A brief history… until “aerobics” broke onto the scene with Kenneth Cooper’s books, Aerobics (1968) and The Aerobics Way (1978), fitness was dominated by resistance training. Cooper’s books changed the face of exercise by supplying research showing the health benefits of cardiovascular training. When I was in college in the late 70s, my exercise science professors actually asked me to teach the weight training portion of their courses because none of them had any experience with anything other than aerobics (now commonly termed as cardio).
As a result of that paradigm shift, most health related research only looked at the benefits of cardio. Since that’s where the research was, cardio was the mode of exercise that was most recommended for health. Thankfully, resistance training has received more attention by researchers in the past couple of decades.
For the sake of this article, I’ll stick to an older definition of cardiovascular exercise as rhythmic, continuous, and maintaining a heart rate of 50-85% of your heart rate reserve (max heart rate – resting heart rate). Some typical cardio activities include walking, running, cycling, swimming, dancing, cross-country skiing, etc. Let’s define resistance training as loading movements with a force with the intent of increasing muscular strength or endurance. This can be with body weight, tubing, machines, free weights, etc. Please note that these definitions are simplistic for the sake of discussion. The truth is that there are many hybrid forms of exercise as well.
There are significant benefits from both of these exercise modalities. Both, in varying degrees, can decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, improve lung function, increase insulin sensitivity, improve circulation, relieve stress, improve memory and cognitive function, help control weight, and many other positive health changes. So, which do we choose?
If we are talking about maximum benefits as we age, the best answer is to do some of both. That said, I’m going to say that IF I had to choose one, I would choose resistance training because, if done correctly, it can provide a greater ability to do daily activities. That, to me, speaks to keeping independence and quality of life. These activities, squatting down, lifting, carrying, pulling, and pushing, all benefit more from resistance training than traditional cardio training. Resistance training is also better at building/maintaining lean body mass, increasing fat loss, and improving bone mineral density.
Now many people hesitate at the idea of starting a resistance training program. They think that they are too old to be throwing huge weights on their back to squat or on the bench press. I’ve even heard doctors say that their patients shouldn’t squat. That’s a misperception of what resistance training really is. Getting up and down out of a chair (or off a toilet seat) is a squat. It’s a movement we need to be able to do and if getting out of your chair is difficult, that may be what you start with. Try getting out of your chair 6-10 times in a row. That’s resistance training and your body weight is the resistance. Doing repetitions of “chair squats” will strengthen your legs and hips and make getting out of the chair less of a challenge.
So, when you know you should be exercising and are finally ready to do something about it, don’t automatically think that cardio will do it for you. It is definitely good to do, but having the right resistance training program will give you faster and better results in how capable you are in doing your daily activities.