Fitness or strength – which is best for health?

By Axel Fox

New research shows that cardio training is better than strength training to counteract type 2 diabetes. But when it comes to counteracting other diseases and losing weight, the choice is no longer as obvious.

The tug-of-war over which training gives the most health for the money – strength training or cardio training – is constantly going on in various training forums. But what does the research really say?

A new study at Karolinska Institutet now shows that many years of cardio training reduce the risk of type two diabetes. This is because it changes the activity of many important genes in the muscles.

When genes change their activity during, for example, cardio training, the person becomes better at performing their activities such as running or cycling. Another consequence of this change is that the insulin sensitivity in the muscles is improved, something that is important for preventing metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, says the study’s lead author Mark Chapman, researcher at the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at Karolinska Institutet.

The study included men and women who for the past 15 years have trained intensively with cardio, strength training or who have not trained at all. It showed an effect on over 1000 genes in those who did cardio. In those who did strength training, on the other hand, there were only 26 genes whose activity was affected.

The results indicate that even a training period of 6 to 12 months can improve the health of people with type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases.

The proportion of people over the age of 75 who train every week has doubled between the years 2008 and 2015, according to a survey by Statistics Sweden. But which form of training is best to invest in for this group?

A Finnish study has shown how a strength workout per week can improve both muscle strength, blood levels and well-being in the elderly. Simon Walker, associate professor of sports physiology at the Faculty of Sports and Health Sciences at the University of Jyväskylä and co-author of the study, points out how the preservation of muscle mass at older ages helps maintain a healthy metabolism.

Strength training helps maintain a healthy balance between muscle mass and adipose tissue. As we age, we tend to gain more adipose tissue, which can be beneficial up to a certain level, but if we lose too much muscle mass, this increase can be too large.

Strength training combined with adequate protein intake can result in a healthier body composition according to Simon Walker.

High-intensity exercise can give greater results on the heart, low-intensity exercise on blood fats.

As we age, there is a natural breakdown of both muscles and bones, but this can also be counteracted with the right kind of exercise. A study conducted at the Mayo Clinic has, for example, shown how high-intensity interval training both stops the cells from aging and rejuvenates the cells that repair damage to the body. Several studies have also shown how strength training can prevent osteoporosis.

Here, Mikael Mattsson, researcher at the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at Karolinska Institutet and RISE (Research Institutes of Sweden), as well as researchers at Stanford University in California, point to a mix of both forms of exercise as optimal.

Both cardio training and general physical activity are important, and strength training gives you both effects directly and a good basis for coping with everyday life. In terms of the impact on quality of life and mental ability, it is definitely a mixture of both things.

Which form of exercise is then most effective for heart health?

According to a study conducted at the University of Buffalo, middle-aged women who walk regularly have a 25 percent lower risk of heart failure, compared to women of the same age who did not exercise at all.

Several factors come into play here, such as blood fats and the elasticity of the vessels, and different intensities in the training will give different effects. High-intensity exercise can give greater results on the heart, while more low-intensity exercise can have a greater effect on blood fats.

To counteract dementia, however, most say that cardio training is preferable.

There are many studies that suggest that cardio can prevent dementia. When it comes to preventing dementia with strength training, however, there is not as clear evidence today.

Different people can perform exactly the same form of exercise and receive different endorphin supplements.

When it comes to losing weight, it is easy to believe that fitness-intensive training such as running or spinning is what burns the most fat, and thus is most effective. But even here, Mikael Mattsson points to a combination of both forms of training as the best.

During cardio training, you will lose more energy during the workout itself, while each kilogram of muscle mass means that you burn more energy during the rest of the day. So, if you are training to lose weight, the best is a combination ofstrength training, which gives you more muscle mass, cardio and diet adjustment.

The endorphin kick is for many a significant effect of the training. Here, it is our genes that largely control how we are affected by different forms of exercise.

Both strength training and cardio training can provide an endorphin boost, and in general the levels rise the more intense or long-term training. The gene aspect means that different people can perform exactly the same form of training and receive different endorphin supplements.

The genes also control about half of how you respond to a certain form of exercise. This means that if two people want to influence their blood sugar, diet change can work best for one, while strength training is best for the other.

The bottom line is that both strength training and cardio have their benefits for our health, it is after all best to go for the desire when it comes to exercise.

When it comes to exercise and health, it is best to invest in the form of exercise you think is most fun, partly because you will actually carry it out and partly because you will probably get the best effect.

Picture from Mark Chapman’s Twitter account

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