By Dr. Mercola
There is no shortage of misinformation when it comes to diet and exercise. The fitness industry is a multi-billion dollar business based on selling you one piece of equipment or another, one supplement or another, constantly bombarding you with images of "the perfect body" if you will only do this or that.
Unfortunately, marketing perpetuates myths, and these myths are further perpetuated by word of mouth. Some of these myths will hold you back from achieving your fitness goals—or worse yet, damage to your body and your health.
- Are you under-exercising?
- Or maybe over-exercising?
- Are you on the right supplements?
Are you stuck with your progress toward your weight loss and fitness goals? Maybe you have unknowingly bought into some of the same exercise myths that I did over the years. It's time to take a look at fact versus fiction, when it comes to diet and exercise. Let's take a look at several of the more common exercise myths making the rounds today.
Myth #1: Long Cardio Workouts are the Key to Weight Loss
If you walk into any gym, you'll likely observe like I do that the majority of people working out are using the cardio equipment, believing they're getting an excellent workout. I really don't blame them as I was caught up in the same misinformation for over 40 years. Only recently did I learn there are FAR better forms of exercise, especially if you're 40 or above. There is a growing body of science showing that longer workouts are not better—which is great news if you are already trying to fit 25 hours of activity into every day.
Runners can rejoice—your days of spending long hours pounding the pavement each morning are finally over!
Science continues to confirm that shorter, higher-intensity burst workouts result in greater fat burning, greater development of lean body mass, and a variety of other benefits than the more time-consuming cardio routines of yesteryear.
The reason for this is that high-intensity burst exercises, like what I've incorporated into my Peak Fitness program, engage all the different muscle fibers in your body, including a certain group of muscle fibers that you cannot engage through conventional aerobic cardio. High-intensity burst exercises also boost your body's natural production of human growth hormone (HGH), a hormone produced by your pituitary gland that is key for physical strength, health and longevity.
High-intensity burst exercises require only a 20-minute time investment two to three times per week for optimal benefits.
I've been doing high-intensity burst exercises since April 2010 and have shed over 17 pounds of fat and three inches off my waist, while gaining more than seven pounds of muscle, all while dramatically reducing the time I spend in the gym. My Peak Fitness program is a comprehensive exercise plan that also includes strength training, core exercises, and stretching. But please remember that 80% of those results were related to the foods I was choosing to eat. It is the combination of the right foods and exercise the produces the results.
Myth #2: When it Comes to Exercise, More is Better
Although nearly everyone reading this is probably exercising too little, it is important to realize you can also sabotage your weight loss efforts by over-exercising. In this case, your body goes into an elevated stress response, keeping your cortisol levels too high. Cortisol, also known as "the stress hormone," is secreted by your adrenal glands and is involved in a variety of important metabolic functions, such as regulating your insulin and glucose levels, and controlling inflammation. Elevated cortisol will cause your body to store fat instead of building muscle.
Recovery is absolutely crucial to your long term success. You simply must provide your body with the opportunity to rebuild and restore itself after you stress it with intense workouts.
I no longer recommend marathon running and other high endurance exercises because science has now confirmed that these extreme endurance races place extraordinary stress on your heart—even if you're very fit.
Long-term endurance athletes have been found to suffer from diminished function of the right heart ventricles and increased cardiac enzyme levels, which indicate injury to the heart muscle itself. In 12 percent of endurance athletes, scarring of the heart tissue is detectable one week post race. Regardless of what type of exercise you do, always listen to your body as it will give you important feedback about whether or not you are overexerting yourself.
Myth #3: You Need to Take Supplements to Build Muscle
Muscle is hard to build and easy to lose. As you age, this is even more pronounced. Building a lean, healthy body depends on your overall diet, not just the right supplements, contrary to what you might hear at the gym. As I have said many times, with few exceptions, supplements should supplement your foods—not replace them. Strength training and resistance training are also key for building a lean body.
The leaner you are, the higher your metabolic rate will be. Weight training (aka resistance training) should be an integral part of your total fitness routine, which is why it's an important component of my Peak Fitness program.
Good nutrition requires eating a wide range of high-quality, fresh whole foods, such as organic vegetables, grass-pastured meats, organic eggs, etc., and minimizing your sugar intake. For more comprehensive nutritional guidelines, refer to my Nutrition Plan. If you are interested in augmenting your fitness routine and want to incorporate some supplements, there are a few that stand out above the rest:
- Omega-3 fats: Omega-3s benefit your heart and reduce inflammation, which may decrease your muscle soreness after a workout. Omega-3s also aid in tissue repair—and many other things. Research suggests the overall best omega-3 supplement is krill oil. Omega-3s can also improve your insulin response, and their deficiency has been linked to obesity.
- Carnosine: Carnosine is composed of two amino acids, beta-alanine and histidine, which help buffer acids in your muscles and serve as a potent antioxidants to quell inflammation, thereby reducing muscle soreness. (As an added note, research has also shown that fresh ginger can alleviate sore muscles.) Beta-alanine is probably more important if you are going to supplement with carnosine. This is particularly important for those who choose to avoid animal protein.
- Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA): Research shows CLA is beneficial in lowering your body fat while preserving muscle tissue, and may also increase your metabolic rate. The best source is grass-fed beef, but if you don't have access to this, you may want to consider a supplement.
- Whey Protein High quality whey protein is not really a supplement but a food, and it's one of the highest quality sources of protein you can consume. Whey protein contains a complete range of the amino acids necessary for building muscle, and benefits your heart as well. Whey protein should be consumed at the appropriate time with respect to exercising, for maximum benefit.
Myth #4: You Need a Sports Drink to Replenish Your Body's Electrolytes when Exercising
For most average exercisers and athletes, sports drinks are not only a waste of your money, but they are typically far more harmful than helpful to your health. Most sports drinks are loaded with things you DON'T want, like refined sugars, artificial colors and chemicals.
If you exercise for 30 minutes a day at a moderate to high intensity, fresh, pure water is the best thing to help you stay hydrated. It's only when you've been exercising for longer periods, such as for more than 60 minutes or in the heat, or at extreme intensity levels where you are sweating profusely, that you may need something more than water to replenish your body.
Besides plain water, coconut water is one of the best and safest options to rehydrate you after a strenuous workout. Coconut water has a powerhouse of natural electrolytes, vitamins, minerals, trace elements, amino acids, enzymes, antioxidants and phytonutrients, and is low in sugar but still pleasantly sweet. Depending on how much salt you've lost through sweating, you might even add a tiny pinch of natural Himalayan salt to your glass of coconut water. One study in 2007i found sodium-enriched coconut water to be as effective as commercial sports drinks for whole body rehydration after exercise, with less stomach upset.
Myth #5: Stretching Before Exercise Will Prevent Injury
Traditional warm-ups are seriously flawed. One of the most common mistakes is stretching—doing the wrong type or the wrong amount of stretching—during the warm-up. Stretching too much or in the wrong way can actually cause, rather than prevent, injury. Mild stretching is okay, but keep each stretch brief. Five to 10 seconds per body part is usually sufficient; keep your repetitions below six.
It is better to do more sets at low repetitions than low sets at high reps during a warm-up. Save the more intense stretching for later in your workout.
The best type of stretching to do before a workout is dynamic stretching, as opposed to static stretching (which is what most people do). I personally have been doing active isolated stretching for the past three years. I consider it a vital element of my exercise program and seek to do it daily if time permits. I typically do it at night before I go to bed while I relax.
Myth #6: If You Don't Exercise When You're Young, It's Dangerous to Start When You're Older
You are never too old to start exercising. In fact, exercise gets even more important with advancing age. Research shows that, no matter your age, you stand to gain significant improvements in strength, range of motion, balance, bone density and mental clarity through exercise. Ideally, you will have made exercise a regular part of your life long before you reach your "golden" years… but if you haven't, there's no better time to start than the present. Research has shown that regular exercise, even initiated late in life, offers profound health benefits.
For example, consider the following scientific studies:
- Even a small amount of exercise may protect the elderly from long-term memory loss and even help reverse some of the effects of aging.ii
- Women between the ages of 75 and 85, all of whom had reduced bone mass or full-blown osteoporosis, were able to lower their fall risk with strength training and agility activities.iii
- Moderate exercise among those aged 55 to 75 may cut the risk of developing metabolic syndrome, which increases heart disease and diabetes risk.iv
- Among those who started exercising at age 50 and continued for 10 years, the rate of premature death declined dramatically, similar to giving up smoking and mirroring the level as seen among people who had been working out their entire lives.v
- Exercise significantly improved muscle endurance and physical capacity among heart failure patients with an average age of 76.vi
My mother is a perfect example of how exercise can benefit the elderly. She began a workout program in 2010 while still recovering from a fall in 2009 in which she fractured both her shoulder and wrist. Exercise has been extremely helpful to her in regaining strength, balance, and flexibility.
COROLLARY to Myth #6: The Dreaded Spread is Inevitable
"Middle-age spread" is avoidable! People often DO gain weight as they move into middle age, but this is due to decreased activity, rather than an inevitable by-product of aging. Remember though that optimizing your weight is about 80 percent related to the foods you are eating.
If you aren't engaging in regular exercise as you age, your muscles will atrophy, a phenomenon called sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss). The key to avoiding sarcopenia is challenging your muscles with appropriately intense exercise. Age-related muscle loss affects about 10 percent of people over 60, with higher rates with advancing age. This loss of muscle means you'll burn fewer calories when both active and at rest, so your body composition tends to shift to less muscle and more fat.
The good news is that this dreaded spread can be prevented (or reversed) with a comprehensive fitness program that incorporates anaerobic exercise, core strengthening, resistance training, stretching, and of course good nutrition.
Seize the Day!
If you're still on the fence about starting an exercise program, there's no time like the present. I guarantee it will make a major difference in your energy level, self-esteem and probably your entire outlook on life. It is really THAT powerful, whether you're 18 years old or 80!
It's important to incorporate a wide variety of activities into your exercise routine, to provide comprehensive conditioning and prevent boredom. If you've been sedentary for any length of time or you're out of shape for some other reason, then start slowly. One of the main reasons people don't stick with an exercise routine is because they go too hard, too fast and wind up with an injury, illness or simple exhaustion.
For tips on getting started, I invite you to explore my fitness site, Mercola Peak Fitness, which is a treasure trove of exercise videos and articles. It's a wonderful resource to help you become fitness savvy and make exercise a regular and enjoyable part of your life.