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September 30, 2022

The ideal workout routine combines cardio exercises and weightlifting, research shows

Performing any type of physical activity with regularity reduces the risk of early death. But people who perform aerobic and strength-training exercises reap the biggest benefits

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Weightlifting Exercise Benefits Victor Freitas/Unsplash

An exercise routine that includes cardio and strength-training workouts, like weightlifting, greatly reduces a person's risk of early death, multiple studies show. Though any kind of regular physical activity is healthy, research shows this combination is most beneficial.

Though any type of exercise is better than none at all, a regular routine that includes cardio and strength-building workouts is considered key to maintaining good health overall. 

Federal guidelines recommend Americans spend 150 minutes each week doing aerobic activities that are at least moderately intense, like a brisk walk. They also are urged to perform strength-building exercises that benefit the major muscle groups at least twice each week. 

The findings of a new study involving nearly 100,000 people emphasize the benefits of this approach. Researchers found that combining weightlifting with cardio or aerobic exercise can reduce the risk of early death among older adults, especially from heart disease. 

Study participants who simply lifted weights cut their risk of premature death by 9% to 22%, depending on how much iron they pumped. Those who solely performed aerobic exercises reduced their risk by 24% to 34%. But the study participants who did both had the lowest odds of premature death. 

Those who usually met the weekly guidelines for aerobic exercise and lifted weights once or twice per week lowered their risk of early death by 41% to 47%. 

The researchers emphasized that the study doesn't prove that weightlifting reduces the risk of death. It just shows a clear association between the two.

"We know that muscle strengthening exercise is associated with a wide range of health benefits, which include increased strength and better physical function," Jessica Gorzelitz, a researcher with the National Cancer Institute, told U.S. News & World Report.

"We are still learning about the metabolic effects of weightlifting on bodily systems that may affect (death rates), but we do know that this type of exercise can have a beneficial effect on body composition and other metabolic risk factors, such as blood pressure, inflammation markers and even blood cholesterol."

Another study, published during the summer, also found that combining strength training and cardio‌ workouts is important for longevity. Performing 1 to 3 hours per week of aerobic exercise and 1 to 2 strength training sessions lowered the risk of death by 40%. By contrast, simply doing 1 hour of aerobic activity reduced it by 15%. Three hours of aerobic exercise lowered it by 27%. 

Cardio vs. strength training

Cardio and aerobic exercises increase the heart rate and keep it elevated for the duration of the workout. Vigorous activities include running, cycling and swimming. High-intensity interval training combines intense aerobic activity with short rest periods.  

Strength training, also called resistance training, helps people build and strengthen muscles. This type of exercise involves moving the body against some form of resistance –like dumbbells, barbells, weight plates, resistance bands or kettlebells. Bodyweight exercises, such as lunges and push-ups, also can build muscle strength. 

Regular strength training is particularly beneficial for older adults because people gradually lose muscle mass as they age, health experts say.

Engaging in both is important for people looking to lose weight. Increasing the amount of lean muscle tissue on the body through strength training counteracts the loss of muscle that happens with weight loss. It also provides some metabolic benefits that make weight loss easier.

The best way for people who are already doing cardio workouts every week to incorporate strength training into their routines is to focus on training each muscle group once per week, fitness experts say. Monday could be legs day and Tuesday back day. People who are short on time could do longer, full-body workouts two days per week. 

But people need to give their muscles time to recover. It usually takes 48 to 72 hours for full recovery. 

Stretching and balance exercises also should be added to an exercise routine, according to Rachel Wilson, a physical therapist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Though people tend to limit themselves to one or two types of exercise, they reap more benefits when they engage in more fully-balanced exercise regimens. 

Stretching helps people maintain flexibility – which gradually worsens as people age, Wilson says. Stretching helps reduce muscle cramps, joint pain and the risk of falling. It also makes daily activities easier, like, bending down to tie one's shoes.

The body's systems that help people maintain balance – vision, inner ear and muscles and joints – slowly break down as people age. It also is important to do exercises that improve balance, like tai chi or yoga. These types of exercise are important to reduce the risk of falling, Wilson says.

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