Answers to frequently asked questions about whether aerobic exercise is really good for you

Joshua Trentine, President, Overload Fitness

Joshua Trentine, president of Overload Fitness, is letting us in on a fitness secret.

“Aerobic activity is not the most effective activity for fat loss. Steady state activities such as running, cycling, dancing, etc. do not burn a significant number of calories,” he says. “One pound of fat can fuel the body for up to 10 hours of continuous activity. ‘Aerobic’ activity is simply inefficient for this purpose.”

The most important contribution that exercise makes to a fat-loss program is the maintenance of muscle tissue while fat is lost. Strength training is the only reliable method of maintaining muscle tissue.

“Aerobics can actually cause you to lose muscle tissue,” Trentine says.

Smart Business spoke to Trentine about what you need to know before you jump back on the treadmill.

So why do people focus so much on aerobics?

Some supposed ‘experts’ have suggested that the important effect of aerobics is that of increasing metabolic rate. Our question is this: If ‘aerobic’ activities burn few calories while you are doing them, then how many calories will they burn when you are not doing them? The answer to that question: very few.

Every pound of muscle added to the body of an adult female will require an additional 75-100 calories per day just to keep it alive. The average person, through a program of proper strength training can add enough muscle to burn an additional 3500 calories per week (1 lb. of fat = 3500 calories). The amount of strength training required to effect such a change is less than one hour per week.

Don’t we need some form of aerobics to ensure good health? What about my heart?

Remember, the function of the cardiovascular system is to support the muscular system — not the other way around. Increases in muscular strength (from a proper strength-training program) will correlate to improvements in cardiovascular function.

You will notice that the word ‘aerobic’ has been set off in quotation marks when it refers to an activity performed for exercise. There is a good reason for this emphasis: There is no such thing as aerobic exercise! We have all heard that activities such as jogging and cycling are ‘aerobic’ while those such as weight training and sprinting are ‘anaerobic.’ These distinctions are not 100 percent correct. The words aerobic and anaerobic refer to metabolic pathways, which operate continuously at all times and in all activities. You cannot ‘turn off’ either of these pathways by merely increasing or decreasing the intensity of an activity.

Few of the ‘experts’ who promote aerobics will debate our last statement. What they do say, however, is that gentle low-intensity activities use the aerobic pathway to a greater degree than they use the anaerobic pathway. We agree with this statement completely and feel that it should be taken to its logical conclusion: The most ‘aerobic’ activity that a human being can engage in is sleeping.

Elevated heart rate, labored breathing and profuse sweating are not indicators of exercise intensity, exercise effect, or exercise value. Intense emotional experiences commonly cause these symptoms without a shred of exercise benefit.

Why can’t I weight train and do ‘aerobics’ activities that I enjoy?

‘Aerobics’ activities are dangerous! Running is an extremely high-force activity that is damaging to knees, hips and back. Aerobics dance is probably worse. And so called ‘low impact’ classes or activities like stationary cycling are not necessarily low force. Don’t be fooled by the genetic exceptions who protest that they have never been injured — overuse injuries are cumulative and we are often not aware that we have them until it is too late. In time, the enthusiastic aerobics-dance participant or jogger will probably pay the price for all that ‘healthy’ activity — a decrease or loss of mobility in one’s later years.

Exercise destroys the body. The body, being dynamic, responds to this stress by recovering and making it stronger. If we don’t give our bodies enough time to recover from a workout, we’ll never make any progress. By performing activities on your off days, you compromise the progress you could be making. That is not to say you should avoid doing anything, but don’t waste time and recovery resources doing ‘aerobics.’

According to Rick Sharp, PhD., the director of Sports Science and Medicine for the U.S. Olympic Swimming Team, ‘endurance’ training may use up more protein than previously thought, leaving less to build muscles. ‘Aerobics’ exercise compromises muscle gain.

What about low-impact alternatives like walking, or certain machines?

The term ‘low-impact’ is a marketing farce. The machines and activities may in fact be low impact, but they are rarely low-force. You cannot avoid all force in physical activity, of course. But, why subject yourself to it when it is entirely unnecessary?

What about endurance? Won’t my athletic performance suffer if I don’t do aerobics?

Endurance is primarily a result of three factors: skill, muscular strength and genetics. Heritable factors (genetics) are considered to be non-trainable or, in other words, you cannot do much about them. Increasing one’s skill in an activity is a result of practicing that activity. For long-distance runners, skills such as stride length and efficiency can be trained through practice (practice on a treadmill doesn’t serve this purpose as it is not the same as road-running). Muscular strength is the single most trainable factor in endurance performance. It is the muscles that actually perform work. When strength increases, the relative intensity of any given task decreases.

Our bodies’ ability to use oxygen is not as trainable as once believed. Even with some compromise of pulmonary function (illness, injury, etc.) the lungs can usually perform their job quite adequately. It is the muscle’s ability to use the nutrients delivered to it that needs training. This is most efficiently addressed by strength training.

Joshua Trentine is president of Overload Fitness. Reach him at (216) 292-7569 and visit www.overloadfitness.com.

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