The truth behind exercise: Debunking popular fitness myths

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Hopefully you haven’t given up on that New Year’s resolution to hit the gym every day or work out more often. And hopefully you’re doing things the right way.

When done right, exercise can be a veritable miracle drug, according to a recent article in The New York Times. But follow the wrong advice and you can easily set yourself up for injury. 

Brad Schoenfeld, a professor of exercise science at Lehman College in New York, told the Times that fitness culture is rife with misconceptions because of constantly evolving science and fitness influencers, who share tips based on “anecdote and gym lore.”

“Once those opinions are disseminated to the public and take hold, they are hard to change,” he said.

Writing for the Times, Danielle Friedman, author of “Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World,” asked more than a dozen fitness experts to share the myths they hear most often among their clients and patients. Here’s what she found:

Myth: You should stretch before you work out

Recent research has found that stretching before exercising is ineffective for preventing injury and may actually work against you. Stretching a muscle for more than 90 seconds temporarily reduces its strength.

“You’ve just transiently weakened all the muscle groups you’re trying to train,” said Josh Goldman, associate director of the Center for Sports Medicine at UCLA Health.

A dynamic warm-up through a series of active exercises that get your blood flowing and gently stress your muscles is the most effective preparation for a workout.

Myth: You need to lift heavy weights to build muscle

Schoenfeld, who studies muscle growth, says that’s not true.

A significant body of research now shows that lifting relatively light weights with higher repetitions is just as effective at building muscle and strength as lifting weights that feel heavier for five to 12 reps.

Myth: Running destroys your knees

Research has debunked the notion that running increases your risk of osteoarthritis, and even suggests it can protect your knees against the condition. In fact, not moving increases your risk of developing osteoarthritis, along with age, weight and genetics, according to the article.

Still, running can lead to knee pain or injury if you train too aggressively, said Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. Metzl called that “violating the rule of toos” — running too fast or too far too soon. Increase slowly and get any pain checked out as soon as possible by a sports medicine expert.

Myth: Walking is enough to keep you fit as you age

Walking is popular among older people for good reason: It’s been shown to lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers, as well as the risk of premature death.

But walking on its own is not enough to stay fit as you get older, said Anne Brady, an associate professor of exercise science at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, told the Times. Starting in your 30s, your muscle mass progressively declines, she said, so you also need to focus on strength training.

Complement walks with at least two 20-minute strength-training sessions per week.

Myth: Modifications are for beginners

Choosing to do a less-strenuous version of an exercise doesn’t mean you’re weak or a novice or that you’re backsliding, said Stephanie Roth-Goldberg, a clinical social worker and therapist in New York who works with athletes. It’s a sign that you’re listening to your body and keeping it safe.

“Our bodies require different things on different days,” she said. “Modifying exercises helps us work on form and the mind-body connection.”

Myth: Runners and cyclists don’t need to strength-train their lower body

Amanda Katz, a certified strength and running coach in New York City, told the Times she often has to convince clients who run or cycle that they also need strength training for their lower body.

Running and cycling strengthens your lower body, but not enough to stimulate significant muscle growth, she said. A regimen that includes squats, lunges, glute bridges and pointers can improve bone density and lower your risk of injury and make you a stronger runner or cyclist.

Myth: You need 10,000 steps a day to be healthy

Exercise scientists debunked that notion years ago, but many Americans still see it as a benchmark of good health, Cedric Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, told the Times.

The latest research suggests that the health benefits of walking appear to plateau at around 7,500 steps, but even as few as 4,000 steps per day can reduce the risk of dying from any cause.

Myth: Taking an ice bath after a tough workout improves recovery

An ice bath helps to reduce inflammation after a tough workout. But, “Not all inflammation is bad inflammation,” Goldman said. If you jump into an ice tub after every workout, you slow or stop the repair process.

When you work out, you create useful inflammation by strategically stressing your muscles, and as the body heals, it builds strength, he said. If you want to tend to a specific injury after a workout, Goldman recommended either icing the injury itself or waiting a day before taking a cold dip, to give your muscles time to start the repair process.

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