Fitness Flash: Pumping iron versus pounding the pavement

As someone who runs out of breath trudging (slowly) up the three flights of stairs to my room, I don’t put a lot of time into exercise.

Mary Brunelli ’12 works up a sweat training in the estrogen. Photo by Emily Norkett, contributing photographer.

If I’m going to work out, I demand that it be efficient. If you’re like me, you too have wondered whether to designate that daily half hour of exercise recommended by the U.S. Health Department to cardio or weight training. Often, these two forms of exercise are pitted against each other. People who do cardio are afraid that pumping iron will bulk them up and make them slower; people who weight train worry that excessive aerobics will prevent them from building muscle mass. The College’s gym arrangement exacerbates this ostensible animosity between the two: The estrogym has all of the aerobic machines, while the lower gym contains exclusively weights. I decided to catch up with the very fit Mary Brunelli ’12 and Eric Outterson ’12, who do both cardio and weight lifting, to find out how my time would be best spent.

“I was a cross country runner for a long time,” Brunelli said. “I love it. It’s very relaxing and satisfying.” Outterson said he gets a similar rush from weightlifting in the morning. “It gives me a sense of accomplishment that lasts throughout the day.” Indeed, an abundance of scientific evidence vouches for the mental benefits of both a hard lift and a long jog. The New York Times’s “Well Blog” reports that many forms of exercise cause the brain to release more serotonin, a neurotransmitter that reduces fatigue, stress and depression. Endorphins, which reduce pain and induce feelings of euphoria, are also released by the pituitary gland during workouts.

Beyond psychological health, cardio strengthens the heart and lungs. More blood can be pumped through the body with fewer beats, and that blood is richer in oxygen. Cardio slashes risk of heart disease, stroke, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, Type II diabetes and obesity, according to “Well Blog.”

Perhaps aerobics might be the way to go when you’re cramming for midterms. When more oxygenated blood reaches the brain, cognition and memory function improve, according to Internal Medicine. Certainly, Brunelli’s experience would seem to support this hypothesis. “One of my secrets is that instead of listening to music when I run, I memorize poems,” Brunelli said. “I know more than three dozen long ones by heart now.”

Both forms of exercise aid in weight control. “Generally you burn more calories doing cardio,” Brunelli said. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise reports that, on average, weightlifting torches 8-10 calories per minute, while cardio burns 11-12. This is because most lifters rest between sets. Unfortunately, those breaks allow the heart rate to drop back down, so you don’t burn as many calories during the workout.

However, Brunelli suggested that there’s more to the story. “Long term, weightlifting can end up being just as important [for weight loss],” she said. Outterson agreed: “Weightlifting builds muscle. To maintain that muscle, your body has to burn a lot of calories just to keep it up,” he said. While you might not torch as many calories during the workout, your body continues to burn calories after you stop exercising, even while you’re vegging out on the couch.

Which form of exercise is safer? In Brunelli’s experience, cardio poses a higher risk of injury than hitting the weights. “Cardio can really wear you down if you’re not conscientious about it,” she said. Strains, sprains, tears, fractures and breaks are common hazards for those committed to cardio. When used properly, weights are the safer choice because you can moderate better how you’re feeling and stop if you’re experiencing pain. “You have to learn how to use them properly though,” Outterson said.

Weight training can help make cardio safer. “Weight training helps you improve form,” Brunelli said. According to Brunelli, if you lift, you’re less likely to be injured doing intense cardio because your muscles are stronger, and you’ve learned coordination and balance. Furthermore, weight training increases muscle mass, helping the body move with more speed and strength in any kind of exercise activity. “On the other hand, cardio also increases your endurance for weight training,” Brunelli said. If the heart and lungs are stronger, you can lift heavier weights for longer.

“Anyone interested in general fitness would be remiss not to include both cardio and weights,” Outterson said. Thus it seems the solution to the weight training vs. cardio conundrum is clear: Do both.