For some reason, resistance training is the Rodney Dangerfield of health improvement. It just can't get respect. Even when Jane Fonda was sweating while wearing her pink leg warmers, she was doing resistance training.
"The bottom line is that being aerobically fit was the No. 1 very strong relationship" to health, StatsCan author Jonathon Fowles told the CBC.
He went on to say that even if people have little time to exercise, they should "get out there and do some aerobic activity like brisk walking, cycling or swimming."
But traditional cardio activities are not the only way to go – and as the case of running in particular, they can be tough on your joints.
Call it what you want, exercise is all resistance training to me.
It doesn't matter the type of exercise you do, whether it's running, Tabata, intervals, TRX, spinning, plyometrics, etc. In every case, there's a resistance involved. You need a certain level of strength to make it happen. The magnitude of the resistance and the protocol used will determine the end result.
I know this may be hard to accept. We always think of strength training and cardio to be at two extremes. But the reality is that it all happens within the same tissue. It's still all done by the muscles. And most people will think that doing a set of squats is only anaerobic. It improves your aerobic system too.
A review article published in 2012 looked at the effects of resistance training on cardiovascular fitness. Researchers reported that resistance training created similar short- and long-term adaptations as traditional cardiovascular training. The author, James Steele, even said: "Identifying a particular modality of exercise as being aerobic is a misnomer."
The gold standard of measuring aerobic fitness is a VO2 max test: You attempt an exercise that gradually gets harder while wearing a mask on your face, and a machine analyzes how efficient your body is at using oxygen. It is determined by a combination of your heart's ability to deliver oxygenated blood and the capacity of your muscles to use it.
You now know that resistance training can improve the ability of your muscles to use oxygen. But how can it challenge your heart?
Here's how you can get a glimpse of the effects. Pick three exercises: one for your legs (squats), one pushing (push-ups) and one pulling (pull-downs). Perform one challenging set of each with little rest in between; repeat as needed. This is called circuit training. It allows you to improve your strength and aerobic fitness at the same time. And on top of it, you work all the major muscles of your body. Give it a try. If your heart and lungs don't get challenged, we need to talk.
Now if you want to be a runner, you need to get out there and run. Keep in mind there's a muscle mechanic that needs to be applied, and the way muscles are recruited is specific to a given movement, so repeating the same movement will make you more efficient and perform better. But at the same time, the constant pounding may put a toll on your joints.
What I'm saying is you don't need to prematurely age your joints in order to improve your cardio fitness. And you don't have to repeat the same movement for an hour to improve the functionality of your heart. Those are old concepts.
Gilles Beaudin is a registered clinical exercise physiologist at Cleveland Clinic Canada.