Which is more important for older people: lifting weights, or doing cardio? I’m a certified personal trainer. Hands down, it’s lifting weights. You can add a cardio component to a weight lifting program, but you can’t add weight lifting to a cardio program.
The closest you can come to incorporating weight lifting into an aerobics session is if the person does something like deep lunge jumps or squat jumps, and these are not practical exercises for older people.
If an older person, who’s never exercised, had to choose between a strength training program and a cardio program, I’d go with the strength training – for several reasons.
A sedentary older person will usually have difficulty with cardio exercise beyond casual paced walking, gentle low impact aerobics, or a pedaling-type machine. It will be quite a while before they can advance to walking hills, jogging and more intense aerobics like a standard step class.
However, weight lifting can be done immediately, and strength increases will come quickly with proper instruction and adherence to correct form and technique. Strength training can be done in a seated position as well.
Lifting weights, far more than cardio, will increase bone density. Cardio won’t do anything for bone density in the upper body, whereas there are countless upper body weight lifting routines that will drive up bone density.
Leg workouts with weights (e.g., squats, leg press) will strengthen the hip and knee joints. These motions mimic those of everyday living. Every time an older person struggles to get out of a car or chair, this is very similar to the joint motions required of a squat or leg press. By performing careful squatting routines and leg presses at a gym, the older person will become much more efficient at everyday tasks such as rising out of a chair.
Older people carry groceries and garbage; upper body weight lifting routines will improve their ability to handle these tasks. Older people would love to scoop up the grandkids. An aerobics program won’t enable them to do this.
Weight lifting has a much higher propensity to burn fat than does aerobics. Also, believe it or not, rigorous cardio is far more likely to be too difficult for the older person to perform, than rigorous strength training. I’ve witnessed this; the old-timer at the gym can barely walk, but can leg press a butt-load and handle heavy dumbbells.
In no way am I invalidating the value of cardio, but old people need strength training more than they need cardio. But fortunately, older folks don’t have to choose! Do BOTH cardio and weight lifting; reap the benefits from both worlds!