What is the best exercise to get back in shape?

Exercise is a well established tool to keep healthy. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends a minimum of 150 min endurance exercise a week and 20 min of resistance exercise two to three times a week (click here for more details).This is only a minimum indeed and if you are reading this, it is likely that you want to do more to improve your health further. Whatever your goals are, it is important to determine which kind of exercise is the most effective, as we are all short of time.

Cyber Soldier shows prowess in endurance events

Several researchers have studied how and if endurance training, resistance exercise or a combination of both affect health parameters such as body weight, waist circumference, lean body mass, blood lipids, fitness… Lukas Schwingshackl and his colleagues have reviewed these studies to determine which modality would be the most effective, and in December 2013 they published their conclusions in PLoSONE.


The main result was that endurance exercise was the most effective to reduce body weight, waist circumference and fat mass, and to improve fitness (as measured by VO2max). Resistance exercise however, was better to increase lean body mass. There were no significant differences in the improvement of the blood lipids between the exercise modalities.

Researchers use waist circumference to estimate visceral fat, which is an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease. A reduction in waist circumference, suggesting a decrease in visceral fat, is thus an important result. An increase in VO2max is associated with reduced all-cause mortality and a lower risk of cardiovascular risk. Endurance training can thus really improve your life!

Resistance training leads to an increase in lean body mass, thus in muscle mass and strength. This counteracts the loss you normally experience due to aging. This is important, as the tasks of daily life do not become lighter because you are getting older. If you want to stay active and independent in old age you have to maintain your strength.

English: Participant being guided through resi...

Lukas Schwingshackl and his colleagues concluded from their review that combining endurance with resistance training allows us to reap the benefits of both modalities, and is therefore the most promising regimen. However, they admit that this increases the time you spend exercising. In two of the reports they examined, the time even doubled.

If you don’t have time

In 2011, Criz Slentz compared the effects of endurance training, resistance exercise and a combination of both on 249 volunteers, taking great care that everybody was spending the same amount of calories while exercising. He also concluded that endurance training was more effective than resistance exercise to reduce visceral fat and to improve fitness, but he could not notice a difference between the effects of endurance and combination endurance/resistance training. As resistance training is more time consuming, he advised to keep to endurance training.

Can I believe the review?

Lukas Schwingshackl’s review is a meta-analysis, which means that they analysed, evaluated and compared studies done by other researchers in order to come to a conclusion. This saves people like you and me a lot of time and effort!

On the other hand, we have to trust that they have excluded all the bad studies and kept the good ones. In theory, there is always a danger that reviewers cherry-pick the studies they like.

Moreover, reviewers can only analyse studies that have been published. As nobody likes to read negative results or no-reports, only the positive ones get published. It is therefore always possible that a review is biased because of a lack of data. This is called publication bias and is very hard to avoid.

What does it mean for me?

As yet, we can conclude that a training regimen combining endurance and resistance exercise is the best option. If you are short of time however, you should stick to endurance training.

Disclaimer: this article is for general information only, and does not replace medical advice. It cannot be used to diagnose or guide treatment. If you have any concerns or questions, you should talk to a qualified health provider.


Schwingshackl L, Dias S, Strasser B et al. Impact of Different Training Modalities on Anthropometric and Metabolic Characteristics in Overweight/Obese Subjects: A Systematic Review and Network Meta-Analysis. PLoS ONE. 2013; 8(12): e82853. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082853.

Slentz C, Bateman L, Willis L et al. Effects of aerobic vs resistance training on visceral and liver fat stores, liver enzymes, and insulin resistance by HOMA in overweight adults from STRRIDE AT/RT. American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2011; 301: E1033-E1039. doi: 10.1152/ajpendo.00291.2011.

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