Which Form of Exercise is Better?

cardio or weights

Like many of the world’s greatest contests – Coke or Pepsi? Kanye vs. Taylor Swift? Vegetarian vs. meat? (well we think veg is the way to go!) – the discussion of cardio versus weight bearing exercise is a debate for the ages, with devoted advocates encamped on both sides of the fence.

Is one form of exercise inherently better than the other? Let’s put it this way: Given their differing benefits, would you really want to have a program that emphasized one and left the other out of your routine? You need both, but in different ratios depending upon your stage of life and the personal benefits you are looking to gain from exercise.

What’s the difference between Strength Training and Cardio?

While it’s obvious weightlifting and cardio are different forms of exercise, it’s what’s going on within your body that sets them apart. [1] Strength training (or weight training or resistance training, depending on your terminology) is an anaerobic activity. It may include barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells or weight machines.

The lifting, pressing or pulling activities in this style of exercise breaks down glucose for energy, without relying on oxygen as aerobic activity does. In a weightlifting workout, you use more energy within a shorter period of time.

Cardio workouts rely on oxygen exchange to increase your breathing and heart rate. We tend to think of running as the canonical standard of cardio activity, but for many exercisers, brisk walking provides the benefits of a cardio workout in a way that is refreshing and enjoyable, with less impact for those with joint issues. Anything that makes you breathe harder and forces your heart to beat faster can qualify as a cardio exercise, including cycling, swimming, dancing or an aerobic exercise class.

What’s the key benefit of Cardio?

Cardio increases the capacity of your heart and lungs, allowing your body to get more oxygen through your body with greater efficiency (a measurement exercise physiologists call VO2 Max). Not only does this improve your health scores and energy, it helps you to sprint up the office stairs without huffing or puffing and gives you the energy to play with your children or pursue your favorite sport with more vigor.

Because cardio burns more calories per minute than resistance exercise, if your primary purpose for exercise is weight loss, cardio wins, according to a study from Duke University and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). [2]

What does weightlifting do?

Weightlifting or resistance exercise increases the strength and size of your muscles. The activity of exercising and putting time under tension on your muscles and bone also increases bone density, which is critically important as you age. Healthwise, weightlifting is also vital for protecting and building lean mass – a critical issue ias adults beyond age 30 tend to lose 3 percent of their lean mass per decade as they age. Muscle mass burns calories beyond the time period of the exercise as the muscles recover – meaning you burn more calories outside of the gym as well when you weightlif. And once the denser and stronger muscle is in place, each pound of muscle burns an additional 45 calories per day whether you are moving, sitting still or even taking a nap.

So Which form of Exercise is Better for You?

The studies are clear on the fact that for sheer calorie burning and weight loss, cardio exercise reigns supreme. However, one of the most critical factors in successful weight loss is not only the loss pounds, but the critical question of “pounds of what”? An ideal weight loss program will minimize the amount of lean mass lost along with the pounds of fat.

If the nutrition program of your choice reduces calorie intake by 500 calories a day – not difficult, if you keep even reasonable records – and you can add another 300-500 calories of output through vigorous walking, jogging, cycling, dancing or aerobic intervals, you can reasonably expect to lose approximately 1 ½ - 2 pounds a week that is primarily fat loss. This is a worthy program and goal for most adult individuals seeking a better level of leanness and fitness.

For individuals working to protect and build lean body mass, as well as for additional metabolism support and anti-aging, it is valuable to include resistance exercise as well. The strength work you include will increase your ability to maintain ideal bodyweight and to enhance the tone and compactness of your body shape, as well as the functional strength you build and maintain.

So even with a primary goal of weight loss, then, it is optimal to include at least 1-2 segments of resistance training exercise in your weekly regimen as well.

And for the greatest outcome of all, don’t forget to include gentle stretching in as the final component in every workout or even as a focused add-on in the form of yoga or a stretching program at least one time a week.

Ideally, then, you don’t have to jump into the cardio versus weight training debate. By using each form of exercise in ideal proportions, you can achieve maximum outcomes from every form of exercise you do.

We will tackle the incredible mental benefits of exercise in later blog posts – but the science is clear – exercising increases endorphins and helps with your mental health. So no matter what you do – exercise and enjoy it! [3]

[1] “Cardio vs. Weights: Which is better for your Fitness Goals?” by Greatist for Healthline
[2] "Effects of aerobic and/or resistance training on body mass and fat mass in overweight or obese adults.” by Leslie H. Willis, Cris A. Slentz, Lori A. Bateman, A. Tamlyn Shields and Lucy W. Piner, Dec. 15, 2012.
[3] https://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/12/exercise