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The Rumor: To be healthy, you have to lift weights

You see the buff guys and gals at the gym, lifting far more weight than you would likely ever consider. But you wonder if you should jump in to the weightlifting zone... even though machines leave you cold and free weights have never been your thing. You get your aerobics, but have a nagging feeling you’re missing some essential element of fitness. 

The Verdict: Building muscle is critical to good health

We won’t sugarcoat it: Strong muscles are an indispensable component of a healthy lifestyle. But you don’t have to lift weights to get the bennies -- and even if you do, you don’t have to bulk up.

First things first: Don’t give up the aerobics. “Regular aerobic exercise is where you should be spending most of your time,” says exercise physiologist Michael Bergeron, Ph.D., a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). In fact, the ACSM recommends spending at least of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (like brisk walking) every week.

Once you have the aerobic foundation down pat, though, building muscle strength really boosts your fitness and health. “The benefits of strength are both short-term and long-term,” says kinesiology professor James M. Pivarnik, Ph.D., director of the Human Energy Research Laboratory at Michigan State University.

If you're trying to lose weight, lean body mass -- that is, muscle -- is where the calorie burning really happens. The real goal: Lose body fat and gain muscle. “You can watch your weight, but it’s the kind of weight you have that matters,” says Pivarnik.  “The more muscle mass you have, the better your metabolism.” 

Want strong bones? Muscle pressure stimulates bone building, which lowers your risk of osteoporosis down the line. And there are even more benefits to having muscle strength: stamina, mental focus (especially as you age), a lower risk of depression, lower cholesterol, a lower risk of diabetes and a healthier heart. If you engage in competitive sports, getting stronger can improve performance. When you get older, a lifetime of muscle strength ups the odds that you’ll be able to lift the groceries and be better equipped to care for yourself. These benefits are amongst the reasons that the ACSM recommends that two or three times a week, healthy adults “perform resistance exercises for each of the major muscle groups.”

But you don’t have to lift weights or use machines to get strong. “If everyone did their own yard work, we wouldn’t need dedicated exercise sessions,” says Richard T. Cotton, MA, national director of certification for the ACSM. “Raking leaves in the fall or shoveling snow in the winter are great for both endurance and strength.”

Mixing up exercises in the gym can do both, too. Combining running or walking with using a rowing machine works both lower and upper body, for example. “Running with swimming is a great combination,” says Pivarnik. “So is doing the elliptical with resistance bands.” You’re getting both aerobic conditioning and strength training -- without lifting.

Calisthenics like push-ups or jumping jacks also build strength. Zumba, or indeed almost any group exercise class, incorporates muscle building as well, and yoga has strength-training elements too. Cotton is a big fan of suspension trainers -- those nylon straps with handles that you can hang on a door in your living room. “It’s fitness anywhere,” he says. “Variety is the spice of exercise.” The CrossFit rage is a perfect example of another fitness program that builds both endurance and strength.

Do you prefer to work with machines or free weights? “Machines are a very controlled way to isolate muscle groups,” says Bergeron. “But free weights are more natural. They cause you to exercise neuromuscular control. It’s closer to the real world.”

We tend to think of aerobic endurance as one thing and muscle strength as something totally different. But it’s really a continuum: You can build both aerobic endurance and muscle strength at the same time. “There’s way too much emphasis on optimizing strength and certainly muscle mass,” says Cotton. With free weights or machines, you can improve both endurance and strength with lighter weights and more reps. Instead of setting weight so high that you just can’t push past the 12th repetition, set them lighter so you can do 10 to 15 -- or even 20.

Cotton is a big fan of circuit training, in which you set up a series of stations that work out your lower and upper body, working different muscles at each stop so you don’t rest in between. It’s sometimes combined with aerobic sprints for added cardiorespiratory oomph. “You won’t build the pure muscle strength that weightlifting will build,” says Cotton, “but it’s a fabulous combination of strength and endurance.” 

So, what's all this mean for you? It doesn't matter how you do your strength training, just make sure you work it into your routine. Your body will thank you for it. 


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