Cardio or Lifting Weights?

Since the start of the fitness craze in the 70s and 80s a hot debate has raged.  What is a better workout?  Is it the lycra-clad aerobics Jane Fonda made so popular, or is it lifting weights like Arnold on Muscle Beach?  The answer…it depends.

Arnold Schwarzennegger made big muscles sexy.

Jane Fonda popularizes aerobics first with her book, and later with home videos.

Ideally both cardio and weight lifting should be a part of everyone’s exercise routine and there are distinct advantages to each.  But, few of us have extra time to devote to the gym.  Knowing how to divvy up your gym time between cardio and weight lifting may help you reach your health goals faster…and who doesn’t like getting there ahead of schedule?

Goal – Look better naked.

While you may burn more calories in a 30 minute period running on a treadmill or riding a bike, the calorie burning stops the minute you do.  Lift some weights for the same period of time and your body will torch an additional 25% in the hour post workout as your body works to recover.  Lift challenging weights, work large muscle groups with functional moves like the squat, deadlift, and press, and keep rest time to a minimum to reap the quickest results.

Point: Strength

p.s. – for every 3 lbs of muscle you build, your body requires an extra 120 calories per day just to maintain that muscle mass.

Goal – Reduce stress.

Head outside and go for a walk.  According to a 2005 study in the European Journal of Sports Science just 15 minutes of aerobic activity two to three times a week can significantly reduce feelings of anxiety and depression by elevating levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain.  Hit the road 3 to 5 days a week and you can cut feelings of fatigue by nearly 50 percent.  Hey, it isn’t called runner’s high for nothin’.

Point: Cardio

Note – Intense cardio sessions lasting longer than 45 minutes can actually INCREASE the body’s overall stress level.  Keep intense cardio sessions shorter than 30 minutes to reap maximum benefits.

Goal – Love your body, more.

Whether it is completing a 5K or squatting your body weight, when you achieve a goal your sense of accomplishment helps you love yourself a little more.  So, when it comes to building a long term love for your body, will cardio or lifting weights help the love grow?

The immediate changes you see in your muscles after you lift weights isn’t just your imagination.  A rush of blood to those muscles causes them to look more toned, an effect can last for several hours after your workout is over, and leaves you feeling more confident.  In addition, pushing some serious weight can has a dramatic, positive effect on your self esteem in both the short and long term.  Keeping a log of your weight lifting accomplishments further fuels the feel good fire when you can look back and see how much stronger you’ve become.

Point: Strength

And, speaking from personal experience…the sense of accomplishment I felt crossing the finish line on either of my 2 marathons pales in comparison to the sense accomplishment I feel when I lift a weight I wouldn’t have thought possible.  The best part of that scenario – I have far more opportunities to lift heavy than I do to cross the finish line of a marathon.  Now that’s positive reinforcement!

That’s me, in the middle, at the CrossFit Regionals in May with a 70lb dumbbell over my head.

Goal – Be injury free…and stay that way.

Ever wonder why runners and other cardio die-hards are always nursing some nagging injury? Anything that requires repetitive motion (like cardio) puts serious pressure on your joints, ligaments, muscles, tendons and the cartilage in between. If you’ve got a weak link, its only a matter of time until your on the side line.  Unless you hit the weight room.  “Functional strength training teaches your brain to allow muscle contractions that are quick enough to prevent or minimize injuries,” says lead study author Tim McGuine, Ph.D., senior athletic trainer and research coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Work your core — front and back — to protect your spine, and choose movements that force you to bend at multiple joints at once and also improve your balance. Think basic movements like lunges, squats, deadlifts, rows, push-ups, and presses.

Point: Strength

Goal – Add years to your life.

The average human heart will beat approximately 2.5 billion times before it can beat no more.  So, it seems rather counterintuitive that something that causes our hearts to beat faster will actually help up live longer, but let me explain…

So, let’s say the average lifetime heart rate of a person who doesn’t exercise is 70 beats per minute.  They would use up their 2.5 billion beats in approximately 68 years.

Now, lets compare this with a person who, for the first 28 years of their life averaged 72 beats per minute.  By their 29th birthday they would have used just over 1 billion beats.  If that individual decided to exercise regularly for the remainder of their life, and lowered their average heart rate to 56 beats per minute, the 1.5 billion remaining beats would last an additional 51 years.  This means our regular exerciser would live to be 79 years old…11 years longer than our non-exerciser.  Each year exercising 3 to 4 times a week costs you one week of heartbeats, but the improved fitness adds about 13 weeks to your life expectancy.

Point: Cardio

Remember, stress kills so keep your cardio short and intense.  Regular sweat sessions reduce the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure by making your heart a more efficient pumping machine.  It can also reduce the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, stroke, and even certain types of cancer.

Goal – Add life to your years.

“Muscle is metabolic currency, so go to the gym and make a deposit today!’” – Carl Lanore

We worry about running out of money in retirement, so we work, plan and save to ensure that doesn’t happen.  Why not apply the same common sense to our bodies?  So, what’s the best way to significantly increase muscle mass.  Hit the weights.  Use it or lose it!

Muscle mass is strongly correlated with bone strength and bone mass – goodbye osteoporosis!  Adequate muscle mass makes injuries less likely, is positively correlated with the survival of a traumatic event or disease, and aids in the recovery process.  Sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass in old age, has a devastating effect on survival and quality of life  because without adequate muscle mass vital metabolic processes in the body can not be maintained.  Lastly, it is far easier to maintain muscle mass over the course of your life than it is to increase muscle mass as you get older.

Point: Strength

In the End…

If lifting weights is something new to you, I strongly encourage you to team up with someone who knows how to lift properly.  Let them show you how to safely preform each lift and help you choose appropriate weights to start.  Just remember this one sage piece of advice, no matter what celebrity trainers may say…

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