Without over-thinking it, quickly ask yourself, “What's the reason for what I'm doing in the gym and in my diet”? If you had to think about it for longer than a couple of seconds, then you might need to re-evaluate your approach, or at least the reason for it. The reason this is a great question to ask is because it causes you to view your actions through the lens of your end goal. Do they align? Are they random?
Most goals probably fall under a few categories; general weight loss/health, aesthetics, performance and recreation. General weight loss and health most likely require a modicum of exercise along with some general but not drastic nutritional intervention. This might be the person who needs to lose 40lbs and deal with some insulin sensitivity issues but just wants to lose enough to live to be able to play with their grand kids. Aesthetics doesn't necessarily concern itself with health as creating enough of an energy deficit to lose fat or enough total calories to gain muscle is the end goal. Many people achieve lean physiques at the expense of their metabolic health, living off of 1500 calories a day, everyday to maintain their results. Performance also does not concern itself primarily with health because performing a specific task is the end goal, many of which are not traditionally considered healthy themselves. Professional football would not be what I would consider healthy, with the head injuries, ACL tears, broken bones and general wear and tear on a person's body. Nevertheless, performing at this level requires a diet that also may not be sustainable for the long term, regardless of healthy or not. Lastly, recreational exercisers may participate in sport or go to the gym simply because they enjoy it. Maybe their goals include aesthetics, health and performance but the overall reason may be simply because they “like” it.
I would also divide the modalities people use for these goals in the most general terms, usually involving a specific sport, weigh training or aerobic exercise. I only have a handful of people I know that choose to play a sport as their means of recreation and health; one of them participates in roller derby which I think makes her an outlier of sorts but is totally cool nonetheless. Before the surge in weight training, many people got their exercise from playing pickup basketball in the local park or swimming, playing racquetball etc at the Y. Now, most sport activity is left to the athletes. The rest of us generally fall into two camps. Weights or aerobic exercise. Deny it all you want, but people usually tend to lean towards one or the other.
If your goal isn't to play a team sport then weight training leaves you powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, strongman and bodybuilding as your sport options. Aerobic activity has some more options including all sorts of marathons, mud runs, tough mudder-style races and even the odd 5k walk.
So, what to choose? Let's break this down by goal.
General Health/Weight Loss
I think this one is the easiest to prescribe exercise for, as a mixed modality usually works great for these people and I am going to include recreational exercisers here too. If you've been sitting on the couch for the last two decades, simply going for a walk is going to improve your health. From there, a mix of moderate intensity weight training and aerobic exercise can work wonders. I am not married to the idea of specifically one exercise prescription or the other, but getting this population to do some lower intensity aerobic activity is good as it is very self-limiting, gets the heart rate increased, improves circulation, mobilizes body fat and gives the exerciser the feeling of work. We hate being out of breath, but also, I think we secretly LOVE being out of breath; makes us feel we worked hard and I'm no exception. From here, weight training is definitely a great option too as heavier loading improves bone mass, which really requires more compressive loads than aerobic activity can provide. It also encourages muscle mass increase, which IS your metabolism. Weight training increases total recovery time leading to greater energy expenditure and the intense muscle contractions increase Glut4 activity in the muscles. Glut4 respond to insulin and pull glucose into the muscle cell. For those of us without great insulin sensitivity, weight training activates Glut4 without any insulin which is perfect for diabetics.
Imagine insulin as a UPS man. Your house is the muscle cell and the package he is delivering is glucose. Great insulin sensitivity means the UPS man knocks once with a package for you and you answer immediately. Poor insulin sensitivity means the man knocks and knocks with no answer. Maybe he goes away and comes back later (more insulin). If no one continues to answer, he brings the package back to the depot (your fat stores). The package should go to your house but the depot will ALWAYS take it. Weight training activates Glut4 which is basically like you waiting at the end of your driveway for any and all packages. At this point, the UPS man doesn't need to knock on your door, you are already ready to grab that package(glucose) with or without his help. Aerobic activity doesn't do this, so keep that in mind.
While I am not endorsing this approach, may people can achieve a level of aesthetics without particular attention to health. Creating enough of a calorie deficit can get people to a certain point before they have to really dial things in. I always think of the Cheerios commercial that says there is evidence that eating Cheerios for breakfast may reduce the risk of heart disease. Yeah, if you were eating a 6-stack of pancakes every morning before that! Now we are just talking the lesser of two evils. It is really easy to get caught up in energy expenditure while training for aesthetics. If you look at the energy expended during aerobic exercise vs weight training, the aerobic activity usually beats weight training for energy used while exercising. Most people forget that your body doesn't operate in a vacuum and continues to work on recovery long after you are done exercising. This is where weight training trumps aerobic activity, because of the intense recovery needed for repairing muscle tissue damage, your body expends much more 24 hour energy to recover. Aerobic activity generally expends energy during activity and nothing else. This next part is also going to be hard to hear: the energy expended during most exercise, regardless of modality is nowhere near what you think it is and the calories are probably going to be a few hundred burned. You could easily eat that in a handful of almonds.
The reason for improvements in body composition come primarily from the diet. From there, exercise is more hormonal than it is simply energy in vs energy out which is why trying to match calories expended to eaten will be an exercise in futility.
For aesthetics, don't lose sight of the power of weight training for maintaining your muscle mass (metabolism) and creating a more positive hormonal shift. Aerobic activity certainly does work for energy expenditure at this point but your diet has to be in check for it to be beneficial in aesthetic terms. I've explained the hormonal response and energy expenditure relationship in a different post so I won't reiterate it here. Just remember, aerobic activity is great here, but muscle needs to be maintained for a healthy metabolism and most importantly diet needs to be in check. What do I mean by in check? Probably more protein than you think, more veggies than you think, high quality monounsaturated, saturated and Omega-3 fats and starchy carbohydrates need to A. match your level of tolerance to them and B. activity level.
We generally think of sports performance as basketball, baseball, soccer and any basically anything ESPN churns out. I would definitely consider yourself involved in sports though, if you are training for a specific purpose. Crossfit W.O.D, mud run, powerlifting meet, marathon, bodybuilding, club sports, strongman etc all require specific training, specific goals and hence more attention paid to certain energy systems.
This is where most of us training for a certain goal get irked by general fitness questions. Our culture has been so inundated by running as the end all and be all of health that anything outside of this isn't really considered healthy. Just like cholesterol, saturated fat, meat, eggs, coffee, white rice etc etc will all destroy your health, somehow running is the absolute savior of the world. Dr. Hatfield once posted on his website a description of an exercise involving thousands of repetitive knee and hip flexion motions combined with intense shear and compressive joint loading, and possibly dangerous implications for the spine, knees, hips and ankles. He outlined all the Newtons of force it produced and the wear and tear on the body. Want to know what it was?
Bad news time, all exercise is “undue” stress on your body, maybe with the exception of walking. Breathing air filled with smog and exhaust causes excess oxidative damage to your cell's mitochondria. Sitting at your desk in hip flexion eight hours a day is pretty bad for posture and proper muscle activation and use. So at this point, lets just drop what exercise is healthy and which isn't. We don't train to run 26 miles, squat 500lbs or get to 5% body fat for our health.
With this in mind, your training should reflect your goals. I get asked all the time why I don't do any cardio. Aside from the fact that long slow aerobic work is completely out of line with my goals, I do perform some short rest, interval style work every week to maintain metabolic health. However, aside from running, people equate boot camp style training with cardio. If you can only perform an exercise for about 30 seconds to a couple of minutes during an interval in your bootcamp, that is hardly aerobic “cardio” work. That's glycolytic. Both in the presence and in the absence of oxygen. More intense weight training falls into this very glycolytic activity too, but your aerobic metabolism is always running to help you recover during a rest period or between sets. Simply keeping rest periods short during weight training will keep you in moderate aerobic shape.
This question gets frustrating to hear because it can take too long to explain to people and it is hard to change someones paradigm about exercise in 30 seconds. Most life activities outside of sitting around or sleeping require more than just pure aerobic metabolism. The strongest people are usually the ones who get asked to help out with life's more stressful activities. Shoveling snow, moving furniture, chopping down a tree, knocking down sheet rock etc.
So, unless we are training for multiple fitness modalities, other types of exercise, up to a point, are going to impede our progress. Would you tell a marathoner he needs to power clean 275 to be more successful in his sport? Would you expect a sprinter to get faster by jogging? You need to train specifically for your goal to achieve it and you only have a limited amount of time, energy and focus to devote to that task. In the case of people who work hard training for a specific sport and actually look good and are generally healthy too, this is where diet really comes into play.
Here's the kicker though...You can train for something, look good and also NOT be healthy. Here's an example.
Just stop and read this now.
And you can also look sort of so-so and be an absolute monster of an athlete. I remember one of the first UFC fights I saw was between Fedor Emelianenko and Kevin Randleman. Judging by appearance I though Randleman would be too strong and explosive for anyone to beat. Not only is he huge at his height but absolutely ripped. Well, Fedor tossed him around like it was his kid brother and that really shattered my appearance/performance correlation. Trying to get Fedor to lean out may have hurt his performance and as crazy as it sounds, maybe (no, definitely) he performs best with that level of bodyfat on him. Plus, no one would dare tell him to lean out to his face.
This is where the lines can get really blurred. You mean I can have a sub 10% body fat and not be healthy? Does this mean I can have a little extra fat on me and actually be healthy and perform better? Does participating in any one exercise modality make you more fit than another? In the end, I believe diet is what is going to produce and direct, the majority of your health and aesthetic results. No amount of running, lifting or sprinting is going to make up for a terrible diet for the majority of us, in regards to health and looks.
So, if your diet is in check and your blood work looks good, you move and feel well, the rest of this equation is filled out by the exercise modality that fits your specific goals. Almost any exercise will get you healthier just because you are challenging your muscles, getting out of your comfort zone and using some energy. In this case, run if you want to run, lift if you want to lift or do a little of each if you want to be more well-rounded. Training for a specific sport or athletic goal is going to take more focus and dedication on specific tasks however and sometimes health the way we view it takes a bit of a back seat. This doesn't mean to just eat whatever you want but training hard means we get hurt, burned out, scarred, bruised and worn down. Not all the time but it definitely happens. Aside from bodybuilding though, training for specific athletic goals means that being ripped may impede your progress. As noted in the article I linked, the way someone looks or the results they have had may be achieved irregardless of how they choose to eat and train. As Layne Norton said recently in an interview, “many people achieve their goals in spite of themselves”. Comparing yourself especially to professional athletes is a lose-lose situation. Hershell Walker is famous for only doing pushups to train for the NFL, Michael Phelps ate absolute garbage to fuel his swimming and many pro's like Dwight Howard look amazing even when they eat like crap.
Your Definition, Not Mine
Don't let someone else's definition of fitness get in the way of your goals. Remember, fitness is simply “the ability to complete a task”. Maybe your fitness includes seeing how far you can shotput your mom's potted plants across the backyard....maybe it's something more traditional. So if you have certain athletic goal, it's focus may come before ridiculous levels of leanness or a perfect HDL/LDL score. Here, diet is your means to a more athletic end, although health doesn't need to be sacrificed.
However, if you are simply after general health and being a reasonable weight, then consider the exercise choice you enjoy most to stay active and focus on your diet for fat loss. Here, diet is a means to your health and body fat ends, not specifically performance.
Maybe this means you aren't even using the energy systems you think you are. Maybe you aren't burning the calories you think you are. Maybe it doesn't matter. Some people stay lean no matter what they eat, some of us are gifted athletes no matter how we train and some of us need stop comparing ourselves to others as a litmus test of how we are doing. A big resurgence in the weight training community is the idea that you aren't all that special when it comes to diet and exercise, that you just need to train hard and eat reasonable. This recent article gave some great insight into why each of us is so different, especially when it comes to diet (and exercise).
Use this information to help you direct your goals and align your actions with the results you are looking for. Then, just stop comparing yourself to everyone else, as you can see how many variables in looks, health and performance there are from person to person and goal to goal. This alone should give you the confidence to explain to someone why you don't run for “health”. If you see me running, chances are you should run from whatever is chasing me too.