Cardio v. Resistance: What Are the Benefits of Each?

First, let’s address the basics. While both cardio and resistance/strength training are forms of exercise, the workouts that fall into each group are vastly different. For example, cardio—short for cardiovascular exercise—includes activities like running, cycling, swimming, and even Zumba. 

Cardio exercises are aerobic—in which oxygen is used in the body to increase your breathing and heart rate—and are therefore commonly identified as workouts that makes you breathe harder and faster and increase your heart rate. 

On the other hand, resistance training, also called strength or weight training, includes workouts like lifting free weights, doing pilates or yoga, and using weight machines. To get into the nitty gritty, they're anaerobic activities that aim to increase strength, boost endurance, and build muscle.

Next, let’s review the benefits of each form of exercise.

Cardio has a jumble of benefits beyond burning calories, which is its most commonly cited pro. For example, a 2005 study found that a mere 15 minutes of aerobic activity two to three times a week can reduce anxiety significantly, and that exercising three to five times a week can cut fatigue by nearly 50%. 

Cardio also boosts your body’s aerobic capacity, and thereby trains your heart and lungs to more effectively move oxygen throughout your body. On top of that, research has found cardio activity can reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, stroke, and even certain types of cancer. 

Resistance training has its own benefits as well. Studies have shown that strength training effectively increases your resting metabolism, which means that you burn more calories when idle. The reason for this is that, at rest, muscle burns more calories than fat does. 

Resistance training can also help prevent injury by increasing bone density and building stronger muscles to support joints. It can increase an individual’s mitochondria count, and decrease the risk of diabetes and high blood pressure. Plus, a 2017 study linked resistance training with decreased anxiety for both individuals with physical or mental illnesses and healthy individuals. 

Now, it’s time for the comparison. 

According to Wayne Westcott, the Director of Research at the South Shore YMCA, cardio has the advantage when it comes to burning more calories per minute. However, Westcott also remarked that “Lifting weights gives you a metabolic spike for an hour after a workout, because your body is trying hard to help your muscles recover. That means you'll fry an additional 25 percent of the calories you just scorched during your strength session."

In short, cardio workouts burn more calories than resistance exercises, and are thereby more effective at reducing fat and body mass. However, in the long run, resistance training elevates metabolism for longer, slightly increases the body’s resting metabolism, and aids in building muscle.