10 fitness misconceptions
There's something that bothers me a bit about fitness and the media. They've been lying to us! See, they've been telling us that the only way to get fit is to do a [insert number of days] challenge, or the [insert fruit] diet, that we need to stop eating carbs, that actually fat is bad for you, that doing only 15 minutes a day is enough. It's not. There might be some people for whom the above work, who knows, I don't know everyone in the world, but for the vast majority, they don't work. Why? Because they don't look at the whole picture.
I've now been over three months working at this gym I've mentioned before, and I see time and time again how people have been completely misguided and they are now getting frustrated they don't see the results they were promised. The thing is, they don't get frustrated with whoever gave them the wrong information, but with themselves. They end up blaming their genes, their metabolism, or whatever else they can think of.
I decided to collect some of the most common comments, phrases, reasons I've encountered so far. See if you've ever found yourself saying any of these, believing any of these, and hopefully, I'll be able to help with some clear information!
1. I want to lose my belly, so I have to do sit-ups.
Right, let's begin with one of my pet peeves, sit-ups. Every single person and their cousin believes that in order to lose the love handles they need to perform at least 100 sit-ups per day. And man, it's difficult to change their minds... Time and time again I hear myself saying that we can't target specific areas when trying to lose fat (same as painkillers can't really target specific areas that hurt), we can only lose body fat from everywhere, and then we will lose our beer belly. Ah, I said the magic word, beer... I'll come back to that one later on. If we keep working on our core, we will just get a stronger core and (marginally) bigger abs, which won't necessarily give us a tiny waist. Sit-ups have their time and place, as everything else, but if you want to lose your belly, you need a full body approach, and to look at your diet.
2. I can't lose weight because my metabolism is slow/I have a problem with my thyroid gland/I have a genetic condition/I have a specific medical reason.
Believe me, I get it. You've tried everything to lose weight and nothing works, so it must be you. You've been on every diet, you've done the 30-day abs challenge, you've done every single HIIT video you've come across, and yet you're still not losing weight. Unfortunately, it takes a bit longer than 30 days to see significant changes, and we tend to underestimate what we eat and overestimate what we burn. If you have a slow metabolism, or an under active thyroid, it just means that you have to be a bit more consistent and maybe a bit stricter with your regime in order to see results.
Story time! I do have an under active thyroid, and I'm on medication. In theory, I should be ballooning and putting on weight, and if I'm not careful with what I eat, that's exactly what will happen. I should be feeling lethargic and tired, I should be gaining weight and feeling depressed. Unless I'm on medication and keeping an eye on my T3 and T4 (triiodothyronine and thyroxine) with regular blood tests. I'm not taking away from the fact that having a condition sucks, trust me, I know (slight scoliosis, hypothyroidism, fibroids, migraines...), it just means you need to be diligent and work just a bit harder, keeping your eye on the goal.
3. I'm not eating carbs/fat/fruit/whatever because I want to lose weight.
Unless you have a medical reason for which you need to eliminate something from your diet, or something really makes you sick, you really should eat everything in moderation and in the right proportions. You don't need to know about macros or anything like that to lose weight, you just need to be sensible when eating. Anything without a food label or ingredients list tends to be better for your body, just because it's not manufactured or pre-cooked. Carbs are necessary for our bodies to function correctly, they're converted into glucose and glycogen which is the main fuel our body uses. Fat essentially helps keep our cells healthy and functioning. Protein (mostly meat, but other stuff has protein too) is what keeps our muscles healthy and in shape. Eliminating food groups from your diet is only going to deprive your body of those nutrients.
Fun fact. Did you know that vegetables and fruit also have carbs in them? Potatoes, cauliflower, sweet potatoes... You need these foods to survive! A very low carb diet can make you feel dizzy, give you a headache, make you nauseous... Choose brown options whenever possible (bread, pasta, even rice) and make sure to choose veggies instead whenever possible.
In terms of fats, avoid all the trans-fats out there (hydrogenated oils) and if you're unsure, most confectionery, pastries, pre-made meals will have a higher content. Another fun fact, some oils like olive oil, are very healthy in salads, but at very hot temperatures they get corrupted and become less healthy, so choose different oils for different methods of cooking!
4. I'm doing a detox/shake/fruit/restrictive/low-calorie diet because I want to lose weight.
We've all been there. We've found The Diet, the one to finish all diets. The diet that promises you will lose exactly the amount of weight you want to lose, and only in 30 days! Wait, no, in 15 days! Plenty of advocates out there swear by it, and you've seen all the before and after pictures. This is it!
You follow the diet and fight for 15+ days your cravings, you pretty much start to dread mealtime because you'll see your colleagues, your family and your friends eating all the yummy food you're avoiding because you can only eat whatever it is the diet is about. And it sucks. And hey, if you stick to it, at the end of that time period you will probably have lost the weight you wanted to lose, and so you will celebrate by having a normal meal, and another after that, and pretty much going back to your usual routine... Only to put all the weight back on, and then some.
Most of those diets are based on a low-calorie intake, and that's why they work. I had someone recently tell me that their shake meal replacement diet was working, so I asked more questions. They were having a shake in the morning, which made them full past lunchtime, so they skipped that meal. They then had another shake mid-afternoon and finally dinner at home. The shakes were about 200 kcal each. This person was eating 1,000 kcal max. per day, a huge difference from their previous diet (as in original meaning of the word, not as a weight loss aid) which consisted in almost 2,400 kcal per day. No wonder it worked! Unless you're willing to stick to the diet forever, and that's never recommended, once you return to your normal habits, you'll go back to a calorie surplus.
Now, I've done restriction diets in the past, and it's one I've spoken about and even preached about... I've done Whole30 in the past. During 30 days I've eliminated grains, sugar, alcohol, legumes and dairy from my diet. I've done it a few times and each time it's a struggle. Each time everyone asked me "so what can you eat?" and each time I've opened my lunchbox to reveal an amazing meal, mostly protein based with lots of vegetables. So you might be thinking I'm a hypocrite for telling you not to do it when I've done it myself... I'm not telling you not to do it, I'm saying while they will help you lose weight, it won't be sustainable and you're likely to put it back.
I did Whole30 because I read about all the non-scale victories (as they call it) people had, more energy, better skin, better sleep... Weight loss was almost like a side effect nobody cared about. When I did it I felt empowered, to be honest. True, I lost weight, and I found out that eating a lot of bread makes me balloon, but now I can make the choice whenever I feel like eating bread (the answer is yes, always, I love bread!). Eat a proper diet of a mixture of carbs, fat and protein in the right proportions, add fibre to it, and drink lots of water. Burn more than you eat. You'll be fine.
5. I want to lose weight, so I need to do cardio: 40 minutes on the treadmill, 40 minutes on the elliptical and 30 minutes on the rower.
Whenever I hear this one... Well, it just makes me sad. Cardio is great for weight loss, but you can't just do cardio and expect to look good. You will lose weight, sure, but also muscle mass, and you would look extremely skinny. If that's what you're aiming for, go for it! If you want muscle definition, you need a different strategy.
Cardio is an amazing exercise for your heart, and doing it for longer periods of time will make sure that you can... well, run/row/ellipticate (?) for long periods of time.
It's recommended to do cardio for 30 minutes, five times a day at a moderate intensity, and that's for a healthy heart. If you want to make sure you lose weight and your heart is in tiptoe condition, you need to vary your sessions. Mix it up with interval training, long distance, fast and slow pace. Your body was made to adapt and change, you're not a hamster running on a wheel. Play with your workouts, keep them varied and fun, and you'll keep coming for more and your body won't know what to expect, so it'll have to adapt quicker and work harder for it. If you can do two hours of cardio, you're working at a moderate intensity tops. Make sure you hit it hard from time to time and you'll become faster, more adaptable, and resilient.
6. I want to lose weight and get a six-pack, but I don't want to watch what I eat.
Erm... OK. This one always catches me off guard. After all, if you want to lose weight, you need to do something about it, right? A lot of people seem to think they can go on a treadmill for 40 minutes and that will give them carte blanche to eat anything they want. Chocolates mid-morning? Sure. Cake in the afternoon because it's Carol's birthday? Of course! Drinks after work three times a week? Hey, it was a hard week... See, the thing is that 40 minutes on the treadmill might burn around 500 kcal (if you weigh around 70kg). 500 kcal sounds like a lot, except when you look at the calories those biscuits, that cake and those drinks have. Do you remember when we discussed carb-avoiding above? Well, carbs have 4 kcal per gram while alcohol has a crazy 9 kcal per gram instead! So there's no point in trying to lose weight if you're going out and drinking six pints in one night (for a total of roughly 1,000 kcal!!).
In order to lose weight, we need to burn more calories than we eat, and roughly, we need a deficit of 3,500 kcal per week in order to lose 500g per week. It is recommended to lose between 0.5-1kg per week as a safe and sustainable rate. Given these numbers, you do need to watch what you eat.
You can burn more calories by moving more, or you can consume fewer calories by watching what you eat. I'd recommend a mixture of both. If your diet is not healthy and is highly calorific (most are), the amount of exercise needed to balance it out would not be sustainable or safe. And lowering your calorie intake below 1,000 kcal might not be clinically advised either. So exercise more and watch what you eat, you'll do just fine.
7. I'm a woman and I want to get toned, but I don't want to lift weights because I don't want to get bulky.
Have a look around the free weights area in any gym and you'll see a bunch of guys working out day in, day out, and looking fairly skinny. Sure, there will be a few that are huge, but look at how much they're lifting and how long they've been working out... It's not that easy to get bulky. If you speak to any of them (they look intimidating, I know, but most of them are usually quite sweet) you'll hear stories about how they're eating a bunch of supplements, or eating every two hours, or doing a bunch of crazy stuff to get to where they are now.
For women, it's even more difficult, because we don't have as much testosterone among other hormones, helping us out. Our bodies were not designed to bulk up, but to store fat, unfortunately. If you want to tone up, or have muscle definition, you need to get rid of subcutaneous fat (that's the layer of fat under your skin) and build up those muscles, so you will look shapely, and not wasted away. You won't be lifting heavy weights off the bat, so you're pretty safe in the bulking department. Classes like pump that use weights are more cardio than resistance training, because they use light weights for a high number of repetitions. Go to the machines, step into the free weight area, you'll never look back! If you're unsure, talk to the staff and PTs at your gym and they'll be happy to help. Any guys on the free weights area will also help if you genuinely want to learn!
Fun fact. Weight bearing exercises are huge for bone health and prevention is key. Women in particular will suffer from bone problems later in life (hello menopause!) so if you want to have healthy bones in the future, start lifting now!
8. I'm a man, if I do cardio I'm going to lose my gains.
As mentioned above, cardio is very important for your heart. The problem here is that when we say cardio we picture rows and rows of treadmills and elliptical machines in a gym. Sure, that is a way of doing cardio... You can also do bodyweight exercises, you can go swimming, or cycling. Remember you only need to do 30 minutes per day, five times a week at a moderate intensity. That can be cycling to and from the gym, or heavy gardening or DIY, or maybe a dance session. You can mix it up and do some boxing training. Anything that raises your heart rate and is sustained for a period of time can be cardio. Yes, even that... but maybe don't do that one at the gym!
9. Fitness classes are for women, aren't they? Aqua classes are for grandmas, aren't they?
I've put these two together, because they're based on the same principle: prejudice. We think of fitness classes as aerobic based, where a bunch of women are barely breaking a sweat while doing some weird form of cardio... And that is so wrong.
There are fitness classes for everyone nowadays. You can attend HIIT classes, which will give you a great workout and make you sweat like crazy. There are all the Les Mills ones (pretty much anything that starts with the word Body- pump, balance, attack, combat...) and classes like GRIT will challenge you to the max. Yoga is an amazing class to go to as it will stretch you all over. Pilates is great if you want to improve your posture. It's a pity that many men are missing out on good workouts just because of a preconception.
Aqua, now this one is a funny one. I too once thought that aqua was a class for elderly women and so I went with my friend to give it a try and have a laugh. And it nearly destroyed me. Aqua is great because you get an aerobic workout without the impact you would otherwise suffer if you were out of the water, that's why older people like this class, it's gentle on their joints. Also, since you're mostly covered by water, nobody can see your body and judge you, or see what you're doing and whether it's wrong or not. Well, they can to some extent, but you get the point, it's a bit easier for people who might feel self-conscious. Using the water as resistance, as well as a bunch of floating items, you can get a really good workout if you make an effort, you need balance, coordination, strength, aerobic capacity... Aqua is not a light workout at all!
10. You're a personal trainer, why haven't you heard of/can't you do this exercise?
I must admit this one annoys me a little bit... I understand I need to keep on top of the latest trends, and that as a personal trainer I need to be fit enough to demonstrate the exercises I'm asking you to perform, but that doesn't mean I know every exercise out there! Especially since people get trendy and start using different weird, cool names for the same exercises. So if you ask me if I've heard of something, I might say no. If you show me a video, then I'll probably know what you're talking about, and even if it's the first time I see it, I'll be able to tell you which muscles you should be engaging and how to correct form. After all, there are just a limited number of movements the body was designed to perform, it's all just about fancy combinations!
In terms of being able to do a specific exercise, well, no, I don't have to be able to do everything just because I'm a personal trainer. Do you see how you only like lifting and not running, and even when lifting, you pretty much just like bodybuilding? Personal trainers also have preferences, and also have their own fitness goals. If a PT is into bodybuilding, they might not necessarily be able to perform squat jumps and burpees, but they'll be able to teach them. If a PT is into bodyweight workouts, they might not necessarily be able to bench press a heavy weight, but they will be able to spot you and correct your technique.
As personal trainers we're always learning and improving, and trying new things, but we can't know everything! We also can't perform every exercise out there... If you train for endurance, you won't be great at strength, if you are built like a strongman, you might not be able to do high intensity interval training. We can only try our best, and make sure we know how to teach you each exercise so if that's what you want to do, you do it safely. And really that's all one can ask.
I hope all the above has helped a bit. Let me know what other phrases you tend to hear (or even use yourself) that might not be entirely useful. And if you have any questions about training or nutrition, give me a shout and I'll do my best to help.