The worldwide fitness industry generates more than $78 billion per year, and there’s no sign that it’s going to slow down any time soon. That means there’s a lot of money at stake, and not every company in that industry is interested in the truth. Many of them will say anything to get you to buy from them. Whether it’s the latest “must have” supplement (which is probably full of filler and questionable ingredients), the newest machine that will end up as a clothes hanger, or the newly discovered secret nutrition plan (which is the same exact nutrition plan they were selling last year…just in a different color), there are a lot of myths and mistakes being passed off as truth. So I’ve listed some of the biggest offenders below, along with my take.
- Fat loss is about calories
- You can spot reduce (or sit ups give you abs)
- You have to spend hours per day working out
- You can tone your muscles by lifting light weights
- Stretching is necessary
- Lifting heavy weights will automatically make you huge
- You need sports drinks/protein bars/supplements
- XYZ exercise is ideal for everyone
- Nutritious food is bland, boring, and fat free
This one has a lot of different variations, but it boils down to the same idea. The basic logic is the this: The way you lose fat is by eating less calories than you burn. So to lose fat, all you have to do is eat less and exercise more. This has been the standard advice for the past 50 years, the same 50 years that have seen massive increases in obesity and metabolic disease. The reason it doesn’t hold true is because there are two ways to kickstart your body’s starvation response, restricting your calories and increasing your energy expenditure. So by taking the advice of the “experts” who say that calorie restriction is how you lose fat, you’re actually telling your body that your starving. Your body will respond in one of two ways: eat everything in sight or become depressed. The truth is that fat loss is 80%-90% about nutrition and not about exercise. And it’s got nothing to do with the number of calories you eat.
This is a particular pet peeve of mine, because it is so demonstrably false. The idea behind this myth is that you can work out a particular muscle group in order to reduce the amount of fat layered over that muscle group. So, like the title says, people believe that doing thousands and thousands of sit ups or crunches or ab rolls will result in six pack abs. This myth has its origins along side the previous myth, that burning calories is how you lose fat. The thinking with this is that you exercise a certain muscle and that muscle starts burning calories and it just sort of starts burning the calories of the fat that sits layered over it. Clearly, this is wrong. There is no such thing as spot reduction. The bigger issue with the idea of spot reduction, though, is that it often leads to injury. Fat loss isn’t an isolated event; it is a system-wide effect of metabolic changes. You want to reduce the fat layer over a particular muscle, you gotta feed and work your whole body.
Whether it’s cardio or weights, the common myth is that the only way to see real results is to spend at least an hour a day. This myth is more of a lifestyle myth than a factual one. It’s true that if you spend a large amount of time in a particular exercise, you will see significant improvements. However, it ignores a very important point, and that is recovery. Stressing your body constantly for long periods of time requires that you take adequate time to recover. If you don’t allow yourself the time to rest and recover, you’ll start to break down, get sick, or get injured. Also, the idea of having to spend at least an hour every day at the gym or on the road doesn’t sound appealing to most middle-aged folks who are raising a family, working a job, and running a household. The truth is, and I didn’t believe this for a long time, not until I actually put it into practice, you don’t have to spend a lot of time working out. You can work out in short, high-intensity sessions and combine that with occasional longer, low-intensity workouts to get a tremendous benefit to your health.
This is similar to the spot reduction myth. The idea behind “toning” is that you shouldn’t lift heavy weights. Instead, you should do a large number of repetitions of light weight. The term “toned” was invented by the fitness industry in the 80s to sell ridiculous ideas to women. They convinced woman that if they lifted heavy, they would look like freaks, and they should, instead, focus on light weight and high repetitions. That, they said, would lead to “toned muscles”. There is no benefit to doing these kinds of exercise. All it does is waste your time. I don’t care what kind of muscles you have, if they are under layers of fat, you are not toned. So being toned has nothing to do with weights. It has everything to do with what you eat.
Not only is stretching not necessary, but current research shows that it may actually be harmful. It could lead to injury. The idea behind stretching is that you want to lengthen the muscles, so that when you stress them, by running, lifting weights, or whatever, they are already loose and able to take the stress. The idea has merit, but has ultimately proven false as a necessity. You don’t need to stretch before working out. But it doesn’t hurt to warm up before you get to the more intense portion of your workout. Jogging for five minutes is more than adequate to get your whole body warmed up and loose. Of course, that doesn’t mean that stretching is bad. Yoga is, essentially, long-form stretching and it’s fine. Stretching just isn’t necessary.
This is the flip side myth to the “toning” myth. The reason the toning myth took off is because people convinced women that lifting heavy weights would make them huge and freakish. Naturally, most women didn’t like that idea, so they opted for the useless alternative. Building muscle takes time, getting huge takes a lot of time. It doesn’t just happen overnight. Lifting heavy is the way you build strength and muscle. Unless you are devoting significant numbers of hours to the pursuit, you won’t get huge. You will, however, get stronger, and that’s a very good thing.
If your health is dependent upon a processed, manufactured food or supplement, then you’re doing it wrong. There are two main parts to your physical health: your food and your activity. If you are eating correctly, utilizing a high-fat, low-carb, ketogenic diet, then you won’t have a need for those processed, manufactured foods. And if you are exercising outside, in the sun, you will dramatically reduce the need for supplementation, too. Period.
Okay, I’ll admit that there are two MAJOR exceptions to this myth, but I’ll get to them in just a second. Putting those two exceptions aside for just a moment, if someone is telling you that running or biking or climbing or speed skating is the perfect exercise for everyone, then they are wrong. Different people gravitate toward different exercises, because people are different. If you like to run, that doesn’t mean it something everyone will like. It also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t like it if someone else doesn’t. Exercise should be enjoyable, if it’s not fun, then it’s not worth it. So find what you like and do it. Now, for the two exceptions: lifting heavy weights and walking. Those are the two things that can benefit every able-bodied person. Lifting heavy keeps your physical self strong and walking for 60 minutes per session can keep your mental health strong.
Because of the prevalence of the low-fat myth, and because of the mistaken “calories is how you get fat” myth, a lot of nutrition plans offer some of the most boring, bland food. The problem with this is two-fold. First, in order to make a lot of this kind of food palatable, they have to doctor it up, typically with sugar (if you remove the fat out of food, it tastes awful…that leaves sugar as the only way to keep it tasty). Second, it makes it very easy for you to crave more unhealthy food. Whether it’s because you aren’t meeting your energy needs, or because you just don’t like eating boring food, you are statistically more likely to stray from the typical low-fat fare.
There are more myths, but these are the big ones. The take away for you here is that your diet controls how much fat you retain on your body and that you should concentrate on specific kinds of exercise to get the most out of them.
Oh, and you should enjoy both.