Endurance Exercise May Boost Cells More Than Strength Training, Study Says

Man biking

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Key Takeaways

  • Aerobic activity can produce beneficial changes in part of your cells, a new study suggests.
  • This effect can improve cellular health, which in turn may lower risk of chronic diseases.
  • While strength training doesn’t provide this cellular boost, it has other benefits that are helpful in a fitness mix, experts note.

Endurance exercise such as running or biking seems to produce beneficial changes at the cellular level in a way that strength training does not, according to research in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

“This is one more reason to focus on staying active,” says study co-author Ferdinand Von Walden, MD, PhD, assistant professor of clinical muscle physiology at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. “Not only will you improve metabolic health, but you can also increase longevity.”

About the Study

Researchers looked at 30 participants who were randomized to either an endurance exercise, resistance exercise, or no-exercise control group. Before and after the session, skeletal muscle biopsies and blood samples were collected, and researchers found that those in the endurance group showed increased mitochondrial activity, while the other two groups did not.

This is important because mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cells, says Dr. Von Walden. The more robust your mitochondrial activity, the more likely you are to have good metabolic health, he notes. That translates to good cholesterol numbers, normal blood pressure, and well-regulated blood sugar.

More Endurance Benefits

In addition to providing more fuel for our cells, endurance exercise is often highlighted in research for numerous other advantages as well. Some of these benefits include improved oxygen usage, better blood flow, and improved heart and lung function. Endurance exercise also can improve metabolism, lower cancer risk, and lead to a longer life.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), endurance exercise doesn’t need to be done every day to reap these benefits. The AHA suggests starting your exercise program slowly if you’ve been sedentary, and beginning with just 10 to 15 minutes per session with activities like walking, jogging, swimming, and biking.

Over time, it is advisable to build up to 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity per week, the AHA notes. It is also best to spread that out throughout the week rather than loading it up on weekends.

Getting Stronger

Although the recent study did not find a cellular boost from strength training, that certainly doesn’t mean this type of exercise isn’t useful. Also called resistance training, this type of exercise has been found to have benefits like improved muscle mass, increased strength, reduced lower back pain, higher bone density, and decreased risk of falls. It can even help people manage their blood sugar levels more effectively.

Strength training is particularly important as you age because muscle mass is naturally decreased over time, while body fat percentage is likely to increase if you are sedentary. This type of training also enhances your quality of life, helps manage chronic conditions, and can even sharpen your thinking skills.

Duck-chul Lee, PhD

Lifting any weight that increases resistance on your muscles is the key, even if that means carrying heavy shopping bags

— Duck-chul Lee, PhD

More muscle also translates to other metabolic benefits, according to a 2018 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. In that research, participants who did strength training had a considerably lower risk of heart attack or stroke after spending less than 1 hour lifting weights once a week.

Also, resistance training does not need to involve buying a set of dumbbells or joining a gym, says the lead author of that study Duck-Chul Lee, PhD, associate professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University.

“Lifting any weight that increases resistance on your muscles is the key, even if that means carrying heavy shopping bags,” Dr. Lee says.

Mix It Up

To get the benefits of both endurance and resistance training, the ideal strategy is to do both in some form each week, according to Kate Ayoub, DPT, a doctor of physical therapy and health coach at Own Your Movement.

Kate Ayoub, DPT

The best first step for starting exercise is to find activities you enjoy doing, instead of ones you think you need to do.

— Kate Ayoub, DPT

That doesn’t mean you need to make going to the gym into a part-time job, but it is helpful to start getting more movement into each day, she suggests.

Finding opportunities to increase endurance and strength might include activities like going for a brisk walk after dinner or carrying shopping bags to your car instead of using a cart, for example. At some point, it’s helpful to begin putting together a fitness plan that incorporates more structured exercise, she says.

“The best first step for starting exercise is to find activities you enjoy doing, instead of ones you think you need to do,” suggests Ayoub. “Take time to explore more aerobic and strength exercises and see what resonates with you.”

What This Means For You

A recent study suggests endurance exercise can provide benefits at the cellular level while strength training does not. But an ideal fitness strategy would include both types. If you are interested in starting a new exercise regimen, talk to a healthcare provider first.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. von Walden F, Fernandez-Gonzalo R, Norrbom J, et al. Acute endurance exercise stimulates circulating levels of mitochondrial-derived peptides in humansJournal of Applied Physiology. 2021;131(3):1035-1042. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00706.2019

  2. American Heart Association. Endurance exercise (aerobic).

  3. Westcott WL. Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2012;11(4):209-16. doi:10.1249/JSR.0b013e31825dabb8

  4. Harvard Health Publishing. Weight training may boost brain power.

  5. Liu Y, Lee D-C, Li Y, et al. Associations of resistance exercise with cardiovascular disease morbidity and mortalityMedicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2019;51(3):499-508. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000001822

By Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition.