For decades now, the fitness industry has propped itself up on the idea that average people lack the know-how, the equipment, and access to the right nutrition to achieve their fitness goals on their own. If you want to lose weight or gain muscle, you’ll need our trainers, our gym, and our supplements to get you on the right track.
For that ruse to work, the marketing effort has to cut deeper than the surface, eating away at your understanding of the basic mechanics of your body until we’re willing to believe that a pill can reduce love handles, a rubber girdle can help shred fat, or that eating like a caveman is somehow better than eating like a 21st century American with a life expectancy that’s about double what our caveman ancestors could have hoped for.
If we were shopping for a car or comparing cable providers, our modern skepticism and general distaste for advertising would almost certainly leave us laughing at most full page ads in fitness magazines and pop-ups on fitness pages… but our insecurities fuel us to want their claims to be true. We work hard, we slip up, we can never seem to get to where we want to be physically… so we start to wonder if maybe it really is because we haven’t cut sugar, carbohydrates, GMOs and Scientology’s thetans from our diets. We wish we could be doing better, and it sure does look like these pills will help, that new machine will change us, or another powdered beverage will make all the difference.
It’s not stupidity or even gullibility that makes us believe this nonsense – it’s just a natural byproduct of being human. We’re all busy, we’re all overwhelmed, we all could use a little help… It’s not that we can’t see through the gimmicks, it’s that we’re hoping there’s no gimmick at all. With that in mind, here are a few persistent fitness myths that just won’t seem to go away. Some of them have been touched upon in previous columns, others are new in this venue, but all have become such common marketing tropes that they’ve somehow weaseled their way into the cultural lexicon as accepted truths.
The only way to combat misinformation is by being informed. That’s just as true about weight loss as it is about politics, so let’s get started.
Myth #1: Sit ups or crunches will shrink your stomach
This myth is so pervasive because the truth sort of seems like it contradicts common sense. If I have fat on my stomach, why not work my stomach muscles to burn the fat? The problem is, fat burning doesn’t work that way – and developing your stomach muscles will actually make your gut bulge, rather than recede.
The idea of “spot reduction,” or burning fat in only the areas you’d prefer, is a common myth in the fitness industry. The vast majority of people that start working out and changing up their diet are hoping to address a weight issue, and the industry has shaped itself to market to the specific desires of the customer.
In reality, fat is stored on your body to be used as an energy source in leaner times to keep your body running, not as a local fuel source for muscles that are nearby. Sit ups are actually a fairly inefficient calorie burner compared to other exercises as well, meaning all the core work will likely make your stomach muscles bigger underneath the gut you did little to get rid of.
Don’t ignore your core. Do your sit ups, just stop expected them to make your gut disappear.
Myth #2: You can turn fat into muscle
We’ve all heard somebody say that their fitness plan was to “turn all this fat into muscle” by summer, or something to that effect. It’s a common turn of phrase that likely started out as a metaphor for changing the composition of your body from tub of lard to ton of marble, but over the years it’s slowly seeped its way past our bullshit detectors and into the realm of old wive’s tail. Fat, you’re likely not surprised to learn, is made up of completely different things than muscle, is used for a distinctly different purpose, and never gained the ability to “morph” into anything other than chemical energy or waste.
It is true, however, that fat is less dense than muscle — making it true when people say that “muscle weighs more than fat.”
Myth #3: Gatorade and other sports drinks are the best ways to hydrate
We tend to think of sports drinks as the best ways to rehydrate ourselves after a long workout. After all, we know that there’s more to sweat than just water and it’s important to replenish our stores of athlete-fueling electrolytes before tomorrow’s run, right? Well, usually wrong.
Most sports drinks are really just sugar, salt, and water – which are indeed the same things you’re burning through and dispensing of via your sweat glands, but most people don’t need to add a lot more sugar and salt to their diets in order to stay healthy. In fact, for Americans, the opposite is often the case.
Replenishing electrolytes by adding sugar and salt to your water is a great way to stay in the fight during a grueling marathon, a long distance bike race, or a multiple day hike. If you had Starbucks for breakfast, plan to down a protein shake after you lift, and plan to eat dinner tonight… you probably don’t need the extra 21 grams of sugar, 160 milligrams of salt, and 80 calories you’ll get out of that Orange Gatorade, though. You’re much better off sticking to water.
Myth #4: Working out harder is the best way to lose weight
This is one myth that I’ve fallen victim to repeatedly over the years. When we begin to pack on a few extra pounds, it’s easy for us to see that as a sign that our workouts are beginning to slump — and in a way, that’s a good thing. We all need the occasional kick in the ass to reenergize our efforts and motivate us to hit the gym as hard as ever. The thing is, if you’re gaining weight (especially if you exercise regularly) it’s likely the result of other issues, like how you eat and sleep.
It’s no secret that our metabolisms change as we age, but many of us also have a knack for slowly developing some bad habits when it comes to eating right and getting enough rest. Getting enough sleep is integral to getting the most out of your workouts, and managing your diet by making gradual, sustainable changes is the best way to offset the creeping advance of time. I’ll never tell you not to work out harder, but if you find yourself struggling to fight off the gut after 40, you may want to reassess your habits outside the gym, as well as the ones inside.
Myth #5: Weight lifting makes you bulky
I addressed this topic last week’s Old Man Fitness, but it’s important enough to warrant another mention here. In recent years, more women have taken to lifting weights as a part of their fitness game, but there remains a misconception about what weight lifting actually does to the human body.
It is true that bodybuilders achieve their bulky aesthetic through a combination of heavy weight lifting and strict dietary standards, but the assumption that adding weights to your average person’s workout will make them into some boxy, hulking figure just isn’t true. In fact, thanks to an increased emphasis in fitness in our modern culture, most of the beautiful women we see on TV and in movies achieved their super-human seeming physiques through a combination of strength training and hi-intensity exercises.
If your goal is to tone up, tighten up, or be generally fit, weights should be a part of your overall regimen. Remember, lifting weights doesn’t have to mean lifting heavy – tailor your sets and rep counts to your fitness goals.
Feature image courtesy of the author