Woman using weights

Some people are gym rats. Some are professional couch potatoes. Regardless of whether or not your idea of a perfect day includes the minimal amount of movement necessary to sustain life or a 10 mile run at dawn, you know that exercise is important. There are, however, so very many types of exercise anymore. The vast majority of them, though, can be fit into three main categories: strength training, aerobic exercise and flexibility or balance work. Strength training would include traditional weightlifting, bodyweight exercise, resistance bands and other forms of exercise that focus on building muscle by forcing it to work against resistance of some form. Aerobic exercise would include anything designed to be continued for a certain length of time and get a person’s heart and lungs working harder. The most common forms of aerobic exercise are things like running and kickboxing. Flexibility or balance work would include slower activities that focus on stretching such as yoga and tai chi. There are, of course, forms of exercise that overlap categories. Swimming, for example, is a great aerobic workout, but the water provides enough resistance to act as strength training as well. Pilates, on the other hand, is about flexibility and strength in equal measure.

Given how many ways people can work out anymore, it is understandable that people may have a difficult time deciding what they should do. Should they lift weights or go for a run? Is yoga enough of a workout? Will their workout help them get stronger or will they only get thinner? Will they bulk up if they lift weights? Will they lose muscle if they run?

When it comes to exercising properly, the best thing to do is to hit all three categories. You need strength training, aerobic exercise and flexibility work in order to have a balanced workout and take the best care of your body. Most people, however, do not have hours to spend at the gym each day. So, they need to focus on one or two areas and get a little bit of the rest here and there. Which you should focus on, however, depends wildly upon your goals.

Flexibility and balance work do not often provide much of a real workout. They are important for keeping your joints healthy and your muscles from tightening up. Balance work is also essential to keep you steady as you grow older. In terms of working your body hard, however, this is not the area to focus on. Yoga or Pilates can give you a good workout if it is done correctly, but they usually focus more on flexibility and balance that pushing your body.

Aerobic exercise is what most people think of when they want to lose weight or start exercising. All you need for an aerobic workout, after all, is a pair of gym shoes and a bit of space. Then, you can run to your heart’s content. There is much more, however, to cardio these days than simply jogging down the street.

Interval training has exploded in popularity in recent years. It promises all the benefits of a long workout in a fraction of the time. It only lives partially up to that promise, but it can deliver in some areas. Interval training is excellent for people who are short on time or want a brief, intense workout. In interval training, you will sweat and pant for breath. It is great for rapid fire muscles and can actually give your metabolism a temporary boost. Interval training, however, is the exercise equivalent of a sprint. As a result, it contains the same drawbacks as sprint training. It can be hard on your joints or muscles, especially as many people in HIIT classes are less concerned about form than speed. The combination of poor form, dozens of repetitions and fast movements have “injury” written all over them. HIIT training will also only give you a small stamina boost. You may be able to sprint faster, but you will not be able to go much farther.

Steady state cardio training is not something you are likely to see forming the backbone of many exercise classes. It is home to exercises like running, swimming and biking. Steady state cardio workouts take a long time to complete but cover an incredible amount of literal distance. This is the sort of training you do when you are training for endurance activities like marathon running or want to improve your stamina. When you walk for miles, run a marathon, bike to work or swim in the ocean, you are dealing with steady state cardio workouts. These workouts rely on slow twitch muscles. You may not get anywhere quickly, but you can go forever.

Steady state aerobic training is excellent for your joints as well as your endurance. It is usually lower impact than interval training and mirrors what the human body evolved to handle. Early humans walked for miles to find food on the African savannah. When you jog to the next town over, you are using your body the way it evolved to be used. This puts minor stress on your bones and joints which actually protects them in the long run. The microscopic tears or breaks heal to form stronger bones and better protected joints. In addition, steady state cardio has been shown to improve longevity. So, the longer you can run, the longer you are likely to live.

Strength training can get your heart rate up, but that is not the focus of it. Strength training is focused on building skeletal muscle rather than cardiac muscle. The most well-known and widely practiced form of strength training is classic weight lifting. There are far more forms of strength training than just lifting iron bars. Pilates could be considered a form of weight training as could body weight exercises, resistance bands, TRX workouts and more unusual activities such as rock climbing. All of these focus on building muscle and increasing strength. They are excellent for bone health and can help your joints by surrounding them with protective muscle.

Despite what many people think, strength training is actually your greatest ally if you are trying to lose weight. Strength training builds skeletal muscle which then takes the place of fat. The muscle takes up less weight, so you become noticeably more trim and fit even if the number on the scale has not moved much. Replacing fat with muscle also forms a beneficial cycle. Skeletal muscle requires more energy to maintain than fat. As such, greater muscle mass increases your metabolism and helps you burn more calories in a resting state.

Many women are leery of strength training because they fear they will get bulky if they lift too many weights. This, however, is false. To truly bulk up requires extremely hard work and a very careful diet filled with enormous amounts of protein. Even if a woman is lifting heavy weights and eating a protein rich diet, lower levels of testosterone in women make building large amounts of muscle all but impossible to do by accident.

What type of exercise is best for you will vary depending on your goals and situation. After all, someone with bad knees may not be suited to HIIT classes even if they want to increase their metabolism. They may need to find another way to reach their goal. You can achieve almost any goal using any method of exercise. Different forms of exercise are simply more suited to some goals than others. As Confucius once said, “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” In the case of exercise, it does not matter as much what you do as long as you get off the couch and move.

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