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July 06, 2017

Infrequently Asked Questions: Is one exercise type better than another for our overall health?

An endless catalog of workout regimens seem to exist for molding the best beach body, trimming the waistline or sculpting abs, but those among us looking to merely sneak in enough time to keep active are sometimes left scratching our heads.

Which exercise type gives you the greatest return for your efforts? 

Curious, we reached out to Esther Barker, a physical therapist for JeffFIT at the Stephen Klein Wellness Center, for an answer.

There are all sorts of workouts out there -- some as seemingly breezy as yoga, others as intense as P90X or Crossfit, or a marathon. It sometimes seems to muddle the message of what you need to be healthy. Big picture, thinking about running versus weight lifting in particular, which is better for your overall health?

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It's true that there are many types of exercise out there – everyone is different in their preferences and what gets them excited about exercise. It's really important that you find something that works for you and facilitates consistency. To answer your question, "running versus weight lifting," those exercises have two different purposes. I would say exercise overall can be categorized into cardio, strength and stretching. Running and weight lifting are two of those categories. Running targets cardiovascular endurance through repeated high-impact movements; your heart rate increases for the duration of the activity and stops when the activity is completed. You burn calories while you run, but not after. It's a great exercise – very portable and approachable for most people.  

Weight lifting, I think, gets overlooked because it can seem intimidating. But it is a very helpful form of exercise to not only build strength but improve performance with cardio as well. The difference is that you are still burning calories after you are finished weight lifting. Weight lifting and running both are dependent on your individual levels. You never have to do anything you're not comfortable with – especially if you're a beginner – and I would say it's best to start slow to encourage adherence to a training program in the long term. 

If we're running or jogging for exercise, how long (or often) should we be running? Is it possible to overdo this? I know people who spend well beyond an hour on the treadmill and it tends to look like overkill.

Running and jogging for exercise is something that is so dependent on the person. You'll hear some experts say that if you're not training for a specific race there's no need to do longer mileage – greater than 3 miles per day. Some people's bodies are just not built for running long-distance on a regular basis because they are more prone to injury, especially if they haven't trained properly for those longer distances. That is why shorter distances are a great place to start. In general, the rule of thumb is to increase your training distance no more than 10 percent per week; i.e., you wouldn't go from running 10 miles to 15 miles the next week. This can be a source of avoidable injury and definitely a hindrance to staying active in the long term. Sometimes, those people that we see on the treadmill for an hour are people that have increased their endurance and need longer distances to create a challenge. If you don't have time for an hour on the treadmill but feel that 5 miles is too easy, something you can try is intervals. This means sprinting and running at your regular pace alternately. This boosts your cardiovascular endurance and again can make greatly improve your performance by working on your fast and slow twitch muscle fibers. 

It's a myth that you have to be heaving in order for your body to be working.

Is weight lifting giving you a good overall workout, considering it's a lot of starting and stopping? Is there an ideal method to lifting weights to keep your heart rate up?

Absolutely. Weight lifting is a very important component of a thorough and well-rounded workout routine. It's a myth that you have to be heaving in order for your body to be working. Starting and stopping equate to doing sets of repetitions. This is necessary because you are working your muscles at a higher intensity than with a repeated lower intensity movement such as elliptical.  If you are using a challenging resistance, you can start with three sets of 10 or 15. This is a great way to keep your large muscle groups strong. Most people will work one part of the body one day and then alternate the next day. Ideally, you would want to have three to five resistance training days a week. Weightlifting is also not restricted just to the gym with dumbbells and machines. Using your body weight is an excellent way to create intense resistance that is working your entire body -- especially your core. Good examples include push-ups, planks and burpees -- which also have a cardio component. You will definitely feel your heart rate increase with this kind of resistance, even with low reps!  

If you're not someone who feels up to lifting weights, but maybe enjoys running, what's a solid recommendation for getting necessary muscle exercise without doing deadlifts?

Resistance training through your body weight is a great way to get the job done. Squats, single-leg squats, push-ups, planks -- these are all great ways to use your bodyweight to create resistance. It's an added bonus to get your core involved to coordinate good form -- it beats doing the inefficient sit up and makes your whole body activate.

Biologically, how does keeping our heart rate up during these exercises actually give us health benefits?

A regular baseline heart rate is usually 60 to 100 beats per minutes. That means that when you are just sitting there doing nothing, your heart will beat a certain number of times per minute to keep you alive and get blood with oxygen to all of your muscles. When you exercise, your heart has to pump faster to get more blood to your working muscles. This is why you see an increase in heart rate when you start moving. After your body realizes that you're going to continue moving you may see your heart rate decrease slightly or reach what we call a steady state. The more you exercise the more quickly your body will reach this steady state.  Basically, the more you exercise and the more consistent you are with that exercise, the more efficient your body becomes at getting blood to your muscles to keep you going. 

How about with diabetics? Is running better for regulating blood sugar than lifting weights?

This is a tough question because diabetics usually have a couple of other diseases going on as well. In general, the American Diabetes Association recommends exercise five times a week for 30 minutes at a moderate intensity -- 150 minutes.  This means that when they exercise they should be working at 50 percent to 70 percent of their max heart rate, or a good marker is the "walkie talkie test." If you cannot talk during your exercise, you may be working too hard. Exercise is a great way to help naturally lower your blood sugar. Many people do not realize that and think that the only way to lower/control their blood sugar is through nutrition and medication -- and yes, nutrition and medication are very important. However, the more diabetics know about the role of exercise the better their overall health will be. Diabetics who exercise regularly see improvements in their blood pressure, their blood glucose and their overall health. Not to mention the natural endorphins that are released every time we exercise. It's a natural high!  

As for running versus weight lifting, each person will be different. I think it's most important to find an activity that you enjoy enough to be consistent. People with a chronic disease like diabetes, hypertension, etc., will also need to get clearance from their physician whenever they start a physical regimen. Again, it is important to have some from each category throughout your week: strength, stretching and cardio.

What do you think is a majorly misunderstood notion about exercising for your health?

Well, there are many obstacles to regular exercise, whether you are a beginner or you've been exercising for years. I think one thing to remember is that you don't have to be perfect. Some days will be harder than others to choose your health, but if you are intentional about finding the time to exercise, then I think you will come to enjoy the results that you see and be more likely to continue. Exercise doesn't have to look the same for everyone, it certainly will not feel the same for everyone. I would say start slow, give yourself room to grow, find accountability and just keep going!