Don't let persistent fitness myths hinder you from getting in shape

Credit: Nathan Bilow/Allsport
Some of the old "fitness fiction" may be slowly losing popularity, but there remain lingering exercise misconceptions. Based on updated research, here are a few of the more common myths that still play out on the exercise field.

Myth #1: Stretching is for wimps
This is far from the truth. The notion that stretching is just for the elderly, the injured or the weak is more fiction than fact. Just take a look at athletes and professional competitors who include flexibility exercises as part of their training to reach peak performance.

Of the "big three" for fitness training which include cardiorespiratory fitness, muscular strength and endurance and flexibility stretching has always seemed to place last on the performance list.

Times are a-changin'. Back in the late 1960s when fitness for the health of it was first being introduced by Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the emphasis was on aerobic conditioning. Remember when everyone seemed to hit the roads running to get their aerobic fix? Next to enter the fitness arena was strength training. While flexibility was always included on the fitness team, it never seemed to get the full respect it deserved. Today it commands full respect; the benefits from flexibility training are being much applauded.

The lack of flexibility can become painfully evident as we age, when the connective tissue that surrounds our muscles becomes shorter, reducing the muscle's ability to stretch. Staying limber throughout life (and it is never too late to begin) is a plus. Stretching will promote muscular relaxation by increasing the circulation and transportation of nutrients to the muscles, decreasing the buildup of body toxins; the surrounding tissues will become more elastic, and feelings of fatigue will be reduced.

Other benefits include reduction of lower back pain and improvement of posture and balance. The risk of falling is reduced, and simple functional movement in everyday living becomes easier to perform.

Relief from stiffness certainly can make physical activities more enjoyable. The good news is that our muscles are very adaptable, having the ability to rebuild tissue whether we are 20 or 90.

The American College of Sports Medicine has added flexibility training to its fitness guidelines, recommending that stretching exercises for each major muscle group be performed two to three days a week. You may stretch daily if you wish. Notice the areas that are continually tight and be sure to include stretches for them.

Many people carry tension and feel tightness in their shoulders, upper back, lower back, chest, hamstrings (back of thighs) and hips. Still others may have noticeably tight areas in their bodies because of previous injuries and perhaps imbalances in their muscle groups.

If you are confused about how to initiate a good stretching program, you might want to contact a qualified personal trainer or physical therapist and have a functional stretching program designed just for you.

If you decide to stretch on your own, keep in mind that stretching is an individual endeavor. Listen to your body and don't try to bounce or push your way through the stretch. It is better to under-stretch than to over-stretch; stretching should never hurt. You will find stretching much easier and more enjoyable when you take time to warm up those muscles that are going to be stretched; walking for 10 to 15 minutes is an effective warmup.

Slowly stretch until you feel very mild tension; hold the stretch for 10 to 20 seconds and never, never hold your breath. Try inhaling deeply just before you begin the stretch, then exhale as you move into the stretch; take several deep breaths while you are holding the stretch.

One way I like to stretch is to treat the first stretch as a pre-stretch, holding it about 10 seconds, then following it with a longer stretch, maybe 20 seconds. I would suggest you learn several stretches for each muscle group. You will not be limiting your improvement by repeating the "same old stretch."

You might want to try a stretch class; they are becoming more popular. Some stretch classes are in combination with cardio and strength workouts, while others offer more specialized stretching. Consider taking a yoga, tai chi or Pilates class. All of these programs can be modified to meet the needs of a broad spectrum of fitness levels; however, if you are a beginner, discuss your personal goals with the instructor before you take a class. What I personally like about these classes is the inclusion of mind-body exercise: relaxation, visualization and breathing exercises. Your body responds more positively to flexibility exercises when it is relaxed.

Myth #2: Stay away from strength exercises if you want to lose weight
Both cardiovascular (aerobic) exercise and strength training will effectively help you to maintain a healthy weight. When the values of cardiovascular and strength exercises were first being introduced, we heard that if you wanted to lose weight, go cardio; if your desire was to develop stronger muscles, do strength workouts: two separate workouts to produce two different goals.

Now it is realized that both work together to help control weight; muscles are very active calorie-burning machines, which can increase your metabolism. Strength training, performed on a regular basis, does even more for the health of the body than the obvious maintaining of muscle mass and lowering of body-fat percentages.

The following information was taken from "Fitness Matters," American Council on Exercise Journal, March-April 2000 (source: Journal of American Heart Association, Feb. 22, 2000, and the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 2000). Several new studies confirm the benefits of mild to moderate resistance training, which includes reduction of blood pressure, lowering of the LDL cholesterol levels (the "bad stuff") and increasing the "good" HDL cholesterol levels, all of which improves cardiovascular health.

Weight training is also believed to improve the way the body processes sugar, which could reduce the risk of developing diabetes. Another study investigating the effects of weight training on osteoarthritis, which can affect balance and increase the risk of falling, has confirmed that exercise of any kind will improve strength, gait and ability to perform activities of daily living among older adults and, in many cases, will reduce pain associated with the disease.

Myth #3: Go for the burn no pain, no gain
This was a popular conception back in the '80s, and it was highly touted by the likes of Jane Fonda and other fitness divas or gurus of that era. "No pain no gain" has no basis in any medical or scientific research. When you first begin to use muscles you haven't used in a while, you may experience some soreness or mild discomfort, but it should never hurt.

Pain is an indication of a problem. If an exercise results in pain, you are probably doing too many repetitions or going way too fast. Keep in mind that physical exercise is good for your health, and pain is not a part of that health plan.

Myth #4: Abdominal exercises will flatten the stomach
Abdominal exercises are important to do for the health of your back; all of your abdominal muscles, especially the obliques, help support and move your spine. Ab exercises can improve your posture, which will help to improve your appearance, but as far as flattening your stomach by making the fat disappear via crunches, forget it: There is no such thing as spot reducing.

Spot reduction is based on the theory that if you repeatedly contract certain muscles, you will lose the stored fat in that particular muscle you are so diligently exercising. This myth has been greatly perpetuated by the many infomercials and hundreds of exercise videos on the market that guarantee flat abs if you use their products.

If you have accumulated excess fat in the area, you won't be able to see those muscles, let alone flatten them, not matter how many daily crunches you do. If you were to do 600 sit-ups a day, you might very well have strong abdominals, but the fat on top of that muscle would not disappear.

To quote Covert Bailey from his Fit or Fat books, "The subcutaneous fat lying on top of a muscle doesn't 'belong' to that particular muscle. It belongs to the entire body."

What he is saying is that you have to get the whole body moving, as in aerobic activities, to get that fat off. To resolve the abdominal fat problem, you need to reconsider your food intake.

Forget about specific fat deposits and become involved in exercise that works the whole body a combination plan of doing aerobic and strength exercises, plus a balanced but low-fat diet. When you do begin to lose the fat, there are no guarantees as to where it will occur.

Myth #5: Muscle turns into fat when you stop exercising
You still hear people say that when you stop exercising, your muscle will turn into fat. Muscle cannot magically turn into fat any more than fat can turn into muscle. They are two separate entities that are not interchangeable.

Muscles are made up of long, spaghetti-like fibers, while fat cells are round receptacles that store fat. Strength training will increase the size of the muscle fibers (hypertrophy); without training, the muscles will atrophy (decrease in size).

An excess of calories will make the fat cells become bigger as they store more fat; conversely, the cells will become smaller in size when you burn more calories than you eat.

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