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What’s Best at Midlife: Cardio or Weights?

What you need to know to determine your optimal fitness plan

By Linda Melone | July 10, 2014

Well-rounded workout plans generally include both weights and cardiovascular exercise. But physical changes that occur with aging raise questions about which type of exercise is best — and at what age — for reducing risks, such as falling, that come with aging.
 
While the weights vs. cardio question is a hot topic among experts in the fitness industry, the rest of us want to know which is better, too.

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Read on for the arguments for both sides to help you decide on your best plan.
 
The Case for Cardio
 
“The American College of Sports Medicine emphasizes cardio for all people at all ages,” says Irv Rubenstein, an exercise physiologist and founder of S.T.E.P.S., a science based fitness facility in Nashville, Tenn. “It not only improves cardiovascular health but also helps control blood sugar and cholesterol, which have become the big dogs in the fight against wellbeing.”
 
The type of cardio exercise you choose is important in determining which benefits you gain, says Rubenstein. For example, biking and the elliptical trainer work well for heart health and quadriceps strength (which become weaker with age), but don’t benefit bone density as much as impact exercises such as walking or jogging.

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Cardio exercise, in general, is a must for 50+ people, says Rubenstein.
 
In addition to its heart health and blood sugar controlling benefits, aerobic exercise helps improve brain functioning and memory, according to a 2013 study from the University of Texas at Dallas. Sedentary adults ages 57 to 75 who practiced aerobic exercise for one hour, three times a week for 12 weeks, increased blood flow to an area of the brain linked to superior cognition in late life.
 
Recommendations vary depending on a variety of things such as orthopedic considerations, says Rubenstein. But in general, 30 to 60 minutes a day of cardio exercise, four to seven days a week, elicits the greatest health benefits.  
 
The Case for Strength Training
 
“You need both cardio and strength training, but given a choice between the two, I’d opt for strength training,” says Dr. Ken Kim, chief medical officer of Alignment Healthcare, Irvine, Calif. “Overall, strength training should be included in any type of exercise for people over 40 because we lose 1 percent of muscle every year after age 45. By the time you reach 85, you’ve lost 40 percent of your muscle if you don’t exercise.”

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Loss of muscle leads to compromised functioning in performing daily activities such as getting off the toilet, opening a bottle of prescription medicine and walking on uneven pavement.

“Plus, when you do cardio you don’t get strength training benefits, but when you do strength training you get some cardiovascular benefit; your heart rate goes up when you lift weights,” says Kim.
 
Beyond muscular strength, aging triggers a decline in areas linked to muscle loss such as power, muscle endurance, muscle mass and bone density, according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association. At the same time, body fat increases.
 
Numerous studies show positive changes from a well-designed strength routine even in seniors over 90-years-old. Improvements can be seen in gait speed, stair climbing ability, balance and overall functioning.
 
Lower extremity muscles are most important to strengthen, particularly the quadriceps — the large muscle in front of the thighs responsible for extending the knee. “Because falls and fractures are the biggest killers in America [one out of five hip fracture patients dies within a year of their injury] quadriceps strength, overall leg strength and balance exercises are most important as we age,” Kim says.
 
Squats, lunges and other exercises that work the big muscle groups are best, adds Kim. Focus should be on functional exercises more than muscle building, for both upper and lower body. Functional exercises include full-body type movements that work the body in movement patterns you actually use in real life, such as lifting groceries out of the car or walking up a flight of stairs.
 
In addition, exercises should be mostly multi-joint movements (like squats and lunges) which use hip and knee joints versus a leg extension machine, which uses only a single joint movement (knee joint).
 
Yoga also helps flexibility and balance, although Kim does not recommend hot yoga to his over-50 patients.

“Dehydration can be a problem. You can lose a liter of fluid during one of these classes, which can be dangerous if you’re on diuretics or other medications that cause dehydration,” says Kim. (If you enjoy hot yoga, Kim suggests taking extra care to be well hydrated before, during and after the class.)

Specific guidelines for strength training vary depending on goals, but in general, a 20- to 30-minute well-designed routine, two to four times a week, works well. Strive for eight to 12 reps and one to three sets. Ideally, get an evaluation from a licensed physiologist, says Kim, who recommends training facilities geared toward boomers, such as Nifty After Fifty.
 
Overall, both cardio and strength have benefits. Whether you choose one or both, it’s important to stay active at any age. “Starting an exercise program earlier in life will certainly make your 70s easier,” says Kim. 

Next Avenue contributor Linda Melone is a California-based freelance writer specializing in health, fitness and wellness for women over 50.