Living Fit: Aerobic exercise or resistance exercise?

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mcgoffI recently received the following urgent email:

Dear Sharon, HELP!! I am in my early 50s, have a sedentary job and imbibed in food and drink a bit too much between mid-November and now. I wrenched my back shoveling snow the other day and then I tweaked my knee just stepping off the curb. I have a tri-level house and have noticed I am easily winded walking up the stairs, more so if I’m carrying anything in my arms. I offered to take care of my neighbor’s dogs for a week and the daily, fast-paced walking had me flat on the couch after each trip. I work a lot and honestly haven’t taken very good care of myself over the past few years. I feel like the seams are unraveling and I’m falling apart. My spouse, who is early 40s, is in the same boat. What are we going to look like in 10 years? … As I sit here typing this email, I am depressed because my once trim waistline resembles Buddha’s girth and I literally shake like a bowl full of jelly with every step I take, just like Santa. And that’s not all. You see, long after I wave “good-bye,” the muscles under my raised arm continue to sway and slap in the cold January wind. … I don’t know what to do to regain my once-toned and trim body. My brother said I should start an aerobic exercise program like running, indoor biking class, elliptical, Zumba or jumping rope; he does cardio all the time and seems to be able to walk up stairs without wheezing, but then again, he also messed up his back this fall, raking leaves. My aunt said resistance exercises like lifting weights, Pilates or yoga is the better choice to cure my issues; she works out lifting weights and Pilates every day and has arms like Michelle Obama; but she couldn’t even keep up with my 5-year-old on a bike ride this summer. What is the best exercise to get in shape, lose weight and stop the wiggle?

This is a question I hear numerous times throughout the year. The hard-core cardio junkies swear by aerobic exercise as the best way to lose weight, get fit and remain lean. Yet, those who are diehard weightlifters or yoga and Pilates fanatics claim that resistance exercise is the only way to lose weight and become strong and lean. What’s the answer?

When we are born, our muscles grow larger and get stronger each year until we reach our 30s, at which time muscle mass and function naturally begin to deteriorate. This is known as age-related sarcopenia. All people are affected by this condition, even those who remain physically active, but they are affected to a lesser degree than the sedentary folks. So why does this matter? Not only does loss of muscle mass lead to jiggling body parts and “flubbery” arms, it can result in a loss of balance and falling (fracturing bones); weak core muscles which lead to back injuries; weak bones which lead to osteopenia; decreased stamina and decreased mobility. If you doubt this is affecting you because you run or take a grueling spin class every day, take a good, long look in a full-length mirror without the Spanx, support hose or other corset-type device keeping it all together. Wiggle, wave and jump about for a few seconds. No need to send pictures or video. Please keep this to yourself. Do you look jigglier than you last recalled? You are a victim of age-related sarcopenia. “Aha,” you say, resistance exercise is the key to a fit body. But don’t jump to conclusions. Read on.

Your heart is the most important muscle in your body, and left unchallenged, will lead to heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes or high blood pressure, to name a few. But you can’t lift dumbbells to tone up this muscle. The heart needs aerobic exercise: anything that elevates your heart rate such as dancing, running, cycling, fast-paced walking, swimming, basketball, etc. Aerobic exercise improves one’s overall conditioning, fitness and endurance capacity. Aerobic exercise conditions your heart to beat faster without sending you into respiratory distress. It improves your cholesterol, insulin sensitivity, resting heart rate, blood pressure, endurance and overall fitness. OK, so aerobic exercise must be the answer?

The answer is both resistance exercise and aerobic exercise are important and integral to our health, balance, weight loss, physical function and quality of life. Resistance exercise will stave off the natural muscle mass decline, keep your bones strong, give you balance, strength and a strong core/back, so that when you shovel the driveway or rake leaves, you don’t throw your back out, your arm flab doesn’t continue to sway long after you stopped moving and your knees don’t buckle. Aerobic exercise will keep you in good cardiovascular health and enable you to have a “wheeze-free” active life as you age and to do those things you always took for granted, like climb stairs, keep up with your kids/grandkids, and walk the dogs.

On a personal note, I am a cardio-junkie and have done very little with resistance exercise over the years. I always had toned muscles, strong abs and a strong back, which I thought were due to the cardio exercise. I thought dedicated strength exercises weren’t necessary and I didn’t have time to fit them in. I’d rather feel the exhilaration of getting my heart rate revved up by running, biking, swimming or walking than take what I thought was a slow moving, boring yoga or Pilates class (I can’t sit still that long), or feel uncomfortable in the weight room with the “meat heads.”

That was then … this is now. I have more than exceeded that magical 30-something age group. But what good does a strong heart do for me if I have constant back pain and can’t get my cardio fix, my knee buckles when I walk down hills and I have beginning stages of osteoporosis? Not much! So, I guess you could say I am a convert thanks to Mother Nature giving me a valuable lesson. I now know that in order to have good health – cardiovascular and strength – I need to do a mixture of resistance and aerobic exercises. Most everyone knows what to do to get their heart rates elevated for the aerobic exercise, but not so much for the resistance exercises. Here are a few tips to get you started (look them up on the Internet):

• Hold a plank or modified plank (beginners start here) position for 10 to 40 seconds. Rest a minute and repeat. This strengthens your core and arms.

• Pushups of any type – either the “boy,” “girl” (with knees touching floor) or against a wall or sturdy desk. Repeat up to 10 times to get you started.

• Sit down on a sturdy chair and stand up, repeat 10 times. Try not to use your arms to get you out of the chair, but if you need that stability, use them.

• Leg extensions: Sit in a chair and extend one leg out straight, hold a few seconds, lower and repeat. Do the same for the other leg. This strengthens muscles for stable knees.

• Stand on one foot to balance for 10 to 60 seconds (without shoes and with eyes closed makes this harder, but work up to that point). Rest and repeat.•


Sharon McGoff is a graduate of Indiana University Maurer School of Law, a certified personal trainer and health fitness specialist with the American College of Sports Medicine, and a certified life and wellness coach with WellCoaches Inc. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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