"Go outside and ride your bike." That's what my mom would say when I complained about being fat as a kid. And she wasn't completely wrong. After all, if I wanted to lose weight, riding my bike more wouldn't hurt.
But I took her words as gospel, and for decades I equated exercise with weight loss, fooling myself into believing that I could overindulge as long as I was active. For instance, I used to make Doritos-and-ketchup sandwiches on white bread as an after-school snack. But don't you dare mock me! They are fantastic.
I did as mom said, riding my bike around our suburban neighborhood. I ran track and played for multiple sports teams in high school. In college, I walked 20-30 minutes to class every day, played pickup games, and ruled intramural sports. After graduation I regularly hit the gym five times a week.
Yet, despite all that effort, I still looked like a Nutrisystem "before" photo.
Finally, in my 30s, I tried P90X, a high-intensity workout program that comes with a recommended diet. Following its guidelines, I shrunk my meal portions, stopped eating packaged and processed foods, and cut out alcohol. And I lost 35 pounds.
Sure, the workouts helped, but intense exercise was nothing new to me. It was the diet that finally knocked off the weight.
My point is that we all receive bad fitness advice, often from well-meaning people: parents, coaches, friends, bros at the gym getting so ripped, bro. If you're like me, some of that bad advice sticks. But it shouldn't. Here are five pieces of lousy, outdated fitness advice to ignore.
1. "If You Want to Lose Weight, You Have to Exercise"
Not totally true.
This is what people who sell exercise equipment and workout programs want you to think. If you really want to shed pounds, you must get your diet in check. Exercise is excellent for our health and can help burn some extra calories, but losing weight depends on a creating a calorie deficit (when you burn more calories than you consume), according to the Mayo Clinic.
If you're looking to create a calorie deficit, you can safely cut between 500 to 1,000 calories per day, according to the Mayo Clinic. The key, though, is to cut calories sustainably. Creating a drastic calorie cut will be challenging and nearly impossible to sustain in the long term.
The truth: While exercise can increase your caloric expenditure (and benefits your health), the foods you consume will make the most difference. If you want to lose weight, eating healthier foods and trimming calories is key. To give yourself an edge, find a weight-loss buddy. Working towards a goal with another person can help keep you motivated and accountable.
2. "No Pain, No Gain"
"Come on! Three more! You can do it! Push!" We've all heard these "words of encouragement" in the weight room.
My high school football buddies used to shout them as I struggled to rep out one last bench press during team training sessions. As a bonding experience, and willpower test, these workouts had value. But they set a terrible precedent. I equated pain with gain and discounted any workout that didn't leave my body in agony.
If you're not an elite athlete and you're exercising for the health benefits, including better heart health, improved mood, weight regulation, increased energy, or getting more sleep, there is no need for pain. You can attain all of these benefits with minimal discomfort. Plus, a painful workout is one you are less likely to repeat.
The truth: Moderate exercise for 40 minutes, four to five times a week, is all you need to glean the health benefits of exercise, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This includes walking, jogging or yoga-style exercise. Even some common chores meet the requirements.
3. "You Can Build Long, Lean Muscles"
About five years ago, I bought myself a set of adjustable dumbbells. I kept the weight low and went high-rep. Why? Because I didn't want big, bulky arms. What I wanted were — and I'd heard this phrase for years — long, lean muscles.
"There has always been a misconception that weightlifting and resistance training will make you big and bulky," says Shane Doll, certified personal trainer. "What nobody thinks about is that, from a pure anatomical standpoint, the idea of making your muscles longer is impossible. The joint distance never changes. The physiology behind that is pretty simple yet they think, 'Pilates or this machine will make my muscles long and sleek.'"
The truth: Whether it's Pilates or push-ups, the adaptation of the muscle tissue does not change. Muscle bulk only happens with intense workouts coupled with protein and/or other supplements.
To get a lean swimmer's body (in the absence of swimming, of course), Doll recommends using a variety of resistance exercises, completed in fast-paced circuits that use burst training principals, which are short bursts of high-intensity effort.
Reps should be in the 8 to 20 range, or work in sets of 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off. By varying the number of repetitions, rest periods, exercises, and other variables in your workout, you'll continue to develop or maintain a lean physique without reaching a plateau.
4. "You Gotta Carbo-Load, Bro!"
Nope, you probably don't. On the nights before very challenging plyometric workouts, I loved to gorge on pasta. That's what I thought you were supposed to do before an intense workout. Once again, I was wrong.
"Unless you're going to physically exert yourself for more than 90 minutes the next day, you really don't need to think about carbo-loading," says Nancy Clark, registered dietitian.
The truth: To prepare for a big event, the best strategy is to continue eating your normal, healthy die, while cutting back on training, Clark says. "By taking a rest day, your muscles have the time they need to store those carbs that you eat instead of burning them off in yet another workout."
This is one reason why high school, college, and NFL teams have easy practices the day before a game. Besides letting aches and pains heal, athletes' bodies are able to store carbs for energy.
5. "The Best Time to Work Out is Morning/Night"
I have friends who swear that working out in the morning is better because it boosts your metabolism all day, increases your energy, and gives you a natural high that carries into the afternoon.
I also have friends who say that night is the best time to work out because you can burn off all of the calories you consumed that day, plus you're so tired at the end that it's easier to fall asleep.
What's the verdict?
When it comes to fat loss, there's not much of a benefit either way, Doll says. And while minor details like when you work out or what time you take your protein are great for Internet debate, they ultimately don't make a difference. What happens over a 24-hour period is what truly matters.
"I've seen too many of the 'rules' be broken, and people still see great results. Hard work, adequate rest/recovery, and consistency with clean nutrition are 95 percent of the equation for most," Doll says.
The truth: The best time to work out is whenever you most feel like exercising and/or can fit it into your schedule, Dr. Otto says. "There is some research suggesting that the time of day you work out may give you better performance should you also compete at that time, but these effects are subtle."
The Bottom Line
If you've been eating and working out based on advice you received so long ago you can't remember where it came from, question it. When it comes to working out, conventional wisdom changes as quickly as the science, which is still discovering how the human body works.