Choosing the right exercise plan can be as confusing as choosing the “right” nutrition plan. So many variables, so many options, so many trends.
The most important factor to the decision is your goal. Do you want to lose weight, maintain weight, gain strength, preserve lean tissue, boost your metabolism, gain lean mass, promote health/prevent disease, promote hormonal balance, maintain bone density, reduce stress, maintain cognitive function?
You may have read through the list and thought, “I have to pick one? I see five or six that matter to me.” The good news is just exercising regularly will enhance all aspects of your health, but different types of training will give you more bang for your “energy” buck.
If your goal is weight loss, it is pretty straightforward - Eat fewer calories than you spend in a day. To explain it simply, this is just all about an energy transfer. You consume food (energy) and it is transformed into a form of energy your body can use. If there is a surplus of energy coming in, then your body’s only option is to store the excess as fat.
In order to “tap in” to that storage you need to create a deficit. Less energy coming in means your body will pull from its stores. Research shows that caloric restriction alone plays a greater role in weight loss than exercise, although combining the two will result in the most significant weight loss. Now you have less being pushed in and more being pulled out.
Although the American College of Sports Medicine suggests that 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week will get you started on weight loss, they recommend that exercise exceed 225 minutes per week to see a significant reduction. How many calories you burn in your workout is one thing, but how many calories you burn after your workout and how effective your exercise plan increases your metabolism over time is another.
The only permanent way to raise your metabolism is by increasing your lean tissue (muscle) and maintaining that increase. It is a common misconception among weight loss-focused people that aerobic exercise is the best way to “burn that fat.” In fact, weight training trumps traditional cardio by burning more calories (remember it’s all about an energy transfer, and more muscle used means more calories used).
To get even more metabolic bang for your energy buck, you should combine strength training with your cardio. This more vigorous type of training burns more calories during, but also after your exercise session, not to mention the time efficiency of hitting two fitness components in one exercise session. Recovery from this type of exercise also keeps your metabolism elevated for longer post workout. It takes energy to recover from exercise so the more systems affected, and to what degree, the longer that recovery takes.
In addition to burning more calories, strength training is proven to have the more positive impact on hormones. It increases insulin sensitivity, which has a laundry list of benefits. Insulin resistance means insulin keeps lingering in the blood stream. This inhibits fat burning, increases ghrelin (the hormone that increases your appetite), and blocks leptin (the hormone that makes you feel satiated).
High intensity, high volume, low rest strength training increases muscles’ time under tension, which boosts testosterone and growth hormone. This mobilizes fatty acids so you get to run on fat first then carbs. This approach also helps to regulate body composition, muscle growth and bone health.
Estrogen is also affected by exercise. Low estrogen levels contribute to decreased bone density, while high estrogen levels contribute to increased fat storage and an increased risk of breast cancer. Aerobic exercise seems to be the best at lowering estrogen, and although low estrogen levels increase the risk for osteoporosis, it is unlikely that exercise will lower it to an unsafe level.
Weight bearing exercise is required to build or maintain bone density; you need to stress your bones just like you need to stress your muscles, your heart, your lungs and your brain to keep them strong. Walking, jogging, dancing and weight training are examples of exercise plans that play a key role in bone health.
Whether you have lost the desired weight or are hoping to prevent weight gain, assuming you have a healthy, wholefood based, balanced diet, exercise is the driving force in weight maintenance. Since preserving lean tissue is critical to preserving a healthy metabolic rate, resistance training two or more times per week should be on your “will do” list.
Here there are a few things to consider: Do you have an active lifestyle outside of exercise or are you fairly sedentary, (e.g. desk job)? And how much time you have?
If you are sedentary and don’t have much time to commit to exercise, then you should be combining your strength training and cardio in single session and working at a high intensity, doing a circuit alternating a strength exercise with a cardio exercise without rest. Or do a high intensity interval training (HIIT) with powerful and explosive exercises. Both of these are cost effective, calorie burning, muscle taxing, heart strengthening, bone building, hormone surging workouts that will keep your metabolism elevated for longer - so when you are sitting at your desk or on your sofa you will be burning more calories.
If you have more time, research shows that moderate intensity exercise of more than 200 minutes per week is most effective, again assuming that caloric intake is not exceeding output.
Now let’s talk about change. Our bodies are always striving for homeostasis. We overcome challenges by adapting and that is how we survive. When the challenge stimulus is gone, change is over. Basically, our bodies and brains need to have things that they have to “figure out” or they become complacent. Couple that with the fact that while we can’t stop the process of aging, we need to have a proactive strategy to reduce or slow the effects.
Interestingly, our brains are like our bodies in that the stimulus needs to be changing. When we do crossword puzzles, walk or run, cycle, lift weights or take the same dance class over and over for months or years, we are not challenging our brains or our bodies. Being good at something means you don’t use as much energy doing it and you’re not tapping into any untrained areas.
So get out of your comfort zone and try a new type of exercise, be confused, make your brain and body have to engage with each other. Walk away from the solitaire and pick up the crossword puzzle. Go back to or use the familiar activities after you’ve taken a break from them as compliments to the changes you are making or as stress release.
When compared separately, it seems from the research that initial weight loss is impacted to a greater extent by caloric restriction than exercise training. Together, though, they have a much more pronounced effect. Caloric restriction without exercise does not improve metabolism, preserve lean tissue, build or maintain bone density, or reduce stress and acute hormonal responses.
The key to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, promoting health or preventing illness, and stimulating the brain is not short-term dietary changes or doing the same type workout over and over and over again. It’s about consistent balanced change, healthy eating, and regular physical/mental activity.