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Strength Training or Cardio
Which is more important for older adults?

Weight training is critical for older adults on a diet.
Weight training is critical for
older adults on a diet.

There's a simple question I get asked regularly. “Which is better for me, cardio or strength training?” My answer has always been, BOTH. Weight training is necessary to build muscle and cardio helps keep your heart healthy. But scientists have now said, one is definitely more important than the other, for aging people trying to lose weight. The winner is strength training.

Think about all the typical things you do in a day. You need muscles to lift a bag of groceries. You need muscles to pull a chair out from a table. You need muscles to lift yourself up when you fall. On average, women and men lose 10% of their muscle strength each decade. Researchers wanted to see just how important that muscle is for dieting older adults.

249 subjects, with an average age of about 67 years, were divided randomly into three groups.

  • There was a diet-only group that didn't exercise, but did follow a low-calorie diet.

  • A diet plus cardio group that walked four times a week, up to 45 minutes each time.

  • And finally a diet plus strength training group, that lifted weights four times a week, up to 45 minutes each time.

The researchers took several measurements including total body, fat, lean mass and physical function. The measurements were taken when the study first began, then follow-ups were done at 6 and 18 months.

The results were surprising. If you want to lose fat, dieting plus strength training was the clear winner. Dieting and cardio together didn't burn off as many calories as dieting plus lifting weights.

Even more surprising was how much muscle people lost. The group that did cardio and dieted, lost MORE muscle than the group that just dieted. Think about that for a minute. Combining cardio and dieting, caused people to lose more muscle than just dieting alone. That's very important to know if you're like me and over the age of 50.

As we age, our bodies lose muscle and that increases our chances of becoming disabled. If you're someone who ONLY diets and does cardio exercise, you're losing muscle faster than the people who just diet.

For people whose weight fluctuates, strength training was seen as even more important. As you get older, the ability to synthesize muscle protein decreases so it becomes harder for your body to make new muscle tissue. You can still increase the size of the muscles you already have, but new muscle gets increasingly difficult to add.

That means when older people put weight back on, it tends to be fat. Preserving the muscle you have is a critical step to preventing age-related decline.

If you're a woman, it's worse because you're hit with two things. First, women have less muscle mass than men to begin with, so even small amounts of muscle loss can have devastating consequences. Second, women live longer than men. That means women will have to deal with the effects of muscle loss longer than men.

A typical exercise program for older adults is walking. Walk around the neighborhood, walk a mall or around a track. But this study and others show that if you want to lose fat, preserve muscle and live independently, weight training is more effective than that daily walk.

You don't need a room full of equipment. Strength training using nothing more than your body weight is a great start. You can make things more challenging by adding simple elastic bands.

A website with a huge selection of exercises broken down by body part is ExRx.net. Just click on the link to Exercise Libraries and choose the body parts you want to workout. If it all seems a bit overwhelming, a good personal trainer can build an appropriate program for you and teach you how to do it. Just make sure to update that program every 6 to 12 weeks, so your body is constantly being challenged.

You can read the study for yourself at the link below:

Effect of Exercise Type During Intentional Weight Loss on Body Composition in Older Adults with Obesity

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CAUTION: Check with your doctor before
beginning any diet or exercise program.

Updated 9/5/2019