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Cardio Versus Strength Training: The Answer May Surprise You
In his recent book The Cardio-free Diet, Jim Karas claims that you should throw away your treadmill and hit the weights. Cardiologists disagree, of course, but the debate reveals an important distinction in how we address health in our nation.
Sound too good to be true? Perhaps it is; after all, many experts disagree with Karas' claims. For example, Jennifer Mieres, a cardiologist and an American Heart Association spokesperson, agrees that strength training is useful, especially to prevent osteoporosis, but cautions that "the evidence is overwhelming. You need to do some cardio workout to change your cardiac profile to make it better, to prevent death from heart disease and stroke."
At first glance this newest dispute regarding our health seems to be very familiar. As a nation, we are used to getting conflicting advise regarding nutrition and exercise-one study claims that eggs are good for us, another one claims the opposite. The same debate seems to take place regarding coffee, chocolate, and other foods. In terms of exercise, there always seems to be disagreement on how much we should exercise, and how intensely, and the debate of strength training versus cardio itself is certainly nothing new.
However, the newest version of this debate demonstrates a fundamental disconnect in the way that the medical community addresses how we can best improve our health. When the language is parsed it is clear that what Karas is concerned with, more than anything else, is weight loss. What the cardiologists are concerned with is the health of the heart.
Aren't these two things the same? Not necessarily. Some studies have shown that physical activity is a greater determinant than simply being overweight in causing cardiovascular disease. For example, a 2004 study for the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) titled "Relationship of Physical Fitness vs Body Mass Index With Coronary Artery Disease and Cardiovascular Events in Women" concluded that "overweight women were more likely than normal weight women to have [coronary artery disease] risk factors, but neither BMI nor abdominal obesity measures were significantly associated with obstructive [coronary artery disease] or adverse [cardiovascular] events after adjusting for other risk factors." Furthermore, the data showed that "higher self-reported physical fitness scores were independently associated with fewer [coronary artery disease] risk factors, less angiographic [coronary artery disease], and lower risk for adverse [cardiovascular] events." In the most basic terms, this means that being fat doesn't necessarily cause more heart problems, but being more active does prevent them.
So why does the medical community so often stress the need to lose weight? Why don't the medical community and the news media tout these new findings and urge us to be active and healthy, and to not necessarily worry about losing those unsightly pounds? While the answers to these questions are probably complicated and multiform, we can say one thing for certain. The drive to lose weight, in a roundabout way, probably doesn't lead people to become healthier-in fact, if anything, it frequently results in the opposite. So many overweight people, desperate for solutions, turn to a number of unhealthy activities. Two examples are starvation diets--trying to eat as little as possible (or eating one low-calorie food excessively) and setting themselves up for inevitable bingeing on high-calorie "taboo" food; and the Atkins diet, having participants eating food loaded with saturated fat which has been shown to raise LDL (bad cholesterol) levels, a known cause of heart disease. It seems that the "Cardio-free diet" is just another instance of heart health being sacrificed in the name of shedding fat.
Losing weight is a difficult enterprise, and certainly health benefits are associated with doing it in a healthy manner. However, dieters who take on exercise routines are often disappointed when results are less than immediate. Instead of exercising only to lose weight, as a nation we should be mindful of the other positive benefits of exercise. Other than preventing heart disease, studies suggest that regular, moderate, aerobic exercise lowers the risk for developing type 2 diabetes in overweight people, even if they don't lose weight. In addition, exercise can be very helpful psychologically, significantly reducing stress levels.
So, try to find an activity you enjoy, whether it is walking with your family, biking, hiking, or even doing laps around the mall. If you can, find the time to strength train as well, even if it means doing pushups and crunches. And don't do it only to lose weight, but rather, for your own health's sake.
"Is Cardio free the way to be?" page;=1
University of Maryland Medical Center Website: