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Cardio versus strength: Which is the best exercise?

Cardio versus strength training. Which is the best for weight loss, fitness and toning?
WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Long gone are the days when the men pumped iron in the gym while the ladies in headbands and leotards did grapevines and jazz moves in a class next door.

These days it's a more mixed approach to exercise, because women are cottoning on to the fact that strength training isn't just for the boys. In fact it's an essential weapon in the battle of the flab!

So what's best for losing weight: cardio or strength work? Answer: Both!

Getting sweaty

Cardio, aka cardiovascular exercise, is anything that gets your heart rate up, makes you feel sweaty, and gets more oxygen pumping through your blood. Running, cycling and aerobic classes, like zumba, are all examples.

Government guidelines suggest adults should do two-and-a-half hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week for health.

"Cardiovascular exercise is a fantastic way to improve your health and fitness," says top fitness trainer Gavin Walsh.

He has actors and celebs on his client list and runs a fitness boot camp business.

"Your heart and lungs will benefit immensely from consistent cardiovascular exercise," he tells us. "It is especially important for beginners, as it thickens the tendons and ligaments in joints in preparation for higher intensity exercise."

Fitness instructor Jane Simons agrees: "The benefits of cardiovascular training are numerous: you will get huge health benefits, improved circulation, increases in bone density (to help combat osteoporosis), improved sleep and reduced anxiety levels. Cardio also increases your energy levels, as long as it's not done to excess."

She says there are so many activities you can do like swimming or indoor cycling that you are bound to find something you love, or something to do with friends, and will therefore stick to, which is the key to any type of exercise.

A bit of both

Strength training is any exercise that helps the different muscles in your body become stronger and more powerful. It can be through using weights, or even your own bodyweight like press-ups and squats. It can be resistance-based, using different bits of kit like elastic gym bands or gym fit balls.

If you want to help tone muscles and strengthen bones strength work is vital; it's also key to losing weight.

Adam Hawkey, senior lecturer in sport and exercise science at the University of Wolverhampton, says: "By doing strength or weight training you are looking at increasing your muscle tissue. The more lean muscle tissue you have the more calories you burn.

"One kg of muscle burns 50 extra calories a day, whereas 1kg of fat burns just three calories a day."

Personal trainer Victoria Jones says: "In my experience, weight training is more effective for fat-loss than cardio. You are likely to see the best results if you increase your metabolic rate; this is what strength training does."

She says cardio work aids fat loss when on a calorie controlled diet but the effect on body shape and size is minimal unless you've never done it before.

"I would always prioritise weight training first and foremost, leaving cardio for recovery days when my muscles need to be stretched and I want an energy boost!"

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