How much do we need to exercise to improve our cardiovascular fitness? To gain muscle? To increase flexibility? Which type of exercises will help me achieve my goals?
Resistance exercise, or strength training, has been shown to have many benefits, including lowering the risk of heart disease, decreasing cholesterol, fatigue, and depression. In fact, regular strength training decreases the risk of death from all causes. Overall bone density and insulin sensitivity also improve with regular exercise. The frequency and intensity of resistance exercise depend on your goals. Someone trying to build muscle will need more intense training than someone looking to improve athletic performance or someone else trying to maintain muscle mass as they age.
Persons with diabetes have seen increased insulin sensitivity and better glucose control with both strength and aerobic training. This indicates that any increase in physical activity is important, and allowing the individual to choose what type of physical activity may lead to greater participation rates.
A review of the studies about strength training in 2015 determined the best recommendations for a variety of adults.
Several studies found that strength training performed 3 days a week has far better results than very intense training 1 day per week and mixed or mildly better results than training 2 days per week. This is consistent with most recommendations and shows that most people need to allow for 48 hours of rest between strength training for each muscle group.
Leave the heavy lifting until you are more comfortable with strength training. In fact, lighter loads have been shown to have a greater benefit than lifting your absolute max weight.
Starting slowly will allow you to learn the best form to help guarantee your safety. Ideally, you are performing weight training exercises in front of a mirror so you can monitor your form. This applies to free weights and bodyweight exercises.
There’s no sense in exercising if you’re going to blow out your knee or tear a ligament!
Overall, recommendations for strength training are as follows:
Beginners – Full body training at moderate intensity 2-3 times per week
Advanced (greater than 6 months of strength training) – split training at high intensity. Each muscle group is worked 2-3 times per week. i.e. Monday: arms and chest, Tuesday: legs and abs, Wednesday: rest, Thursday: arms and chest, Friday: legs and abs, Friday and Saturday: rest.
To improve athletic performance and power (higher jumps, faster sprints) – body weight or low weight exercises such as jump squats, base jumps, and traveling push-ups are beneficial.
Greater participation occurs with exercise at a lower intensity, justifying the recommendation for low-intensity exercise for new strength trainers.
New exercisers tend to choose incorrect intensity (and incorrect form) during strength training. Keep this in mind if you decide to start a training program without the aid of a personal trainer.
Cardiovascular training, or aerobic exercise, has its own list of benefits, which should not be ignored. Advantages include improving cognitive performance, decreasing symptoms of depression and PTSD, reducing inflammation, reducing migraine frequency and severity, controlling weight, and improving markers for heart disease.
Numerous studies demonstrate cardiovascular benefits with moderate activity for 30-60 minutes on most days of the week. This can be brisk walking (not a leisurely stroll) or jogging, not sprinting at your max speed.
Within reason, adding intensity, frequency, and longevity to aerobic exercise will improve the cardiovascular results.
Your best bet is to try different types of cardiovascular exercise to determine what you like that most. Some examples are swimming, running/jogging/walking, cycling, and rowing. Pick one to focus on and a second one for cross-training to help avoid injury.
Once you have determined what type of cardiovascular training you want to do, find a rapid pace that you can keep up for 20 minutes. Warm up at a moderate pace for 5 minutes, work for 20 minutes, then cool down at a moderate pace for another 5 minutes.
Alternative to traditional cardiovascular training
Another popular method for cardiovascular training is the HIIT method or high-intensity interval training. Using this method, after a warm-up, participants will sprint at their fastest speed for a short period of time, then recover at a slower pace.
For instance, a runner will do a brisk walk or slow jog for 5 minutes, then sprint as fast as they for 30 seconds and jog until they are in control of their breath. This person would repeat the sprint/jog sequence several times, then jog or walk briskly for another 5 minutes to cool down.
Despite widespread claims, a study in 2015 showed a more significant increase in cardiac and lung capacity in overweight and obese males when they performed continuous, moderate activity rather than HIIT Training.
However, any addition in physical activity will be beneficial.
Improving flexibility lessens the amount of force placed on your joints when moving around. A stretching routine can reduce your risk of injury from exercise. However, when done improperly, it can actually increase your risk of injury.
Static stretching before cardio or resistance training can decrease your performance, particularly when stretches are held for longer than 60 seconds.
Dynamic stretching, on the other hand, can lead to increased power and strength during athletic performances. These are the stretches you see professional football players doing on the field before a game. I would not advise dynamic stretching without first getting instruction from a personal trainer.
Static stretching should take place only after a work-out, held just past the point of discomfort, for only 10-30 seconds. Two to three days per week is sufficient to improve flexibility and reduce your risk of injury.
There’s a lot of information here and it can be overwhelming. This is why getting help from a credible personal trainer can be so beneficial. A personal trainer can design a plan for you as well as make sure that you are performing the recommended exercises safely and effectively.
If you decide to start an exercise program on your own, I would start slowly and begin focusing on either strength or cardiovascular training.
Start with a gentle warm-up, perform your strength or aerobic exercises, then cool down and stretch.
As you gain confidence and fitness, add some running to your strength training or bodyweight exercises to your swimming routine. You can increase intensity and frequency as you go as well. No matter your starting point, you can begin a healthy exercise routine, gain fitness, and improve your health and quality of life.
Remember that in addition to how you exercise, what you eat to fuel your workout is important as well.
A note on personal trainers
All new exercisers should consider learning from a credible, credentialed personal trainer, particularly if you are planning on strength training.
If your plan is to walk and work up to a run, you can probably have a go at it yourself. Do your due diligence and learn the best you can to avoid injury.
However, when you add strength training to your regimen, you really need some help making sure you’re following the correct form to avoid injury.
Incorrect posture can lead to torn ligaments and painful joints. Overworking the same muscles can cause overuse injury as well as lead to unbalanced muscle growth.
A personal trainer can teach you how to work out safely and show you how to progress your workouts as you become more and more fit.
What about you? How is your exercise plan going? Do you prefer strength, flexibility, or cardio training?
Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD is a registered dietitian, mom, wife, and vegetarian in North Texas. She has dedicated Dietitian Jenn to be a source of information, ideas, and inspiration for people like her, vegetarians that live with people with different dietary beliefs and/or needs in a multivore household.