What does your exercise routine look like today? Are you taking early-morning neighborhood walks? Tuning into yoga videos online? Doing strength training in your backyard? Taking classes in a gym? Working with a personal trainer? Running local trails?
If you’re moving regularly, you’re on the right track. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults between the ages of 18 to 64 engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity (think a brisk walk) and engage in strength training twice in a week; for adults over 65, the recommendation is the same, with the addition of balance exercises.
Nicole Thompson, ACE Certified Personal Trainer, Medical Exercise Specialist, Group Fitness Instructor, and Health Coach as well as an ACE Senior Fitness Specialist and Fitness Nutrition Specialist, says that the combination of cardio, strength training, and balance noted in these guidelines is key: “It’s ideal to incorporate strength (or resistance) training, cardiorespiratory training, and balance and flexibility in a routine because this approach allows you to train different muscle groups, prevent injury, and improve cardiovascular stamina.”
For example, Thompson notes, if your routine is a morning run each day, that’s great for cardiorespiratory (cardio) health, but keep in mind that the repetition of a daily run can be tough on the body. “If you’re constantly engaging the same muscle groups, that can lead to injury. Incorporating a well-balanced program that includes cardio, strength training, and stretching can help you avoid injury and improve performance.”
While everyone can benefit from this three-pronged approach, individual goals are also important to consider in drafting a plan that will achieve personal objectives—endurance, muscle tone, or weight loss, for example. And, perhaps most important, a balanced routine should be one that you enjoy. “Do what makes you happy because that’s the exercise you’ll stick with,” Thompson says.
So, while there are plenty of attention-grabbing headlines that play to the strength-or-cardio debate, a more common-sense approach, which also includes flexibility training, will lead to better overall health and long-term fitness. Understanding that an integrated plan is the goal, recognizing the benefits and some basic guidelines related to each of these three elements can be helpful in developing a productive, enjoyable routine.
Thompson says that strength training provides benefit across a wide spectrum of goals, from weight loss to endurance to injury prevention to muscle definition. “Resistance training increases your resting metabolic rate, which can help overall caloric expenditure, and it can help reduce injury, provide stability to joints, and relieve some of the repetitive landing forces your body experiences through weight bearing activities, such as running or jumping.”
While popular belief once held that cardio exercise was the way to burn calories, new research indicates that strength training burns more calories than once believed. Furthermore, strength training creates a metabolic spike, so your body continues to burn calories even after you’re done—in fact, a University of Wisconsin study found that metabolism was elevated for 39 hours after lifting weights. What’s more, a greater percentage of calories are burned from fat during this time.
For every three pounds of muscle you build, you’ll burn an extra 120 calories a day—just doing nothing. It’s a fact. Muscle takes more energy to sustain, so by building muscle, you’re eliminating fat and trimming your physique.
Strength training can also combat sarcopenia, the loss of muscle strength and function that occurs with aging, and osteoporosis, or bone loss, both of which are significant health concerns for women. , In fact, a balanced exercise routine that includes strength training can go a long way to fight many health conditions related to aging, including increased risk of heart attack and stroke, and improve cognitive function.
While a full-body approach to strength training is ideal for overall fitness, targeting specific areas can provide benefit for specific injury prevention and body sculpting or toning. Focusing on core strength, for instance, can help prevent back pain and improve posture; strengthening hips and glutes can help runners improve alignment and form, reducing injury and increasing efficiency.
And while those new to strength training may be concerned this aspect a fitness plan means hours in the gym lifting heavy weights, Thompson notes that strength training can be easily carried out at home, with little or no equipment. “If you don’t have weights at home, body weight exercises—think push-ups, squats, lunges—are a great option,” she says. If you do want to lift something, household items will do just fine. “I have a client who filled a backpack with textbooks and did squats,” Thompson says. “Just be open and get creative, and you’ll find there are plenty of ways to strength train at home.”
If you’re ready to move beyond basic household items and purchase a few items for home, consider investing in multi-purpose items like a yoga mat, stability ball, and resistance bands, plus a foam roller for stretching. And don’t forget all the online resources at your fingertips—many free of cost—from videos and exercise diagrams to workout apps. The bottom line: find the equipment and routine that works for you and keeps you motivated to move.
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Cardiorespiratory exercise provides a wide range of benefits that can contribute to overall wellbeing. Regular cardio exercise helps build stamina and reduce fatigue, improving endurance, and it burns calories. People who do regular cardio exercise are less susceptible to colds and flu, as cardio exercise has been found to activate the immune system and fight off infection.
Regular cardio exercise has also been shown to prolong life. Aerobic exercise promotes oxygen delivery to the muscles and improves heart health. A stronger heart pumps more blood with each beat. Cardio exercise has been shown to prevent inflammation, raise good cholesterol levels, and reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, stroke, and even certain types of cancer.
Perhaps less widely known, but equally important, is the positive benefit that regular cardio exercise can have on cognitive function and mental health. Research has shown that aerobic exercise has a clear benefit to cognitive function, including reasoning, planning, and problem solving., And, cardiovascular exercise releases endorphins and elevates serotonin levels in the brain, which helps alleviate depression and relieve stress. In fact, just 15 minutes of cardio several times a week can significantly reduce anxiety.
As you plan a balanced exercise routine, a good rule of thumb for cardio exercise is to align with the CDC guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week. If you’re not certain what “moderate intensity” really feels like, Thompson advises gauging your ability to talk easily while moving as a baseline. “If you’re out on a bike ride, a walk, or a run, and you can have a pretty comfortable conversation without breathing hard or needing to pause for breath, that’s a lower intensity,” she says. “As you increase your speed or effort and find you’re struggling to string words together as you move, that’s likely your zone of ‘moderate intensity.’”
In addition, she says, while smartwatches and other gadgets can help you track your intensity and fitness, a low-tech approach of creating a simple scale to self-moderate and understand your personal levels of intensity works as well. “If a 10 is your all-out, full-on effort (maybe sprinting or hiking fast up an incline), leaving you out of breath, and one is your resting, sitting on the couch level of effort, then you know that aiming for a four-to-six level of intensity for that 150 minutes a week is a good goal.”
In whatever way you choose to include cardio into your routine, whether to train for an endurance event, boost your mood, or commit to weight loss, don’t forget to keep strength and flexibility in the loop.
According to the American Council on Exercise, benefits of flexibility training include: greater freedom of movement and improved posture; increased physical and mental relaxation; release of muscle tension and soreness; reduction in risk of injury.
While there is a genetic component to a person’s flexibility, regular training can improve muscle elasticity and reduce stress. In addition, range of motion (ROM) exercises can help maintain mobility in joints, especially important for anyone affected by arthritis, injury, or surgery.
And there is no lack of variety in flexibility training options —from static stretching to myofascial release (think foam roller) to PNF stretching. In addition, yoga can be a powerful tool in your training arsenal, offering a mindful approach to this important aspect of your balanced routine.
If you’re considering incorporating flexibility training into your cardio or strength workout, Thompson says that different stretching techniques can be used at different points for maximum benefit. “I recommend a dynamic warmup to get the blood flowing and the muscle groups activated before you begin exercise and then more static stretching at the end of the workout.”
Do What Moves You
Incorporating cardio, strength, and flexibility into your regular exercise routine can help improve overall fitness and mobility and introduce new variety and fun into your exercise plan. Remember, the best way to ensure you’ll move consistently and accomplish your goals is to enjoy the journey.
 Benefits of Physical Activity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/age-chart.html. Accessed January 27, 2021.
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 Fiatarone MA, Marks EC, Ryan ND, Meredith CN, Lipsitz LA, Evans WJ. High-intensity strength training in nonagenarians: Effects on skeletal muscle. Journal of the American Medical Association. 1990;263(22):3029-34.
 Castells-Sánchez A, Roig-Coll F, Lamonja-Vicente N, et al. Effects and Mechanisms of Cognitive, Aerobic Exercise, and Combined Training on Cognition, Health, and Brain Outcomes in Physically Inactive Older Adults: The Projecte Moviment Protocol. Front Aging Neurosci. 2019;11:216. Published 2019 Aug 14. doi:10.3389/fnagi.2019.00216
 Stern Y, MacKay-Brandt A, Lee S, et al. Effect of aerobic exercise on cognition in younger adults A randomized clinical trial. Neurology Feb 2019, 92 (9) e905-e916; DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000007003
 Benefits of Flexibility. American College of Exercise website. Available at: https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/lifestyle/blog/6646/benefits-of-flexibility/. Accessed March 9, 2021.