It’s an age-old debate – is cardio or strength training better for losing weight? Ideally, you need both to shed calories and tone muscles. But that answer doesn’t tell you the whole story. If you’re trying to fit a workout into your busy schedule, it’s useful to know where you should focus your energies and exactly what kind of effects you can expect from the exercises you do.
A 2012 study by Duke University showed that in overweight or obese adults, cardiovascular exercise was the clear winner when it came to decreasing body mass and losing fat. If your goal is simply to get smaller, aerobic activity alone is your best bet. Walking, running, biking, or using a stair machine – it all increases the endurance level of your heart and lungs and helps you burn fat. The effectiveness of cardio has to do with its intensity. When you’re working out at a fast pace and not taking as many breaks, your body requires more effort in the form of METs, which are Metabolic Rates of Task. These are the units that measure how hard you’re working.
While cardio may be the quickest way to lose fat, strength training has many important benefits that can’t be overlooked. In fact, Tufts University research suggests that you may actually burn more calories by lifting weights than you do from cardio. But because weight lifting is not a fast, high-intensity activity and you take a lot of breaks between sets, you won’t burn as many calories over a set period of time as you will with aerobics. It’s also difficult to do as much weight training. Microscopic tears in your muscles need to be repaired, so it’s recommended you limit your strength workout to every other day or every third day. Still, while lifting weights requires fewer METs, many fitness experts believe it can actually regress obesity and cause a powerful long-term change to your metabolism and your muscles.
You might be tempted to add some weights to your aerobic routine to get that strength training in, but be careful. When you’re trying to do both at once, you end up not getting the right intensity out of either. If you’re looking to tone, there are plenty of ways cardiovascular exercise can accomplish that. While you’re increasing work for your heart and lungs, you can also be building strength in your legs by running or your arms by rowing.
In a perfect world, it would be great to be able to combine aerobics with weights to get the maximum health benefits from your workout. But if you’re looking to incorporate exercise into your life in a quick and painless way, stick with the activities that get your heart pumping. There are passionate advocates for both sides of this debate, but according to science, there has always been one clear winner.