There are many different ways to exercise in order to achieve fat loss, to gain a stronger body, and to improve your overall health. When deciding which form of exercise you want to start with for yourself, you must first realize that ANY activity, so long as its applied appropriately for your fitness level, is better than no activity.
Most of our chronic health problems stem, in some part, from a simple lack of activity. We lead incredibly sedentary lives. To put just how inactive most of us are in perspective, consider that most reputable health sources ranging from the Mayo Clinic to most national fitness certifications recommend that people aim to take 10,000 steps a day. Most Americans average around 3,000 to 4,000 steps a day which is equivalent to 20-35 minutes of walking. In other words, during our 15-18 hours of being awake we literally ONLY move (with any kind of rigor) for 20-35 minutes. Being this sedentary is as bad or worse for our health than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. This is why ANY kind of increase in appropriate movement is going to provide you with health benefits.
But what if your goals are more specific? What if you want to maximize the time you set aside for activity to get more bang for your buck? What if you wanted the best possible results from the minimum amount of time spent adding activity? If those questions resonate with you then you are going to want to pick the most effective form of exercise for yourself. For most people, who have goals of fat loss, an improvement in overall health, and maximizing the time they spend doing deliberate exercise, the best form of exercise is resistance training.
Unfortunately, resistance training is usually not the first choice people make when starting an exercise journey. The most common form chosen is some type of cardio exercise like running, biking, rowing, group classes, or swimming. This is too bad because cardio cannot compete with resistance training when it comes to long term results.
Most people don’t understand that much of the benefits that come from exercise are NOT from the calories you burn while doing them. Although burning extra calories through movement has its own benefits, when you really break it down, they aren’t much. You are lucky if you burn 300-400 calories during a vigorous ONE HOUR workout session. You work hard for a full hour and you burn less calories than are contained in the average meal. A single donut has that many calories! This is why studies show that calorie burning through exercise alone usually results in little to no weight loss.
The REAL benefits of exercise come from how your body adapts to the activity. The process of getting stronger and more fit is an adaptation process. Exercise is hard and it is perceived as a stress by the body. This is why the body becomes more fit - it tries to make that stressful activity easier and less stressful over time. Your body becomes better at whatever you do regularly. The key to finding the best form of exercise lies precisely in the adaptations.
Cardiovascular exercise, like running, tells your body to improve its endurance. This is not a bad thing, but if your goal is long term fat loss and you don’t have hours to dedicate to calorie burning through activity every day, the adaptations from cardio actually make it HARDER to burn fat and stay lean in the long term. Let’s look into the adaptation of endurance to understand why.
Endurance requires little strength AND it requires that your body learn to utilize energy more efficiently. This means your body adapts to cardio by reducing muscle mass to become more efficient, and since endurance doesn’t require strength, it’s an easy adaptation choice. Studies show that endurance training plus dieting results in more than HALF of the weight loss coming from muscle. Think of it this way, if you wanted to pick a car that could drive the furthest on one tank of gas would you pick a 2-cylinder car or an 8-cylinder car? Cardio actually slows down your metabolism over time through muscle loss which makes maintaining fat loss much harder.
Resistance training is different. Lifting weights, or using machines, bands or bodyweight in a way that builds strength, sends a very different adaptation message. Getting strong requires more muscle since bigger muscle fibers contract harder, and since performing traditional resistance training doesn’t require the same kind of slow burning endurance that cardio asks for, your body has no qualms about burning a lot more calories. In this scenario your body becomes LESS efficient with calories. You get a faster metabolism.
A faster and hotter metabolism is a wonderful insurance policy for a sedentary life. It means you can eat more and still maintain a lower body fat percentage. Rather than having to exercise for an hour to burn 300-400 calories, you can teach your body to burn those extra calories ON ITS OWN.
What about the visual effects? How does resistance training make you look? Unfortunately, images of bodybuilders tend to pop up for us when we think of resistance training and most of us don’t want to look anywhere near as extreme. The truth is they are exactly that, extreme. Their bodies are the result of decades of daily resistance training, plus dedicated diets, plus one in a million muscle building genes, and usually some steroids. The vast majority of us will simply gain a tighter, firmer, and stronger body. Resistance training literally allows you to target areas and sculpt your body. For visual effects, there is no competition.
Most people should choose resistance training as their primary modality of activity. No form of exercise trains the body to adapt in a more favorable way, especially when you consider time constraints. For most people, 2-3 high-quality, thirty-minute resistance training workouts per week will provide amazing and long lasting results.