Fitness Wars

by Paul Rogers

Although I write a wide-ranging column on weight training for About.com, I’ve mostly come from a background of team sports, track and running, cycling, swimming and aerobic and anaerobic sports. It provides me with good perspective when it comes to figuring out the best programs for total fitness and wellness — and how to distinguish between the two outcomes. Currently, I’m a half-decent masters sprinter and I train 3 to 4 times a week in the gym and on the track.

What’s Wrong with Aerobics and Cardio?

Although fitness enthusiasts and athletes can be a little “tribal” — that is, they like what they do and tend to dismiss or deride other codes, sports or training programs — nowhere is this more obvious than in the arguments and discussions about cardio versus weight training.  Should you do cardio, how much, how long? To some pundits it’s quite clear: you don’t need aerobic exercise.

In fact, you’ll find many similar tirades among the more hard-core weight training and bodybuilding sites. Endurance and aerobic athletes and trainers, as a general rule,  couldn’t give a fig about all this. It just seems curious and somewhat childish that some in the muscle fraternity have such vitriolic views about aerobic exercise. Why? It’s so noticeable that I’ve always wondered how it evolved to this point.

I suspect that it’s in part due to the views of Mel Siff, a somewhat legendary sports scientist who wrote the book Supertraining and who more or less kicked off the Supertraining discussion group. Mel has passed on now, but he was a relatively outspoken critic of aerobic exercise in his book Facts and Fallacies of Fitness.

For one thing, although Siff had a huge intellect, he was a civil engineer and not a biologist or physiologist or cardiologist, even though he seemed to be able to transcend this boundary often. Second, my feeling is that his fallacies about aerobics in this book were inadequately described — and just as poorly understood. Exercise at 90% of max heart rate still has a substantial aerobic component, to give just one example. 

If he meant long slow distance, then that’s another discussion. In any case, it’s not a useful target in my view, although to be fair, aerobic exercise dominated the fitness industry in the 70s and 80s and resistance training sports got little traction and bad publicity because of steroid use.

Fitness can be defined by a range of physical and psychological characteristics. It should be distinguished from wellness. Aerobic conditioning certainly has a role to play in both. That is not in dispute. What we’re discussing here is the best type of exercise for general and specific fitness and wellness. Obviously you can’t get optimum cardiovascular fitness for triathlon racing by pumping iron, so any argument in this regard is just silly. And, as I wrote in When Aerobic Fitness is Not Aerobic Conditioning, a wellness effect may not be synonymous with a training performance effect.

Exercise Type and Intensity and Heart Attack Risk

There are wellness outcomes other than heart disease, but as an example, consider this study. Tanasescu and colleagues from the Harvard School of Public Health studied 44,452 US men enrolled in the Health Professionals’ Follow-up Study at 2-year intervals from 1986 to 1998. Here is what they found in relation to heart attack risk, as defined by a fatal or non-fatal attack, and exercise type and intensity.

  • Total physical activity, running, weight training, and rowing were each inversely associated with risk of CHD (coronary heart disease).
  • Men who ran for an hour or more per week had a 42% risk reduction.
  • Men who trained with weights for 30 minutes or more per week had a 23% risk reduction.
  • Rowing for 1 hour or more per week was associated with an 18% risk reduction.
  • Average exercise intensity was associated with reduced CHD risk independent of the total volume of physical activity.
  • A half-hour per day or more of brisk walking was associated with an 18% risk reduction. Walking pace was associated with reduced CHD risk independent of the number of walking hours.
  • Total physical activity, running, weight training, and walking were each associated with reduced CHD risk. Average exercise intensity was associated with reduced risk independent of the number of MET-hours spent in physical activity.

Note the role for intensity in improving wellness outcomes. This does not imply  that you have to do everything at 90% of maximum heart rate; it means that you will benefit most from exercise at moderate to high intensity — in the range 70 to 90% of maximum heart rate — or higher if you can handle it.

What Type of Exercise Should You Do?

The bottom line here is that any exercise is better than none and the total volume and intensity of exercise counts toward the ultimate training and wellness effect. Moderate- to high-intensity aerobic exercise has clear benefits for cardiovascular conditioning — capillary development and collateral blood supply. Weight training has its own benefits in strength and muscle maintenance, flexibility, plus some cardiovascular benefit. Interval training at high intensity complements the other two. Why omit one? Why not do all three types of exercise if you are able? That’s certainly what the latest physical activity guidelines are hinting at, even if not stating outright.

Weight training won’t give you a high level of aerobic fitness. We know this from looking at V02 max numbers. You can get into the 50s, but not too many get above that if they don’t do some running training of  moderate to high intensity.

In any case, we all do what we can do for many reasons. Even if you can walk regularly at a fast pace you will benefit. Consider the exercise guidelines above and try to get the minimum exercise recommended for wellness. And don’t believe all you read about cardio on muscle sites and mags.

References

– Tanasescu M, Leitzmann MF, Rimm EB, Willett WC, Stampfer MJ, Hu FB.  Exercise type and intensity in relation to coronary heart disease in men. JAMA. 2002 Oct 23-30;288(16):1994-2000.
– Williams PT. Relationship of distance run per week to coronary heart disease risk factors in
8283 male runners. The National Runners’ Health Study. Arch Intern Med. 1997 Jan 27;157(2):191-8.