Life's a Balancing Act. When You Need To Prioritize Your Workouts, What's the Most Important Type of Exercise To Do?

Balancing Weightby Maren Sederquist, MES, CSCS, CPT

You may have heard there are 3 components of fitness: cardiovascular fitness, strength and flexibility. I'd actually add a fourth component: balance. In these over-scheduled days, how to you fit them all in and prioritize how much of each to do? Although I'd like to see people spending focused time on each component, there's a simple answer for those days that only one element of fitness can be fit it.

Cardiovascular exercise (walking, jogging, biking, etc.) improves your cardiovascular fitness, can help or harm your flexibility depending on your posture and how it's done, has limited help with balance, and does nothing to improve muscular strength.

Flexibility exercises (stretching, yoga, etc.) will improve your flexibility, but will only have any cardiovascular benefit if done in a power yoga format, will only improve balance if balance challenging poses are done (standing on one leg), but only has limited muscular strength benefits if done in very strenuous positions (ones that would fatigue your muscles in less than 20 continuous repetitions).

Balance training obviously would improve your balance, but would have very limited cardiovascular benefits by itself, would only improve flexibility if done in a format like Tai Chi, and would have no strength benefits unless done in combination with a strength exercise.

That leaves us with strength training, which actually has benefits for all four components: strength, cardiovascular fitness, flexibility and balance! In addition, strength is the aspect of fitness we miss most if we decline in health, as we notice our inability to do the things independently that we used to. When in doubt about what you should fit in for the day, don't neglect your strength training!

Here are the reasons strength training is the most important component of fitness:

Improves functional strength

Increases muscle mass

Speeds your metabolism (increases your basal metabolic rate (BMR))

Decreases your body fat percentage

Increases your body's blood sugar tolerance (decreases insulin resistance), and decreases risk of diabetes or helps manage diabetes symptoms

Helps decrease cholesterol levels

Increases bone density to prevent or reverse osteoporosis

Increases your body's ability to regulate your internal temperature

Improves cardiovascular fitness

Boosts self-esteem

Slows aging and even reverses the aging process

Extends your productive life

Helps maintain your physical independence

Improves your posture

Improves your balance

Maintains joint range of motion

Improves movement mechanics

Helps ability to handle stress

Alleviates aches and pains

A balanced exercise program should really include the following minimum for maintenance of health: 30 minutes of moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise 3 to 5 times a week, and 20 minutes of strength training 2 to 3 times a week. Only 5 minutes of flexibility on warm muscles is needed 2 or 3 times a week for specific muscles that are tight or maintenance of range of motion, and 5 minutes of a challenging balance exercise. If you have more time, you can do up to 280 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, 3 hours of strength training, 2 hours of flexibility and an hour of balance exercise per week, to further increase your health and fitness. But since you're balancing your exercise with the rest of your life, usually doing too much is not the problem. When in doubt, don't skip your bare minimum of strength exercises.