As the New Year approaches and you may or may not be resolving to another year of New Year’s resolutions I know that most of you are thinking about the things you will want to tackle, achieve, change and accomplish with the start of that new slate of 365 days (or "opportunities", as I like to call them). And if you aren’t nostalgic about the coming and going of another number to date your checks with (is anyone still writing checks?), well then I know you’re perhaps thinking fashion, fun, and your own form of success in the year to come. The truth is that all success starts with a strong and able body and mind. After all, you’ve got to be healthy to live a full life of travel, adventure, outings--- and to enjoy the things around you. So as we all inevitably consider our health and the look, feel and function of our bodies this coming year, we're all also inevitably lost in thoughts about how to get there.
Cardio or Weights?
Should cardio be the focus of your 2019? Should you be thinking about weights? If so, how much weight is the right amount? And where? The gym, a fitness class? Should you be getting out to run for an hour? Hit a heavy bag? Spend an hour at yoga? The questions of what and how you should commit to your new or newly restructured fitness and health routine may be sitting a bit heavy on your shoulders.
The good news is that not all exercise is created equal, and there are better, more constructive and result driven ways to get the body you want. The key is to shut out the noise and all of the pseudo-self-serving-theories swarming around you, and just listen and learn from the actual science of exercise. Result-proven research is still the only way to go about doing things correctly. After I got my Masters in Exercise Science, I too reevaluated my prior notions of exercise, and once I implemented them (almost a decade ago), everything became easier to achieve, maintain and enjoy. Before we consider this, let’s define a few things that will come in handy as you evaluate your goals and the best way to get there. Because the real question you should be asking is: aerobic or anaerobic exercise?
Aerobic is defined as a medium intensity exercise that uses oxygen for fuel. During this type of training you can typically hold a conversation, maybe not an easy one, but you can talk. This is called the aerobic "zone" or training around 70 to 80 % of maximal aerobic capacity, typically known as "heart healthy" training. It's important to note that not all cardio training is aerobic, in fact the best cardio training is anaerobic.
Anaerobic is defined as moderate to high intensity exercise that lasts for brief periods, followed by a short rest, then repeated. This is also often referred to as interval training. Anaerobic training can include body weight and strength training as well.
Making it easy: if a long run is aerobic, a sprint and weighted squats is anaerobic.
Why Aerobic Exercise Is Not a Great Way to Lose Body Fat
Fat is stored energy tissue. The body keeps it around for the same reason people store extra non-perishable foods at home: in case of emergency. It's important to note that the body prefers to use other sources for immediate energy, mostly in the form of the foods you eat, like carbohydrates. Muscle, on the other hand, is active metabolism-raising tissue; it takes calories to maintain it. What does this mean? The more muscle you have, the more calories your body will burn all day long, even when you rest. Any long, slow distance, low intensity exercise that's "aerobic" in nature doesn’t work to build any fat-burning muscle tissue, and even worse, when overdone, often burns up muscle in turn lowering your metabolism, and inviting fat to be stored as a backup energy reserve. Additionally, when only aerobic exercise is used for long periods of time and without any strength training in your training program, the routine becomes stressful on the body and wastes way muscle rather than building it. I'm not talking about easy, low level aerobic exercise under 60% of your max effort, like walking or hiking. I’m referring to long daily runs or hoards of cardio classes often taken one after another. Or hours spent on cardio machines at the gym.
Conversely, intense interval training, or anaerobic exercise, that consists of exercises to challenge the body’s muscles with little rest will build muscle, burn fat, and build a healthy, well-functioning body. You'll be able to keep your heart and lungs healthy and your body looking tight, fit and functioning at a high level of strength and mobility. Since your body’s muscles are used intensely and with purpose, your body’s metabolism will stay elevated and more active for hours after the training session. You'll continue burning fat long after your workout is complete. It's a matter of deciding: do you want your "skinny jeans" to be filled with a skinny, weak and frail body? Or a lean, toned, strong, and healthy one? Not all exercise is considered equal.
So What Does This Mean For My Workout?
In general, you should not do medium intensity exercise for prolonged periods of time as your primary source of training. You should program a schedule of training that is consistent (1,2,3 or 4 days a week of consistency; not sporadic training) that engages you in more intense activities for shorter periods of time, with brief rest periods. Here are some examples.
If you perform twenty minutes on an elliptical or a short run that's fine, but then go into strength training as your follow up. Weights, kettlebells, body weight, calisthenics are great ways to finish your workout. If you go for a one to three mile jog a few times a week, that's perfectly fine too. You will still need a strength training and/or high-intensity work in your program. If you jog: get on a spin bike, take an aerobic class (or even worse, two in a day!) for more than an hour, four to seven times per week. If you love your runs, if they're a practice that truly calls to you and fuels your mind (let’s say you love marathon-like running) you MUST, in order to maintain the true health of your body, add in two days a week of strength training or anaerobic variation, taking at least two days off of exercise as not to over train and overload your body.
Without adding a steady and progressive strength training routine with rest days, I would consider a lot of these activities as more harmful than progressive for both your immediate and long term goals.
The good news is that if you hate long term, steady-state, boring cardio that takes up one to two hours of your day, you never have to do it again! You can have fun with your training. Vary lifting weights with high intensity activities that are as engaging as sprints, kettlebell intervals, two to three minute bursts on that spin bike followed up with pushups (you get the drift), and never ever get caught up on the hamster wheel of doing the same thing over and over again.
Putting It All Together
The bottom line is simple. Doing aerobic exercise for long periods of time is an inefficient way to attempt to burn fat. It doesn't build muscle, and, if taken too far, can burn muscle and trigger your body to store fat instead. Strength training plus intense cardio exercise that works the muscles can build muscle as well as sculpt a strong physique, burn body fat, and build a healthy body. Added bonus: it will help you maintain weight loss and stop the chasing of those stressful calorie deficit goals. What's more: if you chose the right strength training exercises and perform them correctly, they, in turn, can do all sorts of things for you like fix a bad back, heal knee pain, prevent injuries, increase flexibility and mobility, decrease pain and weakness, prevent osteoporosis, correct alignment and posture.
The Last Thing To Consider For Success In 2019
Because most people are just looking for a good system of health, you should look at interval training and strength training over prolonged endurance training. You should also make sure that you train on a schedule. It's far better to work out twice a week every week without missing a session than sporadically training seven days a week one week, and then skipping weeks all together. Create a program that's sustainable, and then add in more,---slowly, and as needed.