Fitness Myths That Refuse to Die (Part One)

Information about health and fitness is overflowing in magazines, newspapers, books, television and over the Internet. There is definitely no scarcity of fitness facts. And yet, the same old misconceptions pop up year after year. People continue to cling to old beliefs in spite of the deluge of information debunking them. I have contributed my share of articles discrediting these fitness myths but they seem to have some sort of immortality.

Even people who should know better hang on to these wrong ideas. Maybe it's a case of wishful thinking. Maybe we want so hard to believe that there is an easy way to get fit or lose weight. It would be okay if that's all these misperceptions did to us. But, unfortunately, these wrong beliefs can keep you from achieving your goals. They can actually be obstacles to your fitness success.

A reader told me that I should not stop writing about these myths because it takes time for the message to sink in. So, here is another attempt at driving a stake through the heart of these fitness legends.

Spot reducing
Many (and I mean, many) people believe that abdominal exercises (crunches and etc.) will reduce the fat around their belly and waist. No wonder they are frustrated when their bellies do not go away in spite of doing hundreds of crunches a day. This spot reducing fallacy makes people believe that that they can choose the exact areas where they want to burn fat by doing specific exercises. It has fueled the growth of the abdominal equipment industry because people buy the machines thinking they have found the answer to their "spare tires and love handles".

Here's the low down on this myth. Abdominal exercises (or other specific "toning" exercises for that matter) are great for making your muscles harder and firmer but they don't burn enough calories to make a big difference in reducing your fat layer. You need to burn 3,500 calories to get rid of a pound of fat. Aerobic exercise like walking, cycling, and dancing are more appropriate activities to make the belly smaller because they burn significantly more calories. Weight lifting helps too because the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn every day.

Fat is burned from all over the body, not just in the area that you are exercising. That's why most runners and cyclists have slim upper and lower bodies even though it is their legs that are doing the work. A now famous experiment revealed that tennis players have the same amount of fat in their dominant and non-dominant arm. If the spot-reducing myth were true, the working arm should have less fat than the non-working arm.

A good rule to remember is that you can "spot build or spot tone" a muscle but you can't "spot reduce" fat in a particular body part. You can build up or tone (make it harder, firmer but not bigger) a muscle with specific exercises (for example, you can build broader shoulders by increasing the size of the shoulder muscles) but you cannot reduce fat in your hips just by doing endless repetitions of side leg lifts.

Sweat is one of the body's ways of staying cool and not overheating. When you exercise, internal heat is generated by the contraction of your muscles so it is natural to sweat when you work out. However, people take it to the extreme and think that if they are not sweating profusely, they are not burning any fat. If you work out in a cool and dry environment like an air-conditioned gym, you will probably not sweat as much as you would compared to exercising outside but this doesn't mean that you burn more calories outdoors. It simply means the body doesn't have to resort to sweating because the surrounding air in the gym is cool. Taken to an even further extreme, people imprison themselves in saunas and steamrooms or have themselves "body wrapped" in plastic or foil believing that this is an effective way to lose fat. This confusion between water loss and fat loss has emptied the pockets of many a na´ve consumer who think they are losing fat when, in fact, all they are losing is water. Conversely, this myth has enriched the bank accounts of the people who take advantage of this ignorance by promising "instant inch or weight loss". The body is composed mostly of water so any major loss of body water will shrink the body temporarily both in inches and pounds.

Muscles and fat
When people stop exercising and see their once hard firm body turning into flab, it is understandable that they would believe that their muscles are turning into fat. After all, everyone knows that hair cannot turn into teeth or skin into fingernails but since we cannot see the insides of our bodies, this myth continues to live on. The truth is that muscle cells are different from fat cells and cannot transform into each other. What really happens when you stop exercising is that your muscle cells shrink because they are no longer required to be strong and your fat cells enlarge (assuming you continue to eat the same) because you are no longer burning the same amount of calories.

Attached to this myth is the belief that your body gets worse when you stop exercising so don't even start. People seem to be especially concerned about lifting weights. I hear it all the time. You shouldn't lift weights if you can't continue for the rest of your life because you will be even flabbier and fatter when you stop. It is true that when you stop lifting weights, your muscles will revert back to their original soft and flabby state but they will not be worse than when you started. You will gain weight only if you continue to eat the same amount or more than you did when you were exercising.

Taking a bath after exercise
This particular one seems to be a homegrown myth. I have yet to meet a Westerner concerned about how long they should wait before taking a bath after exercise because of 'pasma'. It could be an Asian belief but the Asian fitness professionals I have spoken to haven't encountered this 'problem' with their clients. How can this belief get in the way of fitness success? Easy. By becoming the reason why some people don't exercise. It goes something like this: "I can't exercise because I have to take a bath right after to make it to the office on time". If you cool down properly after exercise, meaning your heart rate and breathing rate return to normal and you spend about five minutes stretching (in other words, relaxing), there should be no reason why you cannot hop under a shower.

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