Many of us are given advice and supposed facts about how much fitness and exercise is the right amount for a healthy and active lifestyle. The press is often full of scare stories about the perils and pains of too much or too little fitness training. However, many of these so-called facts and pieces of advice are inaccurate and should not put you off exercising. Here we dispel some of the fitness myths that surround regular exercise.
‘Weight training is no good if you want to lose weight’When we want to lose weight, we tend to combine calorie-cutting with sweaty aerobic exercise. This is all well and good, but there’s a third prong of the fork that many would-be slimmers miss out on: strength training. In a recent study, women burned over 350 calories more over a 24-hour period on days when they strength trained compared to days when they did not.
While lifting weights per se isn’t all that calorie-consuming, it creates a higher ‘afterburn’ (a period when metabolic rate remains elevated post-workout) than aerobic exercise. It’s also been found that a higher muscle mass is related to a higher metabolic rate during activity and at rest. And if that weren’t enough, a study showed that strength training while dieting helps the body hold on to lean tissue and shed body fat.
'You should keep your aerobic exercise intensity low to burn more fat’Let’s dispel this myth once and for all ... Here are the facts: 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 carbs 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 shedloads. 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.
'The step machine or step classes give you a big behind’Unless you’ve 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. This means that it won’t present sufficient stimulus to muscle tissue to cause it to grow (so lifting low weights lots of times is best for tone, too) and won’t have any affect 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 keep your posture in check: stepping with your belly hanging out and back arched will give the appearance of a big behind! Keep navel gently drawn to spine and tailbone tucked slightly under.
‘As long as you walk 10,000 steps a day, you don’t need to do any other exercise’Hmmm, this is a tricky one! It depends on your goals. The 10,000 steps a day guideline is aimed at prevention of disease rather than at improved fitness. Of course, if you start off sedentary, then achieving that target on a daily basis will certainly improve your fitness — but 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, taking a spinning class or doing circuit training), strength training (using weights or your own body weight for resistance) and flexibility work, in order to maintain or improve your suppleness. 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.
‘Lifting low weights lots of times is best for tone’We often talk about wanting to ‘tone up’ rather than build muscle, but what we really mean is that we want to ‘firm up’. To do this, we need to make the long protein tendrils within the muscle fibres thicker, so that there is less space between the muscle fibres and the overall feel of the muscle is denser. And contrary to popular belief, lifting a low weight countless times is not the way to do it. To make a muscle change, we need to create ‘overload’, by challenging it with something heavier than it is normally accustomed to. Lifting a weight that you can only manage to lift 6 to 12 times before fatiguing is the way to go to tame slack muscles.
‘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. Practise 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 counterproductive 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 theJournal 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.
‘You shouldn’t exercise too late in the evening or 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 told that we’ll 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.