Humans were made to move.
There’s absolutely no denying the positive benefits of fitness/physical activity on both physical and mental health.
When it comes to health there are few things available to us that are as great for us as exercise. Certainly no pharmaceutical or single nutrient has the same broad scope of positive benefits.
So, exercise is great and we should all do it.
But, as humans, our favorite thing to do is overthink EVERYTHING and take what should be a simple message “more movement!” and turn it into something unbelievably complicated. What should come so naturally to us is ends up getting lost in the never-ending line of fads and the confusion between good health and good looks. Exercise should be simple, yet the industry is full of wacky trends, false theories, and flawed logic.
So, here are some of the most common fitness myths I hear on a regular basis that we need to put to rest once and for all!
Fitness Myth #1: If I want to look like you I should train like you
It seems like all you need these days to be considered a “fitness pro” is an Instagram account and a 6-pack. Trainers with absolutely no credentials (or really shady ones) can create an entire business using only themselves and their personal experience as a model.
It seems like all you need these days to be considered a “fitness pro” is an Instagram account and a 6-pack.
When you put it that way it sounds kind of absurd doesn’t it? Would you go see a Dentist who had only ever seen his own teeth? or a Doctor who had no experience other than treating his own illnesses? OBVIOUSLY NOT! So, why do we take fitness and nutrition advice from individuals who only know what works for them? Why do we buy nutrition plans and workout programs from people who think they can just market their personal routine and it will give everyone else the same result?
A Few Reasons Why:
The first, and most important reason is that our genetics play a MASSIVE role in how we respond to different forms of exercise. If your Instagram-famous trainer has always been athletic and slender, chances are that has to do way more with her genes than her current fitness program. Our physical characteristics are not as easily manipulated as you may think. Some people are naturally very lean.
They don’t put on muscle mass as easily compared to others who can gain muscle with relatively little effort. How you gain/lose fat is also widely variable depending on genetics, as well as how much your fitness level changes with cardio workouts or HIIT training. Sure, we have the power to make changes to our bodies to some degree, but as hard as a Great Dane works, he’ll never be a Chihuahua!
Second, your trainer better have experience and expertise with YOUR goals and any health concerns or physical restrictions you may have. If they only know how to train themselves, how will they make sure their programs are safe or effective for someone, say with diabetes, or a history of knee issues?
The Bottom Line
Get to know the person you’re taking fitness advice from! Ask them about their experience with training people like YOU (in body type, fitness goal, and/or health conditions or injuries). Make sure the program you’re being sold isn’t a cookie cutter program, or just a copy of their personal routine. A trainer with a great body of knowledge is way more effective than a trainer with just a great body.
Remember: A trainer with a great body of knowledge is way more effective than a trainer with just a great body.
Fitness Myth #2: To lose fat, exercise in the “fat burning zone”
This tired old myth has been hanging around for FAR TOO LONG, and it’s about time we put it to rest. If you’ve stepped on any piece of Cardio equipment you’ll likely see a chart on the display, suggesting that there is this magical “fat burning zone” we should try to stay in while we exercise to burn the most fat, and therefore, lose weight.
Yes, it’s true that during low intensity exercise like walking, our body is burning more fat for energy, compared to when we are exercising at a higher intensity like running. This is because fat needs a lot of oxygen available to aid in the chain of chemical reactions that take place while breaking it down for us to use. During low-intensity exercise (and at rest), we are easily able to breathe in enough air to keep our “aerobic” energy system operating.
When we increase the intensity of our exercise, our body switches gears and begins using more carbohydrate for fuel, because breaking down fat takes too long and the muscles need fast energy to keep up with the demand.
Does that mean that we should avoid higher-intensity exercise in order to burn the most fat?
One gram of fat provides us with WAY more usable energy than one gram of carbohydrate. This means that during low-intensity exercise we may be using more fat for fuel proportionally, but we don’t need to burn as many calories overall to complete the exercise. Compare a 30-minute walk to a 30-minute jog. You may burn 150 calories during your walk, whereas during the run that calorie burn might be closer to 300 or more (depending on speed and your fitness level).
We may burn more of one fuel type than another as we change the intensity of our exercise, but that does not mean each energy system operates completely independently of one another. If we only think of exercise as fat versus carbohydrates being used we risk getting stuck in the cardio trap, where we continually increase the duration of our low-intensity workouts trying to burn more fat calories, when in reality we should be upping the intensity. Because our bodies so readily adapt to exercise, completing the same low-intensity workout over and over is actually going to cause our calorie burn to decrease, not increase.
So what SHOULD you do?
Increase the intensity, not the duration of your workouts (unless of course you’re training for an endurance event). Work on running faster, or incorporate some interval training into your routine a few days per week to mix things up and keep pushing your fitness level forward. AND, don’t get stuck in the mindset that because cardio burns the most calories during the workout, it’s the best kind of workout for fat loss.
Remember: Increase the intensity, not the duration of your workouts.
Fitness Myth #3: More is better
If there’s one thing we love to do, it’s overdo things. So, if little is good, more must be better, right? If one workout per day is good, I should do two! If running 3 days per week is good, I should do 6! and on and on and on.
However, when it comes to fitness (and probably most other things in life), the opposite is often true. We can get too much of a good thing! If we start spending hours each day doing cardio, without proper rest and recovery, it’s only a matter of time until we experience some negative effects. Chronic or frequent injuries, soreness that hangs around for days, weakened immunity (getting sick all the time), exhaustion, and poor quality workouts are all signs of over training.
And that’s just when it comes to cardio. It’s very easy to overdo it when it comes to strength training as well. Muscles are not built during a workout, they’re actually built during the rest and recovery phase after a workout. The physical act of strength training stresses our muscles and actually damages them. Our bodies adapt to this demand by re-building that muscle tissue stronger in anticipation of our next workout. If we never give our bodies a break, we’re never giving them the opportunity to get stronger.
Wait, what about competitive athletes?
You may be wondering how competitive athletes do it. They train for hours and hours every day to reach peak physical fitness for their sport. But, they didn’t reach that ability overnight! Years of adapting to the demands of their sport give them the ability to train at a much higher volume and intensity than you or I. They also have an entire team of coaching and training staff dedicated to making sure they are getting the right training at the right time, eating the right foods, and doing the right things to rest and recover as quickly as possible.
So, if you’re a beginner, go slow! Work out for the fitness level you’re at, not the level you want to be at. With proper training (and enough rest and recovery) you’ll be surprised at how quickly you improve. Be kind to your body and it will thank you!
Fitness Myth #4: Women shouldn’t lift heavy weights because they’ll get bulky
I can’t believe I still hear this one….
LIFTING WEIGHTS DOES NOT MAKE WOMEN BULKY.
LIFTING WEIGHTS DOES NOT MAKE WOMEN BULKY.
Why not? Why do men have such an easy time gaining noticeable muscle size but women typically don’t?
Because women have much much lower testosterone levels compared to men (like a miniscule fraction of the testosterone), so we just don’t have the same capability to put on muscle size like guys do. We can certainly build some muscle mass, but getting big bulky deltoids and biceps just isn’t in our genes.
Many women shy away from strength training for fear of bulking up and wind up stuck in the cardio trap. They’re spending a ton of time every week exercising, but they aren’t changing their fitness level or their body composition. Muscle is very metabolically active tissue, so it’s burning way more calories at rest than fat does. Since the vast majority of our calories burned in a day is this “resting energy expenditure”, any increase in muscle mass (and therefore boost in metabolism) is a good thing.
So don’t be afraid of the weights section of your gym! If you aren’t sure what to do, work with a trainer who can create a personalized fitness plan that will help you reach your goals.
Fitness Myth #5: Do a lot of abdominal exercises to get “abs”
A strong core (trunk) is a key part of overall physical strength and fitness. It plays an important role in sports performance, injury prevention, and management of things like lower back pain. A strong core is important, but that does not mean it’s always going to be visible.
You see, a person’s body fat percentage is really what indicates whether or not their abs are visible. Having visible abs does not necessarily mean that those abs are strong either. Some people who are naturally lean may have visible abs despite never working out a day in their lives, while others might dedicate a huge portion of their workouts to their core and still never see that 6-pack.
It’s also significantly harder for women to have a visible set of abs, because as females we require a higher body fat percentage than men to be healthy. That “essential” body fat is about 12%, compared to a male’s essential body fat of only about 3%.
Remember: This is just “essential fat” that keeps us functioning. A higher body fat percentage into the 20’s is still perfectly healthy for women. Read more about the cost of low energy availability on women, here.
What happens if women loose too much body fat?
If women reduce their body fat percentage to much lower than that 12%, they can experience hormone changes and infertility, loss of bone density, poor immunity, hair loss, etc. Definitely not a sign of a healthy lifestyle, or something we should be striving for just to achieve 6-pack abs.
It’s also important to note the role genes can play here too. Some people are naturally leaner than others, or they might store body fat in spots other than the abdomen (such as the thighs or glutes).
So don’t equate having 6-pack abs with being strong or in good shape. Good health means that our bodies are functioning optimally, and trying to maintain an unhealthy body fat percentage can cause irreversible damage.
Remember: Focus on fitness, not on aesthetics, and achieve a body composition that feels right and natural for you!
Fitness Myth #6: You can get fit in just 10 minutes a day
I get it. You’re super busy. Trying to find time to exercise between work, kids, household chores, and ya know, sleeping can be a challenge.
As a response to so many people stating lack of time as their main reason for not exercising, there has been this emerging trend of super quick 10 minute workouts that claim to get you fit fast. They say 15 minutes is all you need to achieve your dream bod.
Obviously doing a ten minute workout is better than no workout at all, I’ll give them that. For my newbie clients I do often encourage starting very small with their workouts, but always with the end goal in mind of improving exercise tolerance and endurance, increasing their active time to at least 150 minutes per week (which is the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiologist’s minimum recommendation).
Trust me, spending 10 minutes on that overpriced machine you saw on an infomercial is NOT gonna get you the shredded bod of the model in that commercial!
Real physical fitness and real muscle development takes time and dedication. No, you don’t have to spend hours at the gym everyday, but the idea that you can get the amazing results in only 10 minutes a day is just not true.
Making the time to exercise can be tough, but if you truly make it a priority in your life it can always be done.
This could look like:
- Becoming a morning person and joining the 6 am crew at your gym. (Read my blog post on how to become a morning person in 3 steps, here!)
- It might require some re-structuring of other aspects of your day to make it work.
- It may mean giving up some time watching TV or scrolling through social media to make it happen.
Have No Fear, It CAN Be Done!
Instead of spending your evening texting your friends in the group chat, make a plan to meet for a workout to catch up. Need childcare? Find a gym with a babysitting service, or set up a space at home for exercise that doesn’t require you to leave the house. Work crazy hours? Sign up for a gym that has 24 hour swipe card access so you can go any time of day or night. Struggle with motivation? Hire a trainer or sign up for a group class that will keep you accountable for attendance. Whatever you need to make it happen, do it!
Fitness Myth #7: Doing hundreds of squats will build a bigger booty
Let’s make one thing clear: Doing hundreds of squats does NOTHING to change your booty. If I see one more online “squat challenge” encouraging women to waste their time doing a hundred squats or more every day, thinking it’s going to get them a bigger butt, I’m gonna scream. I don’t care if Jillian Michael’s face is all over the damn thing IT. AIN’T. GONNA. WORK.
Doing hundreds of squats will do NOTHING to change your booty.
Well, in order to increase the size of our muscles, we need to put a heavy enough load on them that they’re forced to get stronger in anticipation of having to lift that same heavy load again. When we lift heavy weights we actually cause microscopic tears in our muscle fibres. During the rest and recovery phase our bodies rebuild that muscle tissue stronger so that we are more capable of doing that work next time. This is why doing the same workout with the same weights for months on end gets you nowhere. Our bodies quickly adapt to the demands we put on it. If the demands never increase, why would our body waste energy getting stronger?
So more is better, right?
Now, you might be thinking “Steph, isn’t doing more and more squats every day as good as lifting heavy? Because my legs and butt are sure burning by the end of those hundred squats!”
Unfortunately, you’d be wrong (sorry). Our muscles are made of two different types of muscle fibres, ones for speed and power, and ones for endurance. When we exercise for longer periods of time (for example doing an exercise that lasts longer than 15-20 reps, or going for a jog), we’re actually training our bodies to have better muscular endurance, not strength. Improving our muscular endurance does not cause an increase in muscle size, we need to be overloading them with resistance (ie- weight) in order to stimulate them to grow. Since building a nice booty means having bigger glute muscles, that’s really the ultimate goal.
The Good News
Doing a hundred or more squats is both ineffective and a huge waste of time. On the other hand if you grab some weights, you can push out 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps each, and probably be done in less time.
Fitness Myth #8: Doing fasted cardio burns more fat
The idea here is that if we exercise with no carbs in our body (in the form of muscle glycogen), we’re forcing our body to burn fat for energy during our workout, which will result in more fat loss.
Now, if you read myth #2, you already know that exercising with the intent to only burn fat calories is actually not going to get you very far in the fat loss department. Instead we want to be burning more calories overall by increasing the intensity of our activity, not trying to maintain a lower heart rate just because it uses more fat as fuel.
Further to that we have a considerable amount of muscle glycogen stored in our bodies at all times for these such occasions. Carbohydrate we eat throughout the day that we don’t need for energy in that moment is stashed away inside our liver and muscle cells for later. How much glycogen we have available varies significantly based on our diet and activity level, but most of us definitely have enough for a 30 minute cardio workout at any given time.
Bio-hack or Bio-whack?
BUT, what’s also important to note is that we can’t “biohack” our bodies to operate in ways which nature has not intended. This means that if we are exercising with enough intensity to require carbohydrate for fuel (such as running or HIIT training), our body is going to get that sugar from somewhere. Let’s say for example you are on a low-carb diet, and have no muscle or liver glycogen available to sustain the activity you’re trying to do. First of all, it’s pretty likely your workout quality will suffer (because if there’s no gas in the tank we don’t get very far), but our very adaptable bodies WILL find a source of sugar to keep us going. And we find that sugar in our muscles.
That’s right, when we are in this state our bodies begin breaking down our muscles to get the glucose contained within them. This is different than the glycogen our muscles store for us, this is the glucose that is within the muscle tissue itself. As a very strong advocate of strength training the last thing I want my clients doing is losing muscle!
So, you want to exercise in the morning, but can’t stomach the idea of eating beforehand?
I like to have something small like a piece of fruit on my way to the gym in the morning, then save my larger breakfast for my post-workout meal. If you really can’t tolerate anything in the morning, make sure you have a snack before bed in the evening so that you have some glycogen available to get you through your workout.
Fitness Myth #9: You can transform your body in only 30 days
You know you’ve seen them. The before picture of someone looking sad and frumpy, next to an AMAZING after picture of their spray-tanned, sparkly bikini-clad body, holding up their miracle shake that completely changed their body (and their whole life) in only 30 days. Incredible! (nevermind the small print- ‘results not typical’)
Well, we know we can’t get fit in only 10 minutes a day, and guess what? We can’t transform our bodies that quickly either. It takes considerable time, consistency, and dedication to proper training and good nutrition to really see the types of transformations that these companies claim to have in a bottle. Months, or even years of hard work.
What’s so frustrating about this as a fitness professional is that I meet with clients who have these incredibly unrealistic expectations about the changes they should see when they start exercising. We live in a society where everything is instantaneous, so we expect the same from our lifestyle changes. When we are new to exercise though, it’s usually out of our comfort zone, tiring, and makes us sore. From a psychological perspective makes it hard for us to keep it up, because we’re hardwired to avoid things that cause us discomfort. When we don’t see positive reinforcement right away (in that we’ve lost 10lbs or can see muscle tone), we’re very likely to quit.
Mindset Is Everything
So, how do we ensure that we stay consistent with physical activity, long enough to attain that “exercise makes me feel amazing and I can’t live without it” mindset? By focusing on the improvements and changes in our fitness and strength, not in the visible results we see in the mirror. For example, keep careful track of how many reps of each exercise you can complete, your average heart rate during workouts, or how many minutes you can run. These are the types of things we can monitor that actually improve quite quickly when we start exercising, and can get a bit better with each passing week. Focusing on these types of small changes can provide us with that positive reinforcement we need to stay consistent, especially in the beginning when the scale is unlikely to move.
The Bottom Line
So, when it come to fitness, the bottom line is keep it simple! Approach your activity like anything else in life, with balance, moderation, and logic. There are no shortcuts when it comes to getting fit and if something seems to good to be true, it most definitely is. Listen to your body and watch for signs of over-training, and don’t get caught up in the social media fitness madness. If you have questions about the best exercises for you always seek the advice of a qualified professional.
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