Go outside and ride your bike.
That’s what my mom would say when I complained about being fat as a kid.
She wasn’t completely wrong. 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 eat like a pig as long as I was active. (Example: I used to make Doritos-and-ketchup sandwiches on white bread as an after-school snack. Don’t you dare mock me! They are fantastic.)
I did as mom said and rode my bike around our suburban neighborhood. I ran track and played on 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 But it shouldn’t. Here are five pieces of lousy, outdated fitness advice to ignore.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"
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 good—the benefits are many—but losing weight is about putting fewer calories in your Chalupa-hole.
For those who prefer hard science: When researchers from Hunter College recently studied the Hadza hunter/gatherer tribe in Tanzania, and compared its lifestyle to the typical Western lifestyle, they found no difference in energy expenditures between the two.
So whether you hunt birds and pick berries all day, or sit in an office cubicle, your body burns about the same amount of calories. In other words, obesity is not caused by inactivity. It’s a calories-in problem.
THE TRUTH: If you want to lose weight, eating healthier foods and ingesting fewer calories is key. To give yourself an edge, find a weight-loss buddy. According to a study published in the journal Obesity, people who attempt to slim down together can significantly influence each other’s results. This helps explain why husbands and wives who attend programs such as WeightWatchers together regularly have success.
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 eek out one last bench press during team training sessions. As a bonding experience, and a 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.
“No pain, no gain is a bad strategy for lifelong exercise,” says Dr. Michael Otto, author of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-Being. 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, Otto says. Walking, jogging, dancing, swimming, volleyball, touch football, and shooting baskets all count as “moderate exercise.” Even some common chores meet the requirements. For a list of moderate exercises and the length of time they should be done, copy and paste this URL into your browser (after you finish this article, of course): http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/obesity/lose_wt/phy_act.htm.
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.
Well, I was an idiot.
Shane Doll, a personal trainer in Charleston, S.C., says he laughs when companies advertise the ability to sell someone the means to long, lean muscles.
“There has always been a misconception that weightlifting and resistance training will make you big and bulky,” Doll says. “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.’”
If the marketing was true, people who did Pilates would look like Plastic Man.
THE TRUTH: Whether it’s Pilates or pushups, 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 the lean, toned look of a swimmer (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 8-20 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!"
No, you probably don’t.
When I was doing P90X, on the nights before the very challenging plyometric workout, I would gorge on pasta because 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, RD, author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook.
THE TRUTH: To prepare for a big event, the best strategy is to continue eating your normal, healthy sports diet (a plate filled with two-thirds grain, starches, veggies, and fruits, and one-third protein) 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.
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, what time you take your whey protein, etc. are great for Internet debate, they ultimately don’t make a big enough difference to matter. 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. “Elite athletes and bodybuilders can make an argument that the last five percent is pretty important, but this is far from something the average Joe or Jane should concern themselves with. The big picture gets lost in the details.”
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.”
If you want to get a little more specific, follow these simple guidelines from Doll, who has been a trainer for 20 years:
Avoid high-intensity training (burst training, interval training) later in the evening, as it produces chemicals in the brain that can make it difficult to fall asleep and can disrupt natural circadian rhythms.
The best time for weight training is when your maximum effort can be exerted.
Avoid exercising shortly after eating a meal. If you train in the morning, eat a small amount of whey protein or a piece of fruit as a pre-workout snack. Digestion should be kept to a minimum.
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.