Fitness Facts & Fiction

by Kelly James-Enger

IF you want to get in shape, exercise first thing in the morning. You’ll burn more fat if you work out at a slower pace. Leg lifts are the most effective way to trim your thighs. With so many theories and claims about exercise out there, it’s sometimes hard to separate fitness fact from fiction. We’ve rounded up eight common fitness myths—and uncovered the truth behind them:

You burn more calories exercising on an empty stomach.

While you may have heard this, it’s false—you expend the same number of calories during activity whether you’ve eaten or not. In fact, exercising on an empty stomach can actually sabotage your workout—you may run out of energy before you finish, says personal trainer Cindi Olson of Germantown, Maryland.

“You have to have food in your stomach so that there’s something there to burn,” she explains. “A carbohydrate and protein light meal [like cheese and crackers or chicken salad on whole wheat bread] about an hour and a half to two hours before your workout will give you the optimum amount of energy.” If you work out first thing in the morning, try fruit juice and toast before you exercise—or if you can’t face food that early, have a snack before bed.

If you don’t exercise regularly, muscle turns to fat.

Muscle is muscle and fat is fat—you can’t turn one into the other, says ACSM Certified Exercise Specialist Sharon Spalding, a professor at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia. The reason for this misconception is that over time, under-exercised muscles will shrink and lose tone, so they look flabby. And if you were formerly active and are still eating more calories than you’re expending, you’ll store the excess as additional fat.

Lifting weights bulks you up.

While some women avoid weight training because they believe it will make them too muscular, their fears are unfounded. “Women do have some testosterone, but not to the extent that men do,” explains Spalding. “So getting those big bulky muscles isn’t something that’s going to happen to women.” Female body builders spend hours every day isolating and training individual muscle groups and adhere to stringent, high-protein, low-fat diets to develop their eye-popping physiques. The average woman who weight trains, on the other hand, will merely improve her overall muscle tone and look sleeker and firmer.

You must exercise for at least 30 minutes to receive health benefits.

This is the biggest exercise myth to dispel, says Sheila Reynolds, a health educator at the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas. According to Reynolds, you can reap significant health benefits such as lowered blood pressure and lowered cholesterol from as little as ten minutes of moderate intensity exercise like walking at a comfortable pace or doing yard work. Breaking down your workout into five- or ten-minute chunks throughout the day also makes it easier to fit it into your schedule. (If your primary goal is weight loss, however, it’s more effective to exercise for longer periods of time instead.)

Crunches flatten your stomach.

Leg lifts are the key to slender thighs, crunches the way to a flatter tummy. Right? Wrong! This type of exercise—also called “spot reduction”—strengthens muscles but doesn’t do much else. While crunches can make your stomach muscles as hard as a washboard, you won’t see much of a difference if there’s fat covering them up. In other words, you can’t selectively eliminate fat from particular parts of your body—you have to lose it all over by reducing your caloric intake and upping your activity.

You should stretch prior to working out.

It’s actually better to warm up a little before you stretch. The reason? Warm muscles stretch better, which reduces your chance of injury. For example, if you’re going to walk, warm up for five minutes strolling at an easy pace and then stop and stretch before continuing your workout. Don’t forget to perform some gentle, sustained stretches post-exercise as well. They’ll help you get rid of lactic acid, which makes muscles feel sore, and maintain flexibility.

You’ll burn more fat if you exercise at a slower pace.

This is a tricky one. Your body burns a mixture of fat and carbohydrates when you exercise. Working out at an easy pace, you’ll burn a higher percentage of fat than if you exercise more intensely—but you’ll also expend fewer total calories overall. “Think about the amount of time you have versus how much you’re going to burn,” says Olson. “If you only have 30 minutes to exercise and you do it slowly, you’re going to burn fewer calories in 30 minutes than if you do 20 minutes at a faster pace because you’re burning more calories per minute.”
Keep in mind, though, that you may not be able to maintain high intensity activity for very long. While a 143-pound woman will burn 182 calories walking at 3.5 miles per hour for 40 minutes and about the same—176 calories—jogging for only 20 minutes, you’re better off taking the extra time to walk if jogging’s no fun for you.

Morning is the best time to exercise.

For health benefits, it makes no difference if you exercise in the morning, afternoon or evening. While studies have suggested a.m. exercisers stick with it longer than those who work out later in the day, not everyone enjoys working out in the morning.

“The best time to exercise is the best time for you,” says Reynolds. “The bottom line is if it’s not the best time for you, you’re not going to stick with it…and if you’re not going to do it, you’re not going to get any benefits from it!” •

from the January-February 2008 issue


OK, so we’ve uncovered the reality behind some popular fitness misconceptions. But not all fitness gossip is false—there are some "truths" that can make a difference in your exercise program. Read on for five proven fitness facts—and how they can help you get and stay fit:


A day or two off won’t hurt your routine. Sure, it’s important to commit to regular exercise. But too many people give up on their routines simply because they’re forced to miss a few days, figuring that their hard work is now for naught. That’s a common misunderstanding, says Sharon Spalding.

"It’s going to take more than a couple of days to reverse the progress that you’ve made," says Spalding. "Even if a person misses a whole week, that’s OK. She might not be able to go back to exactly what she’s done before but she’s not going to go back to ground zero either."

In fact, you should always take a day off between strength training sessions. "Your muscles need 48 hours to repair themselves," explains Spalding. "The whole process of building muscle is that tiny microscopic tears occur in the muscle, and when they repair, the muscle becomes larger and stronger. If you don’t give it time to rest, it can’t rebuild."


Every little bit helps. Recent research has shown that discontinuous exercise—taking three 10-minute walks during the day instead of one 30-minute walk—is as good for you as continuous exercise. Little chunks of physical activity such as walking three flights of stairs instead of taking the elevator and spending fifteen minutes tending your flower bed all burn calories and help you stay fit.

"People think they need one or two hours to work out or they’re not going to get anything from it, but everything counts," says Cindi Olson, a certified personal trainer in Germantown, Maryland. And while it is true that intense exercise burns more calories than moderate exercise, this only means that you have to work out for a longer period of time at an easier pace if weight loss is one of your primary goals.


Calories really do count. You exercised today? That’s great. It’s not, however, carte blanche to polish off seconds at dinner. "The average person only burns 200 to 300 calories per session," says Spalding. "If you think of something equivalent food-wise it’s not a whole lot. It’s like a candy bar, or even a half a candy bar."

Now you know that you can’t simply write off that hot fudge sundae, but don’t let an eating binge sidetrack you, either. "Moderation is the key to all of this whether it’s exercise or eating. If you miss a day, you’re not doomed. If you overdo it at an office party and you eat a lot, the next day try to eat healthy," says Spalding. "Eat more fruits and vegetables, consume more fiber, and try to get back to your healthy patterns." Don’t forget to drink plenty of water as well.


Fatigue means you need exercise! "I’m too tired" is one of the most common excuses people give for not exercising. Scratch it off your list for good. It may seem counterintuitive but exercise boosts your energy levels. When you first begin a workout program, you may feel more tired because you’re not used to it. As your body adjusts, however, you’ll feel peppier, more alert, and have more energy, even when you’re not exercising.

If you haven’t exercised for a while, start off gradually to avoid overdoing it. "Start off slow," says Olson. "Within four to six weeks, you should notice a difference in the way you feel and your stamina."


The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn. Aerobic exercise is great for strengthening your heart and reducing stress. But to up your body’s metabolism, you need to strength-train. Your muscles are more metabolically active than fat, which means that they burn more calories and can help you lose or maintain your weight.

"A pound of muscle burns about 35 to 50 calories a day compared to non-muscle. If you lose a pound of muscle, you’re losing that capacity to burn about 50 calories a day," says Spalding. "That’s what happens to a lot of people. They gain weight as they get older but it’s really due to losing the muscle. If you lose 5 pounds of muscle, that’s going to be a weight gain of about 25 pounds a year."

To maintain your muscle mass as you get older, include strength training moves two or three days a week. You’ll not only look better—you’ll find it easier to do day-to-day tasks as well.

Triangle Pose
Courtesy Health & Harmony Center