Top 10 fitness myths

The truth behind ten common exercise myths

Many of us are given advice by friends and colleagues about supposed ‘facts’ concerning the amount of fitness and exercise that is the right for a healthy, active lifestyle. The press is regularly full of scare stories about the perils of too much or too little fitness training. The reality is that many of those media articles and pieces of advice are inaccurate and shouldn’t put you off exercising. So with that in mind we decided to examine in more detail some of the most familiar fitness myths.

‘No pain, no gain.’

Now let’s nail this one straight away. If it feels uncomfortable and hard work when you are two thirds of the way through a spin class and 5 minutes into a mountain climb, well, that is probably to be expected. However if you feel a sharp pain in your right knee every time you cycle/run, then it is probably a really good idea to stop and see a physio. There is a real difference between finding something hard and experiencing real pain from an injury.

‘Weight training is no good if you want to lose weight’

Although the tendency for so many people is to shy away from the weights area at the gym, the reality is that if you want to lose weight, this is exactly where you need to be heading. A targeted weights session that involves high reps and low weights is going to tone muscles and burn more calories than an aerobic training session. The key is the amount of calories you burn after you finish your session. For women that after burn can account for as many as 350 additional calories. And remember, a higher muscle mass can also boost the body’s metabolic activity, which means more efficient fat and calorie burning all round. Happy days.  

'Low intensity aerobic exercise burns the most fat’

So, let’s dispel this myth once and for all because the facts are these; exercise at a low intensity uses fat as the predominant fuel, while exercising at a high intensity uses mainly carbohydrate. (There’s a continuum between the two, so as exercise gets progressively harder, the amount of carbohydrate used increases and the amount of fat used decreases.) But the trouble is, low intensity exercise doesn’t burn many calories, while tougher workouts burn a great deal. Think of it as two pieces of pie. In the low-intensity pie, a whopping big slice of the calories comes from fat stores. In the high-intensity pie, only a sliver of the calories come from fat stores, but — and this is the crucial bit — the pie is much bigger. So overall, the amount of fat and calories burned is higher the harder you work. Okay?!

'The step machine or step classes give you a big behind’

Now unless you’ve gone berserk and set the resistance on the stepper so high that you can barely move the pedals up and down, the action of stepping will be an aerobic, low-resistance activity. As a result, it won’t present sufficient stimulus to muscle tissue to cause it to grow and therefore won’t have any effect on the size of your backside. Stepping is actually a great cardio workout that will boost aerobic fitness and improve muscular endurance in the legs and glutes. But the main thing to remember is to keep your posture in check: keep the navel gently drawn to spine and tailbone tucked slightly under because stepping with your belly hanging out and your back arched will certainly give the appearance of a big behind!

‘Walking 10,000 steps a day is the only exercise you need'

Hmmm, this is a tricky one! It really does depend on your goals. The 10,000 steps a day guideline is aimed at disease prevention rather than improved fitness. Of course, if you start from a sedentary base then achieving that target on a daily basis will certainly improve your fitness, however it still only counts as low-intensity aerobic exercise. For all-round fitness, you should ideally complement this with shorter but higher-intensity aerobic exercise (such as going for a run, doing a spinning class or circuit training), strength training (using weights or your own body weight for resistance) and flexibility work. Each type of exercise has its own specific benefits which is why it’s never ideal to stick to the same intensity or same method of activity every time.

‘Sit-ups are the best exercise to flatten the stomach’

Sit-ups, crunches and curls — any movement in which you curl your torso forward — work the ‘six-pack’ or rectus abdominis (RA) muscle in the front of the torso. Unfortunately, though, working this muscle doesn’t flatten the stomach. Deep below the six-pack lies a thick, corset-like strap of muscle that goes all the way around the waist, from back to front. This transversus abdominis (TA) muscle is the one that is responsible for flattening the tummy — and yet few of us ever pay it any attention! To activate your TA, put your thumbs on the sides of your waist, level with your navel, and extend your fingers over your pubic bone. Now draw the part of the tummy below the navel backwards (away from the fingers) without lifting the ribs or holding your breath. Practice this regularly throughout the day and once you can ‘engage your core’ (as we say in the trade!), check out. The flatter tummy workout — part 1 and The flatter tummy workout — part 2 for some other good moves to try.

‘The more water you drink when you’re exercising, the better’

While it’s true that our need for fluid increases markedly during exercise, it isn’t necessary to glug down gallons of water to stay hydrated. In fact, the ‘glug’ approach is counter-productive as the body can only deal with so much fluid at once, and if you pour in too much, you’ll simply pee it right out again! Indeed, in some situations (such as prolonged endurance events) you could even put yourself at risk of hyponatremia — a potentially fatal condition. The best approach is to maintain good hydration 24/7, not just 10 minutes before your workout. If you ensure that you drink water and other fluids throughout the day, then you won’t be starting out dehydrated and will get by perfectly well taking a few sips during exercise.

And your stomach won’t be sloshing uncomfortably! International sports authorities have now stopped recommending a certain amount of fluid to drink during exercise, due to the increased number of cases of hyponatremia in recent years. They now suggest you drink according to your thirst, or that you weigh yourself before and after a timed workout and replace the amount of weight loss in grams with the same amount of fluid in millilitres (for example, if you run for an hour and lose half a kilogram in body weight, you should aim to drink 500ml of water during future one-hour runs.)

‘Running is bad for your knees’

Running has long had a bad press for wrecking knees, but provided you train sensibly, wear the right kind of running shoes and do sensible things like warming up, heeding niggling pains and running on a variety of surfaces, it’s actually quite good for them. A study published in the journal Arthritis and Rheumatism showed that, far from increasing the risk of joint problems, running could protect against osteoarthritis by keeping joints and connective tissue strong, mobile and topped up with nutrients. Another study, published in the Journal of Rheumatology, found no difference in the amount or rate of degeneration in the knee and hip joints of runners and non-runners, although both groups experienced some degeneration with age.

‘The more exercise you do, the better’

Believe it or not, there is such a thing as too much exercise. It’s during rest, not exercise, that the body does all the necessary repairs and ‘housekeeping’ to make itself fitter and stronger — so if you take that rest away, you are never going to reach your full potential. You need at least 48 hours between strength training workouts to allow muscles to recover, and while you can do aerobic training and flexibility work daily, it’s wise to go by the ‘hard, easy’ rule — where you follow tough training sessions with a gentler workout the next day. Overtraining will also put you at risk of injury and can compromise your immune system — which may end up costing you weeks away from the gym while you recover.

‘Exercise too late in the evening and it’ll keep you awake’

We’ve long been told that only gentle activity, like yoga or Pilates, is suitable for the latter part of the evening. If we do any other sort of exercise in the evening, we’re warned we could be lying in bed, wide awake, for hours. Not so, according to sleep expert Professor Youngstedt from the University of California. He found that exercise was as effective as sleeping pills in helping insomniacs get to the land of Nod. ‘People should experiment for themselves to see whether exercise promotes better sleep,’ advises Professor Youngstedt. He also found that outdoor exercise was more effective in aiding sleep problems than indoor workouts.

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