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Lift Weights to Lose Weight?

There is a lot of confusion out in the world as to what is the best exercise routine to lose weight. Is it exclusively cardio? Is it exclusively weight training? Or is it a combination of weight training and cardio? The answer to this question actually varies. All three of these paths derive different outcomes. There are always two items we need to check before doing anything else and that is the individual's diet and goals. We can't out-train a poor diet. There is also a difference between losing body mass and losing fat mass. If we are losing body mass that means the combination of fat and muscle, which should always be avoided. Some individuals are not interested in losing weight but instead are looking to build muscle. In this case, the individual would want to avoid doing too much cardio. Cardio can inhibit muscle growth for 2 main reasons. The first reason is the additional fatigue that cardio causes. If it prevents adequate recovery, we will be unable to strength train efficiently. The second reason is because of the disruption of cell signaling, related to the growth of muscle.

A Duke University study in 2012 enrolled 234 overweight adults with diabetes and split them up into 3 groups: cardio only, strength training only, and a balance between strength training and cardio. Here is what the study concluded:

The aerobic group, which consisted of solely running, walking, and swimming, lost the most total weight. The only issue here is it was measured in body mass. The individuals lost both fat and lean muscle mass. Our goal is always to build or at a minimum, preserve muscle mass. Strength is never a weakness. One could make the argument that lean muscle mass and bone density is the key to longevity.

The strength training group actually increased weight, but this increase was purely because of lean muscle mass. The unfortunate outcome was that this group did not lose any fat mass.

The combination group lost fat mass (not as much as the aerobic group), as well as put on lean muscle mass. This group also had the largest decrease in waist size.

Neither weight training nor cardio as a stand-alone, burn as many calories as we’d hope to believe (about 300-500 per hour), but theories suggest that weight training increases resting metabolic rate (RMR). RMR determines how many calories are burned while at rest.

What does all of this mean? Diet is the priority, but there is no one-size-fits-all. We can recommend that a combination of strength training 3-4x a week in tandem with 2-3 days of high-intensity or long cardio days is the base formulation to make body changes. We must revisit and understand that there is a difference between losing fat mass and losing body mass. Losing body mass is not a good thing. Muscle is a commodity, hence why it is so easily lost. An individual with minimal muscle mass is more at risk for reduction of autonomy of life rather than an individual who has adequate muscle mass. To wrap it up, the steps to success are simple: eat the appropriate amount of calories, lift heavy weights that are relative to you, and participate in some form of aerobic activity. Focusing on these 3 things will give you a balance that leads to successful weight loss, lean muscle growth, and better overall health.

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