Do the benefits outweigh the risks if individuals hold dumbbells in their hands while doing step aerobics or other cardio activities?

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Do the benefits outweigh the risks if individuals hold dumbbells in their hands while doing step aerobics or other cardio activities?

WeightsSimply put, yes—but only if some basic guidelines are followed. Individuals often seek ways to increase the intensity of an aerobic workout. Adding extra weight in the form of hand or wrist weights increases the total mass that must be moved, so it seems logical that using extra weight would be beneficial in boosting the physiological demands of an activity. Research on the use of hand or wrist weights during a variety of different aerobic activities (e.g., walking, traditional aerobics, step aerobics) is very consistent and indicates that the use of 1- to 3-pound (450 to 1350 g) weights can increase heart rate by five to 10 beats per minute and oxygen consumption (as well as caloric expenditure) by about 5 to 15% compared to performing the same activity without weights.

How much is too much?

Weights greater than 3 pounds (1350 g) are not generally recommended, because they may put undue stress on the arm and shoulder muscles and the wrist and elbow joints. In addition, wrist weights are preferred over hand weights because they don’t have to be gripped, which can cause an exaggerated blood-pressure response in some people. It is important to keep in mind that according to some research, roughly two-thirds of the increase in oxygen uptake and caloric expenditure attributed to exercising with hand-held weights is simply the result of more active engagement of the upper extremities. In other words, when individuals hold weights while performing cardio exercise they tend to swing their arms to a greater degree. Thus, individuals can simply and safely rev up the cardio workouts by consciously swinging their arms more.

Are there other options?

Other weight-related options for increasing the intensity of a cardio workout include ankle weights and weighted vests. The beneficial effect of ankle weights is lower than that of either hand or wrist weights. Ankle weights ranging from 1 to 3 pounds (450 to 1350 g) can increase HR by an average of three to five beats per minute and oxygen uptake by 5 to 10% over unweighted conditions. A potential drawback to the use of ankle weights is that they may alter a person’s walking or running mechanics, potentially leading to injury. As a consequence, ankle weights are not generally recommended for use during aerobic exercise activities. Wearing a weighted vest to increase exercise intensity appears to be an effective approach depending upon the magnitude of the load. The metabolic impact of wearing a weighted vest is greatest in activities requiring a significant component of vertical work (e.g., stepping exercise or inclined walking or running). Most experts recommend that individuals wear vests that are 5 to 10% of their body weight to help ensure safety and comfort.

Cedric X. BryantCedric X. Bryant Contributor

As chief science officer for ACE, Cedric X. Bryant, Ph.D., FACSM, represents the organization as an international lecturer, writer and expert source. He has written more than 250 articles and columns for various publications, and he has written, co-written or edited 30 books. Dr. Bryant is an authoritative source on health and fitness for several media outlets including the Washington Post, The New York Times, Time magazine, and CNN. He also currently serves on numerous advisory boards including the Institute of Medicine Obesity Solutions Roundtable, the Osteoarthritis Action Alliance Physical Activity Workgroup, and the Medical Fitness Association's Certification Committee.

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