Fitness: Which is the best workout to lose pounds – weights or cardio?

A quick overview of the science doesn’t make it any easier to take sides in this debate.

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Advocates of cardio insist the energy burned during a heart-pumping aerobic workout is superior to the same amount of time spent pumping iron. Meanwhile, the weight-room crowd insists on the importance of body composition over body weight, and crows about the boost in daily calorie burn that comes with added muscle.

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A quick overview of the science doesn’t make it any easier to take sides in this debate. There’s a wealth of studies to review, but researchers use different physiological measurements to determine the impact of cardio and weight training on body weight, which makes it difficult to compare. Changes in the percentage of overall body fat and weight, lean body mass (muscle), visceral fat (found deep in the belly) and subcutaneous fat (located just under the skin), waist circumference and body mass index (BMI) are all used to measure the success of exercise on weight loss.

To complicate matters further, many studies combine weight training, aerobic conditioning and / or diet in an intervention, making it difficult to determine which had the most impact on weight loss. Also at issue is the disparity between the number of quality studies examining weight training as an option for weight loss among the overweight and obese and the large quantity of data examining the role of aerobic exercise.

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“It is not well understood if resistance exercise (weight training) alone, or combined with other exercise components and dietary interventions, results in meaningful effects on fat mass while maintaining or increasing lean mass in this population,” said a team of researchers that tackled the issue in a recent article in Obesity Reviews.

Hoping to shed more light on the effectiveness of weight training as a weight loss tool, the researchers from Brazil and Australia took a closer look at the data as it pertains to children, youth, young adults, the middle-aged and older adults. Their review consisted of records from 4,184 overweight or obese individuals involved in interventions that lasted anywhere from four to 96 weeks and examined percentage of body fat, as well as overall body fat, abdominal fat (visceral and subcutaneous), lean mass, body weight and BMI.

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While the researchers didn’t officially resolve the cardio versus weight training debate, they did shed more light on the effectiveness of weight training as a weight loss tool.

“Resistance exercise can be used regardless of an aerobic exercise component when combined with caloric restriction and still lead to a reduction of ~ 5.5 kg in body weight compared with intervention control groups,” said the researchers.

Combining resistance training with either dieting or aerobic exercise proved more effective at reducing body fat percentage and total body fat than weight training alone. This result spanned age groups and genders, with middle-aged and older adults realizing the most impressive loss of abdominal subcutaneous and visceral fat when combining weight training and cardio.

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For even better results, a triple-pronged approach to weight loss combines calorie restriction with aerobic conditioning and weight training. And as a bonus for those who pump iron, muscle stays intact while fat diminishes, which is good news for middle-aged and older adults as muscle is lost with age.

“These results are of great importance as resistance training can reduce the risk of sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss) and frailty as well as improve physical function and quality of life in this population,” said the researchers.

The positive effects of a comprehensive approach to weight loss give more clarity in the debate over cardio versus weight training. Both have advantages on their own, but weight loss is more significant when they’re done in combination. Add a change in diet that reduces the number of calories consumed daily, and there’s an even greater chance of success. Still up in the air, however, is whether the exercise component should be a 50/50 proposition – half your time at the gym doing cardio and the other half lifting weights – or whether one form of exercise should take precedence.

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The current exercise prescription for optimal overall health suggests a minimum of two weight training workouts and 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, which is a good place to start. If you’re new to the weight room and don’t know a barbell from a dumbbell, invest in a trainer to help you get the best bang for your buck. A well-balanced workout that targets all of your major muscle groups can be completed in less than an hour. Get in your steps or focus on cardio-based workouts the other five days of the week, and you’re well on your way to a trimmer waistline while maintaining important muscle mass.

It takes more than a single change in habits to realize long-term weight loss, which is where you want to weigh in with the cardio versus weight training debate.

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