Cardio or Resistance Training: Which is Better as We Age?

July 30, 2019

"You don’t need a gym membership to do resistance exercises. You can use your body weight, do some yoga, or use a chair for more support."

Have you ever found that an exercise routine you’ve done for years suddenly doesn’t seem to be yielding the same results anymore?

That’s what Dr. Nancy Lin, PhD, will be talking about today. She’ll be focusing on the best type of workouts as you age — more specifically whether cardio or resistance training is better for you as you get older. We’ll see what the experts have to say, and then Dr. Nancy will share her personal opinion, as well as offer some tips and exercises you can do to stay optimally healthy way will into your senior years.

She’ll also share the one cardio exercise that she recommends you stay away from as you get older! If you are doing this one exercise every day and you are over a certain age, then you are probably causing more harm to your body than you realize. Keep reading to find out more! 

Video Highlights

  • 03:01: Cardio vs. Resistance: What do the Experts Say?
  • 07:48: Why Resistance Training
  • 10:45: Resistance Training at Home
  • 16:22: Quad Exercises
  • 26:12: Yoga as Resistance Training
  • 34:19: Resistance Bands
  • 39:42: What About Cardio?
  • 43:40: Increasing Balance
  • 46:32: Wrap-Up

Cardio vs. Resistance: What do the Experts Say?

When it comes to what’s the best exercise, the debate between which one is better for you — cardio or resistance training — is right up there with chocolate or vanilla, coffee or tea, Pepsi or Coke, Beatles or Stones, and cats or dogs. 

The experts all have their opinions on which one is better, and certainly both have benefits (especially compared to doing nothing at all). So rather than just going with our gut, let’s take a look at what the experts — scientists, doctors, and researchers — say is best.

Many experts believe cardio is the most beneficial form of exercise to maintain your best overall health as you get older. 

This is because it is a great way to improve joint mobility, reduce inflammation (especially in those who suffer from arthritis), and it can reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and even certain forms of cancer. 

For those over 50, experts say cardio is especially important because it helps keep your memory sharp and helps to improve brain function, overall. It is also believed to reduce blood pressure and to help regulate blood sugar levels in the body. 

However, there are also many experts who, given a choice between the two, would not choose cardio. Dr. Nancy’s opinion is that if you’re over 40, resistance training is the way to go, and should be your main focus. 

Why is 40 my magic number? Well, you lose 1% of muscle mass every year after you turn 45! That means, by the time we turn 85, the average person has lost almost half their body’s muscle! Unless you exercise in a way that maintains muscle mass. 

Why Resistance Training

Some of you may be saying, “Resistance training? But what about my heart health? And how do I lose weight if I’m not doing cardio exercises?”

If that’s what you think, we need to break down a few myths today. For example, did you also know that simply doing less than one hour of resistance training per week can greatly reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke? 

That’s right! Before we explain why, let’s define resistance training. Resistance training means exercising a muscle or muscle group against an outside force, like lifting weights or using bands. 

By integrating resistance training into your life for less than one hour per week, you’re:

A bonus when doing resistance training is that there’s actually a little bit of cardio built in. The same cannot be said for when you do cardio on its own — you’re not getting a meaningful resistance workout at the same time. 

Resistance Training at Home

Now if the thought of joining a gym seems super scary, not to worry. We’re going to show you some resistance training moves you can do in the comfort and privacy of your own home. Don’t have any weights? Not to worry there, either! 

There are a variety of resistance training exercises you can do simply by utilizing your own body weight or a chair. 

Some resistance exercises using your own body weight include:

  • Push-ups
  • Plank pose
  • Calf raises
  • Side plank 
  • Crunches

As you age, though, it’s really important to strengthen your quad muscles — that’s the muscles right on the front of your thigh. The quadriceps make up a good deal of your overall muscle mass, are made up of four muscles, and are responsible for a lot of things, including:

  • Moving the knee
  • Keeping the kneecap in place
  • Bending in the hip

That means the quadriceps are responsible for your ability to sit, stand, bend, walk, and run, to name just a few vitally important things. As you get older, it is really, really important to make sure these muscles stay strong. 

Did you know that after traffic accidents, fractures and falls are responsible for the most unintentional injuries and deaths in America? And falls are the leading cause of injury and death in people over age 65! That’s right... according to the CDC, every second of every day in the United States, an older adult falls, making falls the number one cause of injuries and deaths from injury among older Americans.

One out of five people who experience a hip fracture, dies within 1 year of obtaining their injury. 

By keeping the legs and quadriceps strong, you’re not only reducing your chances of getting a hip fracture, dislocating your knee, or falling due to poor balance, but you’re also upping your chances of recovering from one of these incidents should one occur. 

Quad Exercises

Here are a few moves you can try to strengthen your quads:

Front squat 

Stand with your feet hip distance apart. If your balance is a little wonky, use a chair or stand near a wall for extra support with any of these exercises. So, stand with the feet hip-width apart, bringing weight into your heels. Sit back as if you’re sitting in an imaginary chair. Keep your knees over your ankles — don’t let them go past your toes. When you come up to a standing position, make sure you’re still putting the weight on your heels.  

Sumo squat

This is a great squat variation that works the inner thighs, as well. Stand with your feet wider than your hips with your toes pointing out. You’re going to sit back as if you’re sitting in a chair, but this time, you want to imagine you’re sliding your back down an imaginary wall. Try to keep your tailbone tucked and your knees opening out toward your baby toes. 

Forward lunge

Stand with your feet hip distance apart, engaging the core slightly by drawing your belly button toward your spine. You also want to make sure you keep your upper body straight throughout the movement — keep your shoulders down and back slightly, and your chin parallel to the floor. Step forward, bending your knees as close to 90 degrees as you can get them. Don’t worry if you can’t get to 90 degrees when you first start doing lunges. When you step forward try to land with your heel and make sure your knee stays above the ankle. Push off your front foot to come back up to standing. 

Reverse lunge

Reverse lunges can be a little easier to do because your center of gravity stays on the front foot the entire time. You want to make sure you’re maintaining all the alignment cues in a forward lunge, only this time, you’re stepping backward, still aiming for that 90-degree bend in both knees. If that gets too easy, you can modify it by crossing the back leg behind the front leg like a curtsey.

On the other hand, if the reverse lunge or forward lunge is too hard, try starting already in the lunge position, and just moving up and down. You can also just hold the lunge position.

Yoga as Resistance Training

Yoga is another great form of resistance training that also helps provides balance to a weight training workout — helping with not just strength but also flexibility and balance. The following five poses are great for strength, flexibility and balance:

  • Crescent Lunge
  • Warrior I
  • Warrior II
  • Chair pose
  • Tree pose n(or downward dog)

Now here are some modifications, if you’re someone who has limited mobility or aren’t very active, try these chair exercises:

Sit-and-Stands 

As the name implies, you simply go from a sitting position to standing, which will help improve balance and mobility in the knees and hips. The key is to move through both motions — sitting and standing — without using the chair or a table for extra support. If standing all the way up proves too challenging, lean your weight forward and lift up about an inch or two. Hold this position for a few seconds if you can, and sit back down. If you have access to weights and would like a challenge, you can hold a weight chest height and do this exercise. 

Leg Lifts

Sitting in your chair with your feet hip distance apart and holding onto the seat or the arms of the chair for support, lift both legs as high off the floor as you can. Bend the knees slightly if you need to and try to press the legs together. Hold them in the air for a few seconds and then lower them back down with control. Really make sure you’re pulling your navel toward the spine with this exercise; try and avoid pushing the stomach out. 

If that's too easy, you can also try doing it with straight legs:

Seated Torso Twists

Sit up nice and tall and engage your core. The feet should be flat on the floor and hip distance apart. Place your hands behind your head with the elbows pointing out to the sides. Take an inhale, and when you exhale, twist your torso to the right as much as you can, trying to keep your lower half still. Inhale back to center and exhale, twisting to the left. 

Seated Marches

Sit up nice and tall with your feet flat on the floor and hip distance apart. Engage the core slightly and lift your right leg, keeping the knee bent. Feel free to use arms or the chair or the seat of the chair for support. Lower the right leg and repeat with the left leg. 

Resistance Bands

Our last recommendation for some at-home resistance training does involve a little bit of equipment, but it’s inexpensive and isn’t hard to come by. We’re talking about resistance bands. You can buy these on Amazon or at your local sporting goods’ store. Walmart and Target might carry them, as well. 

Resistance bands are great because they recruit more muscles per single exercise, and you can do more exercises at one time. For instance, you turn a squat into a squat with an overhead press. Plus, the instability resistance bands provide also tests your balance, which is a great thing to work on as you get older. 

A few great resistance band exercises include:

Pulse squats

Simply put the resistance band around both your legs, just above the knees, spread your knees, and just pulse up and down. You can also squeeze your knees together and open them for a modification of this exercise, or keeping your knees hip distance apart, walk forward and backward.

Lateral walk

Place the resistance band under your feet and hold the band until you feel some tension. Bend the knees slightly, and keeping the tension on the band, take two steps to the right and two steps to the left. Repeat for 30 seconds to a minute. 

Bent-over row

Again, place the band under your feet and bend your knees slightly. This time, lean forward, bending a little at the waist. Engage your core. Take your gaze to the floor out in front of you and pull the band toward your hips, keeping the elbows bent. Lower and repeat. 

Squat with overhead press

Standing on the resistance band with your feet hip distance apart, engage your core and bring your hands, holding the resistance bands, up to your shoulders. Lower down into a squat, and, when you stand up, push the bands overhead and lower them with control.

What About Cardio? 

Ok now does this mean that everything you’ve been told about doing cardio is a lie? No! Cardio is great for heart health and a host of other things. The reality is, when it comes to the great cardio vs. resistance training debate, you should be doing a combination of both.

If you can, try and get in a resistance training workout 2 to 4 times a week for 20 to 30 minutes each session (after a warm-up). 

Resistance training comes first in Dr. Nancy’s book, but if you can, you should also aim to do a little bit of cardio 30 minutes a day, 3-5 times a week. That includes going for a walk or a bike ride, swimming, or playing tennis.  

However, here’s where we may cause a little controversy... runners out there, pay attention. If you are older (or let’s just use the term “seasoned”), and you are running every day, or even five times a week, you are destroying your joints! We know, people love to jog, they love to run, and a few sessions of running each week is fine for some, but the numbers don’t lie.  As you get older, you should stop running every day and transition to a combination of low-impact cardio and resistance training.

We’re not against running or jogging — it is a great high-impact cardio activity that not only strengthens your bones and muscles, but also gives your heart a great workout. 

In fact, a recent review of studies about jogging and joints concluded that “long-distance running does not increase the risk of osteoarthritis of the knees and hips for healthy people who have no other counter-indications for this kind of physical activity,” and “might even have a protective effect against joint degeneration for some.” But not everybody out there can take the long-term pounding on the joints.

So you don’t necessarily need to stop running all together, but listen to your body and balance out hardcore runs with a combination of workouts that build up your muscles and your cardio health. 

Increasing Balance

Now if you’re more senior, and at an age where that much resistance training and cardio just isn’t feasible, then just make sure you’re moving as much as possible during the day. Increasing your balance is also important to lessen your chances of falling. If yoga isn’t your thing, try tai chi. A few other simple balance exercises include:

Slow walk

Grab support from either a chair or the wall if you need to, and all you’re going to do is walk slowly in place. The key word here is slowly. By slowing down this movement, you’re pausing with one leg in the air and testing your balance. Do 10 steps, 5 on each side. 

Side leg lift

Again, using the wall or a chair or even the kitchen counter for support, stay nice and rooted on the foot closest to whatever support you’re using and lift the other leg straight up to the side, keeping the toes pointing forward. Make sure you’re not leaning toward the standing leg side — that won’t build strength in the hip. Do 10 lifts, 5 on each side. 

Heel lift

For this one, all you have to do is lift up onto the balls of your feet and then place the heels back down. Heel lifts are great because they work to strengthen the muscles around the ankles, which are another big culprit in falls. Do 10 of these.

Wrap-Up

Alright, let’s recap all the great stuff we talked about today:

  • Many mainstream experts believe cardio is the way to go when it comes to exercise, but we think resistance training will help you the most and more and more progressive experts agree. 
  • If you are over 40, integrating resistance training is key, since it improves bone strength and prevents muscle loss. Remember: you lose 1% of your muscle mass every year (on average) once you reach 45. So, don’t be average! Resistance training helps slow that process down. 
  • You don’t need a gym membership to do resistance exercises. You can use your body weight, do some yoga, or use a chair for more support. 
  • Resistance bands are another great tool for your exercise toolbox and offer another great option for some exercises you can do at home. 
  • In an ideal world, you should do a combination of cardio and resistance training. Try and do 30 minutes of cardio 3 - 5 times a week and 20 to 30 minutes of resistance training 2 - 4 times a week. 
  • If you are a hardcore runner, it may be time to start cutting back on your daily runs and incorporating a combination of workouts designed to improve your cardio health and the strength of your muscles and bones!

If you found this episode helpful, please share it with your friends, and make sure you get your workout in today!

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