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If You Have to Choose, What's the Best Type of Exercise?

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Pictures of people exercising

Between work, family, school and the many obligations that define modern life, it can be difficult to find time for exercise. Whether you’re a parent juggling childcare with a job or a young professional putting in long hours at the office, you may have wondered: When time is limited, which type of exercise offers the most benefits?

We asked a cardiologist and a sports medicine doctor to give us their takes on this question.

The Cardiologist Says: Aerobic Activity

“When it comes to picking the best exercise, I’d first say that one size does not fit all. What’s great for one person may not work for another,” says Chad Raymond, DO, a University Hospitals cardiologist. “Having said that, if you’re a nonathlete looking to maintain basic fitness levels, and you find yourself short on time, I’d recommend picking a moderate-intensity aerobic activity that you can do consistently throughout the week.”

Commonly referred to as cardio, aerobic exercise is any activity that gets your heart pumping faster. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week (or some combination of the two), preferably spread out across multiple days.

But is there one moderate-intensity aerobic activity that’s better than others?

Dr. Raymond says you can’t go wrong with swimming. A great way to burn calories, strengthen muscles and improve cardiovascular health, swimming laps in a pool is far gentler on the joints than high-impact cardio. What’s more, because swimming uses all the muscles of the body, it counts as a full-body workout.

“But again, the specific type of aerobic activity you do is less important than how consistently you can do it,” Dr. Raymond says. “So whether it’s swimming, brisk walking, jogging, running, cycling, jumping rope or step aerobics, you should do something that you enjoy and can commit to doing at least three to four days a week, ideally following those AHA recommendations.”

Dr. Raymond also points out that if you’re short on time and looking to get into better shape, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) could be a great option. HIIT consists of cardio-focused workouts in which you alternate between intense, short bouts of exercise and periods of recovery or low-intensity exercise. Among other benefits, HIIT can burn a lot of calories in a short period of time and improve your body’s ability to use oxygen for fuel.

However, Dr. Raymond cautions that HIIT is not for everyone, as it requires people to push themselves to their limit. HIIT tends to be more appropriate for people who are younger and already in good health. If you’re older and/or have health problems such as heart disease, check with your doctor before trying HIIT.

The Sports Doctor Says: Strength Training

“If someone has limited time during the week to exercise, I think the best use of that time would be some form of strength training,” says Joshua Beer, DO, a primary care sports medicine doctor at University Hospitals.

Also known as resistance training, strength training is any exercise that causes your muscles to contract against an external resistance. That resistance can come from:

  • free weights
  • resistance bands
  • resistance machines
  • your own body with bodyweight exercises (push-ups, sit-ups, lunges, planks, etc.)

Strength training is a type of anaerobic exercise. In contrast to aerobic exercise, which involves continuous movement fueled largely by oxygen taken from the air you breathe, anaerobic exercise involves short, high-intensity movements fueled by the breakdown of glucose that is already inside your muscles.

Dr. Beer says, “A misconception or stereotype about strength training is that it’s mostly for people looking to bulk up or maintain an already bulky physique. However, an individual can adjust the amount of weight lifted or the number of repetitions to align with their fitness goals. Additionally, we know that strength training can provide many of the same benefits of cardio, if not more. Studies have shown that, in addition to keeping you fit, strength training 30 to 60 minutes a week reduces the risk of death, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.”

When you increase your lean muscle mass through strength training, your muscles use calories more efficiently. In other words, the more lean muscle mass you have, the more efficiently you’ll use the food you eat as an energy source while storing less calories in your body as fat. This results in weight loss, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and other health benefits.

“For the average adult with limited time to exercise,” says Dr. Beer, “Moderate strength training is a great option for maintaining basic fitness levels and even for losing a little weight. If you are unsure of the amount of weight to begin with, a good starting point is a weight you can do 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12 reps, whether it’s lifting free weights or doing the equivalent exercise on resistance training machines at home or the gym. Even if you have, say, just 15 minutes a day to exercise, you could get a beneficial workout by switching muscle groups from session to session.”

Because of the importance of targeting different muscle groups throughout the week, and not, for example, only working on your biceps all week, Dr. Beer says variety in your strength training is more useful than looking for “the single best exercise” you can do.

Why Not Both?

While Dr. Raymond and Dr. Beer may approach the question of “What is the best exercise?” from a different angle, they agree that getting some combination of regular aerobic exercise and strength training is the most important goal.

Ultimately, any exercise is better than no exercise. Both doctors recommend choosing exercise that you enjoy – that you can stick with for the long term. In this sense, the best exercise is the one you will consistently do.

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