I remind myself that the entire workout can be as short as 15-20 minutes. And when I am doing interval sprints, I do not need to do more than 5 or 6 sprints in all. Which is good news, because they are pretty uncomfortable. And compared to the long runs of my past, my sprint interval workout only takes ten minutes after a five-minute warmup.
Gentle exercise that never gets your muscles to produce lactic acid will fall short of your goals. Health, vitality, energy and longevity requires a little more effort, but fortunately not more time, from your workouts. Like a beneficial fever, lactic acid from an anaerobic activity is no longer the painful demon and might, in fact, be a post-workout gift for a healthier you.
Dr. Richard Maurer is a licensed naturopathic physician who, after practicing in a primary care setting for twenty years, now provides a unique perspective on metabolic health and recovery. Dr. Maurer puts you in the driver’s seat of your health and wellness, helping you decode blood test results to find the diet and fitness habits that reverse and prevent metabolic conditions, such as pre and type 2 diabetes, weight gain and hypothyroid problems. His recent book, The Blood Code: Unlock the secrets of your metabolism , provides the tools to understand and act on key blood tests and skin fold measurements to define your personalized diet, fitness and nutritional needs to recover health and vitality—disease reversal is only the beginning.
His personal and familial trend toward type 2 diabetes motivates him to empower people to recover their metabolic “sweet spot” through proven self-guided diet, nutritional, and fitness habits.
Dr. Maurer is the past president of the Maine Association of Naturopathic Doctors and regularly presents at health and medical conferences such as Weston Price Foundation, American Association of Naturopathic Physicians and the popular PaleoF(x). He lives in Maine with his wife Alexandra where they have raised three children.
- McArdle William, Katch Frank, Katch Victor. Exercise Physiology: Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance, 7th ed.: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2009.
- Robergs, RA, et al. Biochemsitry of exercise-induced metabolic acidosis. American Journal of Physiology: Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology. 2004 287: R502-R516.
- Ekkekakis P, et al. Practical markers of the transition from aerobic to anaerobic metabolism during exercise: rationale and a case for affect-based exercise prescription. Prev Med. 2004 Feb;38(2):149-59.