No excuses now! We bust 10 exercise myths that may stop you from getting the body you want

By Kirstin Buick
30 December 2013

Sweating it out at the gym on a regular basis, but not seeing the fruits of your labour? Here are 10 myths about exercising that might be holding you back.

Admit it, you've eagerly touted out many reasons not to start exercising. Of course some of the things we hear every settles as the truths in our minds. But these myths are easily busted by our fitness expert to get you ready for your new year workout plan.

Myth 1:  I will burn more fat if I exercise longer at a lower intensity.

So you’ve heard about the “fat-burning zone”. In other words, if you want to lose weight you need to exercise at a low intensity (a low heart rate). What few people realise is you actually burn the highest proportion of fat while at rest (around 70 per cent of your energy comes from fat) and by now we know that being a couch potato doesn’t make you thin.

The most important focus in exercise and fat-weight control is not the percentage of energy coming from fat during exercise, but the total energy cost of exercise, or how many calories are burned during the activity. The faster you walk, step or run, for example, the more calories you use per minute. Therefore at low exercise intensity, you need to exercise for a long time (far more than an hour a day) to match the total energy expenditure of a high-intensity workout.

There’s a growing body of research supporting the use of high-intensity interval training for fat loss. This form of “cardio” takes less than half the time (typically 12 to 20 minutes) of traditional long-duration cardio and leads to better results ie faster and greater fat loss, more rapid improvements in fitness and better exercise adherence.

Myth 2: Go hard or go home!

If this is your kind of thinking, you’ll never start or maintain an exercise programme. There’s overwhelming evidence from research that one should rather do something than nothing, and that every bit helps. For example, regular walking or gardening for as little as an hour a week has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease. You’ll not necessarily be able to run a marathon or bench-press 100 kg, but both your body and soul will be much happier.

Myth 3:  I can get my dream body if I just train hard enough. Both weight gain and loss are impacted by many factors, including dietary intake, your environment and genetics. All individuals won’t lose the same amount of weight on the same exercise programme. Some individuals will actually respond little to a regular exercise regimen in terms of losing fat weight (these individuals are called non-responders). You’ve all seen runners finishing the Comrades marathon not looking the part. Now you’ll be mistaken if you think they’ve not trained hard and long hours to finish that race, because nobody can just step up to the starting line and run almost 90 km. This is good evidence to show exercise per se doesn’t make you thin, especially if you’re not endowed with the right genes.

Losing body fat is a complicated matter (if not, we wouldn’t have rising obesity rates), and it goes far beyond a regular training programme.

The good news, however, is research has shown being overweight and fit is much better than being thin and sedentary, as fitness is directly related to a lower risk of all-cause mortality. Furthermore, regular physical activity is one of the most important factors for successful long-term weight management.

Myth 4: Weight training makes women big and bulky.

Weight training can make you bulk up ? if you have the XY chromosome and it’s your distinct intention to build huge muscles. Even then, it’s no easy feat to gain muscle. It takes time and effort, a carefully compiled scientific training programme and finely tuned nutritional strategies.

For women, however, these sound strategies may not be enough. The reason being women don’t usually have the required testosterone levels to put on any significant amounts of muscle mass. If you do see women with unusually bulky muscles, it’s possible their dietary habits include anabolic steroids, growth hormone and other designer drugs.

The truth is strength training approximately two to four times a week and doing a variety of exercises for the major muscle groups, will help women to achieve a lean and toned appearance, and strengthen bones and joints. In fact, since women are more prone to osteoporosis, it could be said women might actually benefit more from weight training than men.

Myth 5: I’m way too old for this.

Age is just a bad excuse. Studies have shown it’s never too late to start working out  ? you can reap benefits at any age. Exercise can help reduce the risk of bone and muscle diseases and help enhance daily functionality even later in life. This means you’ll be more independent as you get older, not to mention being admired by your grandchildren for completing the odd fun walk/run every now and then.

Myth  6: Pass the puff pastry; I went to gym today!

You’ll probably end up gaining weight, as exercise will increase your metabolism and give you a healthy appetite. Research has shown most people misjudge both the number of calories burned during exercise and the number of calories in food eaten. So never use exercise as an excuse to overindulge.

Myth 7: If you’re not drenched in sweat, you’re not working hard enough.

The harder you work out, the more kilojoules you'll burn within a given period and thus the more fat you stand to lose, but how much you sweat doesn’t necessarily reflect how hard you're working. Some people tend to sweat bucket-loads while others don't sweat much at all, regardless of their fitness level or degree of exertion.

Your sweat rate is related to your body weight, your genetic make-up and external factors such as environmental conditions and clothing. Exercising in extremely hot weather or in a synthetic "weight loss" suit will indeed make you sweat heavily and lose weight immediately. That lost weight however is made up almost entirely of water and the kilos will return when you replenish your fluids by drinking after the workout.

Myth 8: Sit-ups burn the boep.

Not . . a . . . chance. There's no such thing as spot reducing or burning fat off a particular body part; it’s physiologically impossible. When you lose body fat, it comes off the body in a predetermined genetic pattern similar to how you gain the fat, except in a reverse order. When your body is in fat-burning mode, fat comes from all over the place ? your arms, calves, thighs, abdominals, face, forearms, big toe, etc. If spot reducing really worked people who chew gum would have skinny faces.

Spot toning on the other hand does work, and resistance exercises will strengthen the targeted muscles. Look at the dominant arms of professional tennis players and you’ll see the difference in their muscle tone and size. The best method for reducing overall body fat is the age-old tried-and-true combination of cardiovascular training, resistance training and limiting your calorie intake. Results come from doing these three things with persistence and consistence.

Myth 9: Morning workouts are better for your metabolism

Proponents of this piece of wisdom say if you exercise in the morning, you jump-start your metabolism and therefore burn more calories during the day. There's absolutely no evidence this is true. The best time to exercise is the time you want to do it and are most likely to do it, whether it's morning, afternoon or evening.

The only exception is for those with high blood pressure. Research has shown your blood pressure remains low for up to nine hours after an acute exercise bout. This phenomenon is called post-exercise hypotension. So for those with hypertension, exercise in the morning is advantageous as it will keep your blood pressure low during the day when you need that most.

Myth 10: Electrolyte sports drinks will enhance your workout.

This is another one of those myths that’s costing the average person a lot of money.  Theoretically, sports drinks should be beneficial for those who exercise. They contain sodium, which helps the body to retain water and keep you hydrated, and sugar which your body burns for energy. However, contrary to what you may think, few people exercise hard enough to sweat away significant amounts of sodium.

There’s even some research that suggests consuming popular sports drinks during or after exercise does little to add to sodium levels in the body. Furthermore, one has to train for more than two hours continuously before your carbohydrates stores in muscles will start to run low. Thus, for the average Joe, plain water is all you need.

- Professor Elmarie Terblanche

Professor Terblanche is the chairperson of the department of sport science at the University of Stellenbosch. She has an interest in research of a practical nature and she addresses questions that are of relevance to athletes at all levels. Elmarie publishes in national and international accredited scientific journals and holds a C3 rating from the National Research Foundation.

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