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Exercise smarter: Eight great fitness myths exposed

Remember the “telephone” game we all played as kids? Someone whispered a message to another, and that message was passed down to many others. Somehow, though, by the time the message finally reached you, it was completely distorted.

That same thing seems to happen with diet and fitness information. Whether it’s the latest workout trend featured in a magazine or a new diet promoted on TV, by the time your friends tell you about it, the original message often gets so muddled that you’re left utterly confused about what to eat or the best way to work out in the gym.

Fitness experts agree: just because you hear an exercise tip from a friend, family member or colleague doesn’t necessarily make it true-or good for you. In fact, misinformation could even be harmful.

Usually, individuals who have been exercising for a while have been exposed to a wealth of information and can likely rule out the half-truths and myths. But if you are new to the workout world, you probably need some guidance in order to avoid fitness and diet pitfalls.

I’ve lined up a panel of fitness and nutrition professionals to help debunk some common fitness myths to help keep you focused on your exercise goals this holiday season - whether it’s to lose weight, get in shape for a race or just live a healthier life.

Let’s crack these eight great fitness myths wide open.

Myth #1: If you do more crunches, you will lose abdominal fat and love handles.

Truth: The notion that fat will disappear by working the muscle underneath the fat - otherwise called “spot reduction” - is a fabrication. Crunches alone won’t magically erase belly fat.

A regularly cited study out of the University of Massachusetts found that when men did 5,000 sit-ups in the course of 27 days were not able to decrease abdominal fat, waist size or the size of the fat cells in the belly.

“You can’t control where your body carries the fat,” said Nicole Decker, M.S., a San Diego-based exercise physiologist. “The best way to lose abdominal fat is a three-tiered approach: eat a healthy diet, do regular cardiovascular exercise most days of the week along with strength training throughout the week.”

Myth #2: You’ll lose weight if you avoid sugar; instead, load-up on artificial sweeteners.

Truth: “Switching to a sugar-free junk food diet probably is not the key to successful weight loss,” said Natalie Digate Muth, a registered dietician and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise.

Muth said opting for artificially-sweetened foods may cause people to eat other sweet, calorie-dense foods than they would if they just ate the sugary food or beverage, felt satisfied, and didn’t eat anything else.

This isn’t a green light to load up on sugary foods, however. It’s better to consume sweeteners in moderation with the awareness that they may be increasing your overall calorie intake. The calories you’re giving up with sugar substitutes may come back to bite you in that extra helping of dessert that your body desires.

Myth #3: If you don’t work up a sweat, you aren’t working hard enough.

Truth: Don’t sweat the lack of perspiration, it doesn’t mean you aren’t working hard enough to torch calories.

“Your body cools itself through evaporation which causes the body to sweat,” said Decker. “If a person sweats a lot this doesn’t mean that they are working harder or that they are burning more calories, it just means that the body is trying to maintain its normal temperature.”

Factors like hotter temperatures outside or inside the gym could also contribute to excess sweating. Decker says if you are doing a cross training day that includes a stretching class, you may notice that you are sweating very little. Yet if you are doing a total body strength training workout that includes weight lifting and cardiovascular exercise, you may notice yourself sweating more. There’s really no correlation between sweat rate and calories burned during exercise.

Myth #4: You’ll lose weight if you don’t eat after 8 p.m.

Truth: The idea that eating late at night leads to greater weight gain is not necessarily true.

“Weight gain is dependent on caloric intake and caloric expenditure,” said Muth, who added that it is not about when you eat but what and how much.

Eating after a certain time at night won’t make you gain weight if you haven’t met your calorie intake for the day. However if you eat more calories than you expend in the day, then it could lead to weight gain - regardless of whether the calories come from breakfast, lunch or a late night snack.
Muth admits that people who eat a lot of food late at night tend to consume more calorie-dense foods upping their total caloric intake, which can pack on the pounds. If you are going to snack at night, fitness experts recommend eating a little protein with a complex carbohydrate like a piece of whole wheat toast with a dollop of peanut butter.

Myth #5: The calorie count on the treadmill is accurate.

Truth: Many of us would love to trust the reliability of a machine in the gym like we do the electronic devices in our lives, but it’s not going to happen. The calories that the treadmill, bike or elliptical say you’ve burned are only estimates and are often off by 10 to 25 percent, according to John Porcari, a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse.

Why the discrepancy?

Porcari said it’s because you would need to input much more information that just your age and weight to get a precise calorie count. The most accurate way to measure calories burned includes assessing a person’s fitness level, body fat percentage, VO2 max (or aerobic capacity) and their health history. If you’re going to trust a machine, Porcari suggested opting for the treadmill or stationary bike, machines that provide the most accurate measurement of calories burned compared to other others.

Myth #6: If I eat more protein I will increase my muscle mass.

Truth: “There’s no magic pill that makes you bigger, faster or stronger,” said Decker.

According to the American Dietetic Association, muscles work on calories, so you need a good mix of proteins, carbohydrates and fats in your diet. Therefore, to gain muscle, one should eat more calories than they burn, Decker said.

Most Americans already consume more than enough protein in a day. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of protein should be 0.36 grams of protein for every pound of body weight. If you weigh 175 pounds you need to consume 63 grams of protein a day.

Eating too much protein, however, could lead to weight gain. Extra protein means extra calories that are either burned or stored in the body. Also, eating too much protein could lead to abnormal liver function or over-stress the kidneys.

To build muscle, Decker suggested incorporating a healthy eating plan with an exercise regimen that combines cardio and consistent weight training.

Myth #7: Decreasing your calorie intake by 3,500 calories a week will burn one pound of fat.

Truth: Theoretically, if you have a deficit of 3,500 calories a week then you should lose one pound of body fat - but that is not always the case.

“Everyone’s body chemistry is different,” said Porcari. ”Two people could follow the same exercise and eating plan and not lose the same amount of weight.”

Also, if you lose a pound when you burn 3,500 calories, it may not always be fat. When your exercise and diet routine changes dramatically and you lose weight fast, you’re likely sweating off excess water weight or possibly losing muscle if you ramp up your cardio routine.

“The only way to safely lose weight is to decrease calories in and increase calories burned,” said Porcari. “Make a concerted effort to watch what you eat and exercise 45 minutes to one hour a day and you could lose one to three pounds a week consistently.”

Myth #8: You should do aerobic exercise first to warm up your muscles before weight training.

Truth: In the fitness world, the great debate is whether you should do cardiovascular exercise before a weight training session or after. A broad spectrum of opinions exists about this topic and the answer can vary depending on your fitness goal - whether it’s weight loss, muscle development or training for an endurance race.

“If your goal is to maximize muscle development, it’s better to do weights first,” said Porcari. He explained that when you lift weights, you are using glycogen and ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which are the main energy sources stored in muscles. Doing aerobic exercise before lifting weights depletes the muscles of these necessary energy reserves and can leave you feeling fatigued while weight training. Porcari suggested doing three to five minutes of stretching or dynamic calisthenics, like lifting the bench press bar 20 times without weights to warm-up the muscles before weight lifting.

The only scenario where a cardio session works best before weights is for sports-specific training.

“If my goal is to increase aerobic capacity [for a distance race] then it’s best to lift weights after a cardio session,” added Porcari, who said whatever your goal is - whether to maximize aerobic endurance or build muscle - to do that activity first.

No one “body” is alike. Before heeding a friend’s diet or fitness advice, it’s best to consult your doctor or a certified personal trainer before pursuing a new exercise regimen.

Cassie Piercey is an SDNN contributor.