The goal is simple: Exercise regularly to stay healthy. The US government’s Physical Activity Guidelines state, “When adults do the equivalent of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, the benefits are substantial. These benefits include lower risk of premature death, coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and depression.”
The guidelines note that more health benefits accrue with additional minutes per week of exercise.
But those guidelines give rise to a lot of unanswered questions. As personal trainers have proliferated and the business of exercise has ballooned over the last 20 years (yoga or CrossFit? jogging or sprint cycles?), finding the best exercise for you can be confusing.
A good place to start is to clear away the debris of some exercise myths. Along with the multitude of new forms of exercise has come a rash of claims, not all of them true. Below are seven common exercise myths.
As a physical activity program should be individualized based on a person’s age, weight, family health history, and a host of other factors, make sure to talk to your doctor before launching into a new exercise regimen.
“No pain, no gain”
We have Jane Fonda to thank for this exercise myth that, thankfully, has begun to run its course. Back in the day (in this case 1982), Fonda would use this catchphrase in her aerobic workout videos. Soon, shoe companies, personal trainers, and others in the field joined the pushing-past-your-pain-threshold bandwagon.
When it comes to no pain, no gain—just don’t do it.
Though a solid, sweaty workout that leaves you short of breath is generally a good thing, pushing yourself to the limits of your endurance and past the pain threshold is not. Muscle soreness after a workout is fine. It means you are increasing strength in that area, especially if you are new to exercising. But muscle pain during or after a workout generally means you are injured or on the way.
Instead, the goal is to make sure your workouts are challenging and that you slowly increase the intensity—but always stop before you reach the point of pain and discomfort.
Not only can pushing beyond your limits be painful, but it can also be discouraging. What fun is pain? It could lead you to stop exercising. Talk about no gain.
You need to exercise for at least 45 to 60 minutes for a productive workout
Forget that New Year’s resolution. It’s cold and dark outside, and you don’t have time to go to the gym for an hour before heading to work.
But what if you need only 20 minutes at the gym? And to seal the deal, only exert yourself for half that time?
Now, if your goal is to lose weight (or train for a marathon), exercising for as long as you can at a high intensity may be the right path for you. But many of us just want to get in better shape and make sure we are heart healthy.
Recent research has shown that short, high-intensity workouts could achieve this goal as well or even better than longer sessions. Instead of exercising moderately for 60 minutes, you can push yourself harder for 20 minutes and achieve the same benefits. A 2012 Arizona State University study indicated that frequent bursts of energy output may even be better for lowering blood pressure than one longer session.
A variation of this is interval training. It looks like this: you push yourself as hard as you can for a short period, such as one or two minutes, and then rest for a few minutes before doing it again, for a few more rounds.
“A short, high-intensity workout can be very effective,” says Pete McCall, adjunct faculty in exercise science at Mesa Community College in San Diego. “However, it causes a high stress load on the body, so it should only be done twice a week. The other days, do other, less intense workouts.”
Be sure to start slowly and talk to your doctor before launching into a high-intensity exercise regimen.
Stretching before exercise will prevent injury
Do you keep your legs straight, touch your toes, and hold for 30 seconds before working out?
It may not matter. For years, this sort of static stretching was de rigueur prior to exercise. Studies now dispute its value. For example, a 2011 study by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, found that static stretching neither prevents—nor causes—injury before exercising.
The momentum has shifted to dynamic stretching, which mimics, gently, the movements you will make in your activity. For example, a basketball player may swing her arms and do walking lunges and high knee jogs.
Static stretching does have its place—after your workout. Dynamic stretching activates the muscles you will use in a workout and increases your range of motion. During a workout you contract your muscles, so elongating them by stretching afterward resets them in their natural position.
“Static stretching after a workout relaxes the muscles,” says McCall, who is also a personal trainer and teaches for both the American Council on Exercise and the
National Academy of Sports Medicine. “So it will help your nervous system calm down and turn those contracting muscles off.”
You don’t need to exercise because diet is the best way to lose weight
A number of recent studies have shown that the most effective way to lose weight is by dieting. After all, for most of us, it is easier to cut 300 calories out of a daily 2,500 calorie diet than to burn off 300 calories at the gym—the equivalent of 30 minutes of intense effort on a treadmill.
That said, combining diet and exercise will help you shed those pounds more quickly. Plus, to rely solely on diet to lose weight can tempt some people to reduce their exercise regimen—even though exercise has many benefits beyond weight loss.
Aerobic exercise decreases your risk for heart attack or stroke by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It keeps your muscles toned. It maintains bone strength. It relieves stress and can help combat anxiety and depression.
For overall cardiovascular health, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least five days per week, totaling a minimum of 150 minutes; or at least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least three days per week for a total 75 minutes; or a combination of moderate and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. In addition, the AHA recommends moderate to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least two days per week, for additional health benefits.
If your goal is both to lose weight and to maintain overall health, working out combined with dieting is your best bet.
If you’re not working up a sweat, you’re not working hard enough
You’ve just spent 30 minutes pounding away on the exercise bike, but you’re barely sweating. You think, “Did I just waste half an hour of my life?”
Absolutely not. Sweating is the body’s way of cooling itself. As your core body temperature increases, you’ll start sweating. But a number of factors, other than how hard you’re working, go into how much you sweat. First, some people are more prone to sweat than others. Then there’s the physical environment. For example, you’ll sweat less in 40°F weather than in 80°F weather, even if you’re doing the exact same thing. You’ll sweat more the higher the humidity as well. Enter hot yoga.
To best gauge the intensity of a workout, listen to your body. Are you breathing hard? Do your muscles feel as if you have exerted them? Does your body feel tired? The answer very well may be yes to all these questions, even if you never had to wipe sweat off your forehead.
You can focus on losing fat from certain body parts
Did Suzanne Somers ever talk you into buying a ThighMaster? In the 1990s, the ThighMaster infomercial, featuring the popular actress, convinced many women that the device could help firm up flabby thighs.
Unfortunately, the research has shown that spot reduction—the attempt to remove subcutaneous body fat stored in specific areas of the body by performing exercises that target those areas—doesn’t work. These exercises may strengthen the muscles in those areas, but they will not impact the amount of stored fat. Only activities that attack overall body fat, combined with diet, can lead over time to fat reduction in specific areas, or overall.
Crunches in particular seem to be falling out of favor. Not only do they fail to burn enough calories to help your lose weight, but they can be bad for you, as they strain the back by bending the spine. Instead, fitness experts recommend planks, in which your spine remains lengthened and you engage your shoulders and butt as well as your abs.
“Most of us already have problems with flexion in the spine because we sit so much at work, so it is better to do exercises that extend the spine rather than round the spine,” says McCall.
You don’t have time to work out
Well, this one is not actually a myth—it is generally a fact for most of us!
But given the importance of exercise, here are a few hints on how to debunk this myth or, shall we say, offset this excuse.
What if you were told that walking across the office to talk to someone instead of calling them counts as exercise?
Recent studies have shown that any exercise helps. So if you can’t make it to the gym three times a week or take a 20-mile bike ride on weekends, rest assured that there are other ways to burn calories. The key? Keep moving.
The worst thing you can do is sit for long periods of time. Several studies, including a 2016 study conducted by the American Journal of Physiology—Endocrinology and Metabolism, found that vigorous exercise, even several times a week, may not be enough to combat the effects of prolonged sitting on heart health.
“If you can’t take 10,000 steps a day, then take 5,000,” says McCall. “Climb the stairs instead of riding the elevator. Park far away from your destination so you have to walk more. You can burn as much as 300 calories per day with these small changes. They add up.” DW
Antonia Rodriguez is a freelance writer based in Dallas.