Cardio vs. Weight Training

smiling people running on treadmills
Aerobic exercise is great for your heart and can help you lose weight.

It's hard to believe that exercise, which seems to be a relatively simple topic, can cause so much debate. However, when assessing the efficacy of weight training vs. cardiovascular exercise, there are plenty of conflicting opinions on which is better - and this debate may never get resolved. Therefore, the staff at BioFit and Wellness decided to compare the benefits and risks of the two forms of exercise so you can make an educated choice as to how to approach either type of workout. (Note: For the sake of simplification, we will use the term aerobic and cardiovascular interchangeably.)


The No. 1 benefit of following an aerobic exercise plan is the change in your cardiovascular fitness that results from this kind of training regimen. Regular aerobic exercise causes your lungs to process more oxygen with less effort; your heart to pump more blood with fewer beats; and the blood supply directed to your muscles to increase. As a result, by performing cardiovascular exercises, you are increasing your body's endurance and efficiency.

Additional Benefits
In addition to the cardiovascular benefits, other benefits of aerobic exercise include:

  • Weight loss: Combined with a healthy diet and appropriate strength training, aerobic exercise will help you lose weight.

  • Improved mental health: Regular aerobic exercise releases endorphins, your body's natural painkillers. Endorphins also reduce stress, depression and anxiety.

  • Improved immune system: People who exercise regularly are less susceptible to minor viral illnesses such as colds and flu. It is possible that aerobic exercise helps activate your immune system and prepares it to fight off infection.

  • Increased stamina: Exercise may make you tired in the short term, i.e., during and right after the activity, but over the long term it will increase your stamina and reduce fatigue.

  • Disease reduction: Extra weight is a contributing factor to conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and some forms of cancer. As you lose weight, your risk of developing these diseases decreases. In addition, weight-bearing aerobic exercise, such as walking, can reduce your risk of osteoporosis and its complications. Low-impact aerobic exercises, such as swimming, cycling and pool exercises, can help keep you fit if you have arthritis, without putting excessive stress on your joints.

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  • Increased life span: The Harvard Alumni Health Study (1986), published in the New England Journal of Medicine, scientifically linked exercise with increased life spans for the first time. Since then, additional research has supported this finding.

  • Improved muscle health: Aerobic exercise stimulates the growth of tiny blood vessels (capillaries) in your muscles. This helps your body more efficiently deliver oxygen to your muscles and remove from them irritating metabolic waste products such as lactic acid. This can lessen your discomfort if you have chronic muscle pain or chronic low-back pain.


Cardiovascular Exercise Risks

Common Risks Associated With Cardiovascular Exercise

  • Stress fractures: Probably the most common type of injury to aerobics instructors, stress fractures are caused by poor shoe selection, hard surfaces and overuse. Women are more likely to develop stress fractures, usually in the lesser metatarsal bones, than men. When swelling and pain arise, be sure to see a podiatrist as soon as possible. X-ray evaluation and early treatment can prevent a disabling injury.

  • Plantar fasciitis: More prevalently known as arch pain, plantar fasciitis is often caused by frequent stress on the plantar aspect, or bottom of the foot, in an aerobics routine. When the plantar fascia, a supportive fibrous band of tissue running from the heel to the ball of the foot, becomes inflamed, pain on the bottom of the foot results. Forefoot and rearfoot instability with excessive pronation may result in plantar fasciitis. Shoes with proper support in the arch often prevent plantar fasciitis; if not, see your podiatrist for a custom orthotic device or a recommendation for another shoe.

  • Dehydration: Dehydration is a condition in which the body, or certain body tissues, suffer from lack of water. The results are discomfort and sometimes cracking of the skin unless it is protected by natural lubrication or lotions and increased susceptibility of the respiratory system to infections.

  • Heel spurs: Heel spur syndrome, related to plantar fasciitis, occurs after calcium deposits build up on the underside of the heel bone. Heel spurs form gradually over many months. Both plantar fasciitis and heel spurs can be avoided by a proper warm-up that includes stretching the band of tissue on the bottom of the foot.

  • Shin splints: Aside from ankle sprains, shin splints are perhaps the most common injury to the lower body, as the muscles attached to the shin bone bring the foot up and down. The pain is usually associated with inflammation of the shin muscle and tendon due to stress factors. Treat shin pain with cold compresses immediately after working out to reduce swelling. Proper stretching before the workout should prevent the onset of shin splints. Strengthening the lower leg muscles also helps reduce shin splints.

  • Achilles tendon and calf pain: The frequent rising on the toes that occurs during an aerobics routine often creates pain and tightness in the large muscles in the back of the legs, which can create pain and tightness in the calf and inflammation of the Achilles tendon. Again, stretching the calf muscles gently and gradually before and after the workout will ordinarily help alleviate the pain and stiffness.

What Should I Do If I Become Injured?
If you experience any of these injuries, see a physician (a podiatrist can treat most of them) who will prescribe treatments to alleviate the pain, and make recommendations to prevent recurrence of any discomfort. As foot specialists trained in all aspects of foot care, podiatrists are also qualified to perform surgery if the condition requires it.

Remember: there are good aerobics programs and bad ones. Use discretion in choosing classes to attend and/or home videos that are right for you. Always pace yourself and stop if you feel pain. Remember, foot pain is not normal so don't ignore it. Chances are a successful aerobics regimen may bring out the bodily changes you desire, both physically and mentally.


Weight Training Benefits and Risks

Improving or maintaining health should be the primary goal of any exercise program. Health not only refers to the absence of disease or illness but may include the way a person feels about their body, their confidence about participating in a variety of activities and their overall attitude toward life. For many people feeling physically fit and strong is part of being a well-rounded and confident person. Resistance training (weight training) can play an important role in the development of self-confidence and body satisfaction by increasing strength, toning muscles and increasing muscular endurance. It can also help maintain lean body mass (important for individuals attempting weight loss), decrease the risk of osteoporosis, develop coordination and balance, and prevent injuries resulting from weak muscles.

By using free weights, a person will achieve greater overall muscle mass as compared to aerobic exercise. Free weights use your natural range of motion and strengthen the stabilizer muscles. If you switch from machine weights to free weights, you will notice that your muscles will shake a lot when performing the exercises. Once you become adjusted to the feel of free weights, your stabilizer muscles will get stronger and you won't shake as much, if at all.

Performing strength training exercises with machine weights gives a person the ability to tone with the freedom of working out alone. Machine weights are nice to use when a person wants to use lighter weights and perform high numbers of repetitions. However, free weights build mass faster than machine exercises. You can only get so strong using machine weights because there is a maximum amount of weight that can be lifted. For instance, most machine exercises can only go up to roughly 200 pounds, whereas free weights can go to whatever the lifter can handle. If you can lift 500 pounds, there is no machine exercise that would be heavy enough for you.

The Advantages of Free Weights

  • A wide variety of exercises can be performed.

  • Results are fast and noticeable.

  • The equipment is often inexpensive, and is portable.

  • Free weights are suitable for all shapes and sizes.

  • It creates a more natural movement compared to machines.

  • Exercises that use free weights are often good for the rehabilitation of injuries.

Risks of Weight Training

  • More supervision is required as the risk of injury is greater.

  • Certain exercises, such as lunges or incline bench press, can be difficult to perform.

  • There is a need for lower back support, or strong back and abdominal muscles, when performing certain free weight exercises such as squats and or any standing overhead barbell presses.

  • There is a lot more to remember about how to do each exercise safely and correctly.

  • Free weights can seem intimidating.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line when undertaking an aerobic or a weight training exercise program is that you must be careful and responsible. Both may provide the type of vigorous workout that you require. So listen to your body and exercise your common sense as well as your muscles.