Six persistent exercise myths debunked

by Ali on June 27, 2008

This is the eleventh part of the dieting basics series – see the series outline for links to all the other posts so far.

It’s easy to get confused by all the conflicting exercise advice out there. If you haven’t exercised since your school days, don’t rely on half-remembered “wisdom” from back then. Some popular myths about exercising still persist, and you need to be sure that you’re basing your workout on sensible ideas rather than confused bad science.

1. The “No pain, no gain” myth

A couple of decades ago, “No pain, no gain” was a popular mantra. But exercise should not be painful – if a stretch or position hurts, don’t attempt it. If your muscles are so sore the day after a workout that you can hardly move, you overdid things.

There may be some temporary discomfort when exercising – perhaps the occasional ache, or feeling tired out – but pain is a signal to your body to stop.

2. The “spot-reduce fat” myth

Have you ever come across an exercise plan which promises to blitz fat from a particular trouble spot (maybe the stomach, upper arms, or thighs?) Sadly, it’s not possible to spot-reduce fat: when you lose weight, the fat comes off from all over your body. You can tone up specific parts of your body by targeting the muscle groups there, but if you’re carrying an extra layer of fat, this will hide your toned muscles.

Sadly, the only way to get rid of fat is to create a calorie deficit and lose weight gradually over time (see the earlier article in this series on Recommended calorie intake for more information) – there’s no quick fix.

3. The “exercise is boring” myth

Many of us think exercise has to be boring, tedious, time-consuming and repetitive in order to pay off. Perhaps this is because we often believe that something “good for us” can’t be fun. But there are lots of activities that will both give you a great workout and a great time. Try some of these:

  • Your favourite activities as a kid (maybe swimming, ice-skating, roller-blading …)
  • Getting active with a friend or partner (simply walking together, or playing a game of tennis or badminton)
  • Joining a sports team – perhaps start one at work, open to all ability levels (football, or basketball are popular options)
  • Starting a new hobby: you’d be surprised how many “fun” sports there are (trampolining, salsa dancing, medieval sword fighting…)

4. The “fat-burning zone” myth

This one’s a little like the idea that you can spot-reduce fat. Some people believe that you have to be exercising at a certain percentage of your maximum heart rate in order to burn fat – and this myth is perpetuated by those little charts on the machines at the gym which show “fat burning zone” and “cardio zone.”

The truth is that the harder you work, the more calories you’ll burn per minute. Just because your heart rate is above the “fat-burning zone” doesn’t mean you’ll stop burning up fat. When you’re in the zone, it may be the case that a slightly higher percentage of the calories expended come from fat stores rather than the pre-exercise snack you ate – but experts agree that more vigorous exercise will definitely burn more fat overall and have wider fitness benefits.

5. The “if you exercise, you can eat anything” myth

If you’re a typical office worker, perhaps going to the gym three times a week and walking every day, don’t think that your exercise means you can eat as much as you like and not gain weight. Burning 300 to 500 calories in the gym is great – but you could put that straight back on by eating a couple of mars bars.

People with heavy manual labouring jobs can get away with eating a lot – the rest of us can’t. Exercise should form part of a healthy lifestyle, which means eating sensibly too.

6. Women shouldn’t weight train or they’ll bulk up

It’s hard for women to put on muscle, unless they’re making deliberate attempts to. If you’re female, don’t make the mistake of lifting light weights and doing lots of repetitions – you’ll be wasting your time. Choose weights which you can only lift 12-15 times before your muscles are tired; this will help you to tone and shape your body. You won’t pack on muscle by doing this – yes, men do, but that’s because of testosterone.

(Image above by Dru!)

The next four sections of the dieting basics series will cover some “hows and whys” (keeping food diaries, calorie-counting recipes and so on) – make sure you get RSS updates to have each post delivered straight to your feed reader.

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