Are these surprising fitness myths holding you back?

female athlete smiling and leaning on her knees after morning training session

From TikTok influencers to magazine covers and TV ads, it seems everywhere we look there’s something about getting in shape. The problem is, not all of this information is reliable, credible or based on science. Sometimes it’s misleading on purpose, to sell you something or to gain followers. Sometimes we hear conflicting advice from well-meaning friends or family. And sometimes, we have long-held beliefs within ourselves that may not actually be true.

Let’s take a look at some common fitness misconceptions.

MYTH: Sit-ups are the best way to lose belly fat.

TRUTH: No exercise can target fat in just one part of the body. There is no such thing as spot reduction. When we lose fat, we lose it all over.

Abdominal exercises strengthen your core muscles, and you should include them in your fitness routine. However, your diet is the biggest factor in gaining or losing belly fat.

The best way to lose belly fat is to:

Pay attention to your nutrition and the number of calories youre consuming. To see how many calories your body needs for your age, gender and activity level, refer to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (see chart on p. 153). In simplest terms: To lose an average of one pound a week, subtract 500 calories from that daily amount, and be sure to eat nutritiously.Diet and weight loss can be a challenging and complex issue that varies by individual. There’s no one size fits all. For assistance creating a plan that works best for you, consider meeting with a registered dietitian. This may be covered under your health insurance plan.
Maintain a regular exercise program that includes both strength training and cardio. Having stronger muscles increases your metabolism, which helps burn fat.

A number of factors can affect whether one carries excess belly fat – such as menopause, hormones, genetics, stress and certain health conditions. It’s best to talk with your medical care provider about this.

Belly fat is more than just a cosmetic issue. A waist circumference of 35” or more for women and 40” or more for men is considered a risk for disease, including type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance and coronary heart disease (American College of Sports Medicine, 2014).

That’s because waist circumference is an indicator of an individual’s amount of visceral fat, which surrounds internal organs. Visceral fat is linked with dangerous health problems (Mayo Clinic), unlike the fat on thighs or hips.

MYTH: Exercise needs to be strenuous to be beneficial.

TRUTH: While boot camps and HIIT (high intensity interval training) get a lot of attention these days, they are not the only effective way to exercise.

One advantage of HIIT is that you typically exercise for a shorter duration, which saves time. And yes, you do get a vigorous full-body workout.

But moderate-intensity exercise can help you get in shape, too. It can also help beginners avoid potential injury and burnout from doing strenuous activities for which they are not yet conditioned.

Current government physical activity guidelines recommend at least 75 to 150 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate-level aerobic activity. In addition, it also recommends muscle-strengthening activity on two or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms). 30 minutes, five days a week, equals 150 minutes a week.

Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise is anything that gets your heart beating faster, such as brisk walking. Muscle strengthening activities are things that make your muscles work harder than usual.

Even light-intensity exercise has been proven to provide health benefits and to reduce risk of dying prematurely. In one study researchers found that replacing 30 minutes of sedentary activity with light-intensity activity resulted in an 11% lower risk of all-cause mortality and a 24% lower risk of cardiovascular-disease mortality. Thirty minutes per day of low-intensity activity was also linked with a 15% lower risk of cancer death.

Any amount of exercise you do, no matter how small or light, is better than doing nothing and will benefit you.

MYTH: The best time to stretch is at the beginning of your workout.

TRUTH: Yes and no; this one is a bit tricky. Fitness professionals refer to two types of stretching during an exercise session: Dynamic (movement) and static (holding a position). They are generally done at different ends of a workout. When most people think of stretching, it’s static that comes to mind.

First, let’s differentiate warming up from simply stretching. Warm-ups are important to help prepare your body for exercise. It raises the temperature of your muscles to allow more efficient energy production to fuel muscle contraction, and the release of oxygen to the muscles begins to increase, among other physiological benefits. It also helps to improve your range of motion and prevent injury.

The preferred type of warm-up stretching before a workout is dynamic movement. The goal is to activate the muscles you will use during the workout by moving them. (American Council on Exercise).

Static stretching focuses on flexibility, elongation and relaxation. According to research, static stretching is best performed when your muscles are already warm — at the end of the workout during the cool-down.

MYTH: Getting in shape is impossible because it’s too expensive.

TRUTH: Many people think a pricey gym membership, trainer or exercise machine is needed in order to get fit. But the reality is there are plenty of free and low-cost ways you can exercise.

Walking, running, hiking, bike riding, body weight (no equipment) workouts, taking free or low-cost community classes, and doing exercise videos at home are a few ways. For more ideas, see my post on Ways to Get Fit on a Budget.

Here’s another way to save: Blue Cross NC members are eligible for gym and fitness discounts through the Blue 365 program.

Sadly, some people use cost as an excuse not to exercise — at the expense of their health. They seem to have money for eating out, drive-thru coffee and entertainment. But $25 a month on a fitness membership? “Oh, that’s too much.”

Fitness doesn’t need to be expensive, but it does require a commitment. It’s worth making it more of a priority in your time and budget. After all, you only get one body. Your health and wellbeing are priceless.

MYTH: I’m too old to start exercising. It’s too late to make a difference now, so why bother?

TRUTH: It’s never too late to start. And yes, you can make a difference! In fact, one study  found that older people who have never taken part in sustained exercise programs have the same ability to build muscle mass as highly trained athletes of a similar age.

The research shows that even those who are entirely unaccustomed to exercise can benefit from resistance exercises such as weight training.

The lead researcher notes that, “Obviously a long-term commitment to good health and exercise is the best approach to achieve whole-body health, but even starting later on in life will help delay age-related frailty and muscle weakness.”

As we age, exercise becomes especially important to maintain quality of life, independence, prevent falls and other injuries, help reduce arthritic stiffness and soreness, and to help in activities of daily living.

As a fitness professional who works with midlife and older adults, I witness amazing success stories on a regular basis.

READ: Exercise at home with online classes (plus two awesome free options!)