Illustration: Sarah Wilkins
Why it’s good to stop obsessing over steps and start training your muscles
Incorporating cardio into the beginning of a weight-loss project can be a euphoric kick start—not just for the obvious endorphin rush but also because, if you’re tracking daily steps and calories, all that movement tends to increase the calorie burn in a meaningful way. Chasing a calorie deficit via cardio often becomes the primary goal of exercise for newbies. That continues until they reach a plateau, at which point the scale refuses to budge.
“Achieving the recommended daily step count is certainly a great starting point,” says Jennifer Sacheck, PhD, associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy of Tufts University. “But think of it as a baseline: Incorporating muscle-strengthening exercises two to three days a week and some extra intensity with both cardio and strength a day or two a week will stimulate strength gains, fitness, and calorie burn.”
The reasons to love strength training go beyond the basic calories-in/calories-out equation. Strength training also slows down the natural effects of aging. According to Sacheck, we lose about 3% to 5% of our muscle mass per decade after the age of 30, and this is exacerbated in women after menopause, especially if they do not engage in muscle-strengthening exercise. Muscle-building tends to increase bone density—a very good thing. But muscle tissue simply burns more calories than fatty tissue does: The more muscle tissues you have, the more calories you burn, automatically.
If you’re averse to doing a strength circuit at your local gym, you can still work a muscle-mass plan into your life. “Simply using your body weight increases strength—think push-ups and lunges,” Sacheck says. “I like the idea of combining these exercises with Pilates or yoga, which help with body awareness, with learning what feels great and which muscles might need more attention.”
Strength training is good for anyone with long-term weight and health goals. It leads to wins in the weight-loss battle, adding motivation when progress starts to stall. “It gets people to the next level, where results are more likely to be seen,” Sacheck says.