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Strength vs Aerobic Training - Which is Best?

Keeping fit takes time and effort. Wouldn't it be nice to find out what workout program is best and just concentrate on that one? To help you decide what exercises you should do, we compared Aerobics to Strength Training. Keep in mind aerobic exercises are designed primarily to improve one muscle, your heart, while strength training works on almost every muscle but the heart.

Let's start with a clear definition of each.

Aerobic exercise is any exercise that uses the big muscles of the body and requires the body to move through space continuously for 20 minutes or more. Examples are running, bicycling, swimming, or machines like the elliptical and stair climber.

Strength training is anything that causes resistance against body movements to strengthen muscles. Examples are workouts with barbells, dumbbells, universal gyms or nautilus equipment.

Now, let's compare these two types of exercises.

Bone Strength - both types of exercise can help your bones stay strong, but you see the benefits in the areas that are working. As we age, our bones become weaker and more brittle. Runners and bicyclers see strengths primarily in the legs. Total body strength training enhances all your bones and helps build up the muscles that support them.

Advantage: Strength Training

Blood Pressure - Aerobics has clearly shown to help reduce blood pressure, while the results from strength training are still too contradictory.

Advantage: Aerobics

Resting Heart Rate - The less your heart has to beat every minute, the stronger it is (barring any medical condition) because it's pumping more blood each time. Aerobic activity has been shown to produce reductions in heart rate up to 25%, while strength training has only been shown to reduce resting heart rate by less than 11%.

Advantage: Aerobics

Blood Lipids - If you have high cholesterol and triglycerides, aerobic exercise has shown repeatedly that it can lower overall cholesterol levels and increase the good stuff (HDL cholesterol). Only very strenuous weight lifting programs have produced similar results.

Advantage: Aerobics

Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) - The higher your RMR is, the more calories your body burns every day before factoring in exercise. The increased muscle mass you get from strength training has been proven to boost your RMR, and as a result, allows you to burn more body fat. Studies on RMR and aerobic exercise have been much less consistent, with some studies showing benefits and others not. If you want to burn excess calories off easier, gain more muscle.

Advantage: Strength Training

Strength - This one seems pretty obvious. No matter what age you begin a strength training program, if you stick to it for at least 90 days, you will see dramatic strength gains. Aerobic programs aren't designed to increase your strength.

Advantage: Strength Training

Appearance - As we age, we lose muscle mass. This loss can cause skin to sag in very unflattering ways. Strength training helps to dramatically slow or even reverse this process depending on your condition when you begin the program.

Advantage: Strength Training

Longevity - Let's face it, the bottom line is who lives longer? In a study of 18,000 men 45 or older, the aerobically fittest men outlived the least aerobically fit by nine years. If you're only lifting weights, the aerobic guy has a better chance of living longer than you. However, a recent study showed that increased muscle helps with immunity and your resistance to disease.

Advantage: Aerobics (But that could change when disease resistance is factored in during future studies.)

So which is better?

Judging by simple longevity, the aerobic guy wins. But that doesn't mean you should give up your weight lifting. Strength training offers so many advantages as well; your best option is to do both. Aerobics can extend your life, while strength training can give you the muscle and metabolism to enjoy it. It's not making headlines, but it is what works.

UPDATE: 2015

The Journal Obesity tracked the waist circumference of 10,500 men who did mostly cardio or lifted regularly. At the end of the 12-year study, the cardio group gained nearly TWICE the belly flab as the weight lifters. Doing resistance exercises builds muscle, which gives you a higher metabolic rate, and that continues to burn calories even when you're doing working out.

Lifting weights is definitely the best way to stay looking good. For best results, lift weights AND do cardio so you can look good while living longer.

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Updated 3/24/15