8 Fitness 'Tips' That Are Doing More Harm Than Good

fitness myths

Story at-a-glance -

  • If you’ve been working out for any length of time or simply follow the trends in exercise, you know there is no shortage of conflicting and confusing advice; it can be a struggle to separate fitness fact from fiction
  • Some of the common myths around exercise include the belief working out transforms fat into muscle; exercise is the single best way to lose weight; and your body mass index (BMI) is an accurate measure of your overall health
  • I share my opinions about eight fitness tips that may be doing more harm than good, mainly because I want you to take control of your health and get the most enjoyment and benefit from your workouts

By Dr. Mercola

If you've been working out for any length of time or simply following the trends in exercise, you know there is no shortage of conflicting and confusing advice. It can be a struggle to separate fitness fact from fiction. An article published in Business Insider1 sought to address 15 of the biggest exercise myths.

Below I share my opinions about eight of these misconceptions. As always, my goal is to provide you with useful information to help you take control of your health. Because you will likely spend a few hours each week exercising, I also want to ensure you get the most enjoyment and benefit from your workouts.

Myth No. 1: Exercise Doesn't Help Counter the Negative Effects of Aging

Truth: Given its many overall benefits, regular exercise is clearly able to greatly help counteract some of the negative effects of aging, and regardless of your age, as demonstrated in the video above, you're never too old to begin an exercise program.

A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association2 involving 1,622 men and women, ages 60 to 64, who wore heart-rate monitors for five days, suggests exercise is important for your heart health, especially as you age. Study author Ahmed Elhakeem, Ph.D., senior research associate in epidemiology at Bristol Medical School at the U.K.'s University of Bristol, said:3

"The 60- to 64-age range represents an important transition between work and retirement, when lifestyle behaviors tend to change. It may, therefore, be an opportunity to promote increased physical activity. In addition, cardiovascular disease risk is higher in older adults.

It's important to understand how activity might influence risk in this age group. We found it's important to replace time spent sedentary with any intensity level of activity."

Elhakeem and his colleagues found seniors who exercised more had lower levels of heart disease-related biomarkers. The markers, which included C‐reactive protein, interleukin‐6 (IL-6) and leptin, among others, were extracted from fasting blood samples. "We focused on these atherosclerosis biomarkers [because] they are less studied and have been shown to predict [the] risk of cardiovascular events and death," Elhakeem noted.4

The researchers classified physical activity as either light — such as gardening, golf, slow walking or stretching — or moderate-to-vigorous, which included bicycling, brisk walking, dancing, lawn mowing, tennis or vacuuming.

Overall, the participants who undertook more activity had lower levels of the negative biomarkers. The study authors stated, "Greater light physical activity and moderate‐to‐vigorous intensity physical activity and less sedentary time in early old age were associated with more favorable cardiovascular biomarker profiles."5

Myth No. 2: A Sluggish Metabolism Is the Main Trigger of Weight Gain as You Age

Truth: Age-related weight gain has far more to do with your diet and activity level than your metabolism and one of the best ways to avoid age-related weight gain is to exercise regularly. That said, if you think your metabolism is stalled, you might consider inflammation as a contributing factor. After all, weight gain is often a sign of chronic low-level inflammation and is affected by the foods you eat.

Keep in mind, so-called "healthy" foods like beans, CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) dairy, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds can cause inflammation.

Unidentified food sensitivities can push you toward insulin and leptin resistance, which will seriously hamper your metabolism, digestion and other areas of health. When you have a food sensitivity or allergy, your body feels "attacked" rather than nourished by that food, which causes it to circulate inflammatory molecules.

In addition to issues with insulin and leptin, this state is often accompanied by an imbalance in the microorganisms in your digestive tract, also known as gut dysbiosis. Beyond food allergies and intolerances, you can develop inflammation through environmental toxins, overexercising, poor sleep, stress and other factors.

Foods most likely to be proinflammatory are junk foods and highly processed foods, including damaged omega-6 oils, grains, foods high in sugar and those that are genetically engineered. If you need dietary guidance, check out my nutrition plan. I highly recommend your exercise program include daily walking, high-intensity training, strength training, stretching and yoga. All of these activities can be modified according to your ability, age and any physical limitations.

Myth No. 3: The Optimal Time to Work Out Is First Thing in the Morning

Truth: Regardless of what works best for others, the best time for you to exercise hinges on your personal choice. I suggest you choose the time of day that allows sufficient time for a quality workout and gives you the best chance of exercising regularly. If you prefer morning exercise, you'll appreciate knowing research has shown exercising on an empty stomach is useful for preventing both weight gain and insulin resistance, which is a hallmark of countless chronic diseases.

Exercising early in the day leaves less chance for other obligations to crowd out your workout and also is a good companion to intermittent fasting. Afternoon exercise has been shown to help regulate circadian rhythms, at least in one study involving lab mice.6 Some studies suggest that exercising late in the afternoon might be best for many from a hormonal perspective, especially if doing strength training. However, it is best, just like eating, to avoid exercise at least three hours before bed.

Disrupted circadian rhythms can increase your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, memory loss, mood disorders and obesity, among other conditions. From a circadian point of view, it makes sense to see higher benefits from afternoon exercise because circadian rhythms control your body temperature, which has an impact on your workout.

Your body temperature tends to be a degree or two warmer in the afternoon than in the morning, resulting in better muscle performance and decreased risk of injury. You are also generally more alert in the afternoon.

Plus, if you tend to feel sluggish in the early or midafternoon, going to the gym might be a good way to push through fatigue and sleepiness. Although it's commonly known exercising at night can increase your adrenaline levels, body temperature and heart rate, thereby potentially making it difficult to fall asleep, some suggest nighttime exercise actually helps them sleep better.

A study published in 2011 found people who exercised vigorously for 35 minutes about two hours before bed slept just as well on exercise nights as on nights they did not exercise.7 A poll by the National Sleep Foundation found 83 percent of the people who worked out vigorously said they slept better on nights they exercised (even late at night) than nights they did not.8

As you can see, there are a variety of opinions about the time of day best suited for exercise. One thing is certain, however: Any exercise is better than none, regardless of when you do it. The most important thing is to choose a convenient time of day so exercise becomes a habit.

Myth No. 4: Working Out Turns Fat Into Muscle

Truth: You can't turn fat into muscle but you can use exercise to physically transform your body, which primarily removes fat through your lungs as you exhale. Physiologically speaking, fat and muscle are two different tissues. Adipose (fatty) tissue is found under your skin, around your internal organs and sandwiched between your muscles. Muscle tissue, which is defined in three categories — striated (banded), smooth and cardiac — is found throughout your body.

The vast majority of dietitians, doctors and personal trainers believe when you burn fat during exercise, it is being used up as fuel for energy or heat. Some believe fat is excreted through urine or feces, while others think it is somehow transformed into muscle.

All of these ideas are to some degree incorrect, asserts physicist Ruben Meerman and professor Andrew Brown, a biochemist specializing in lipids, both of whom hail from the school of biotechnology and biomolecular sciences at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

The reality is that exercise will help you reduce fat levels and also increase your muscle mass, but it does this by decreasing and increasing those tissues directly, not converting one to the other. In a 2014 study published in BMJ, Meerman and Brown state, "Considering the soaring overweight and obesity rates and strong interest in this topic, there is surprising ignorance and confusion about the metabolic process of weight loss."9

According to their calculations, your lungs are the primary excretory organ for fat. When you lose weight, you exhale 84 percent of the lost fat in the form of carbon dioxide, while the remaining 16 percent is excreted as water via your bodily fluids. If you want to build muscle, check out my article, "How Strength Training Changes Your Body for Good."

Myth No. 5: Exercise Is the Single Best Way to Lose Weight

Truth: When trying to lose weight, you'll want to avoid the common trap of thinking you can simply "work off" whatever you eat. Experts agree the first step toward slimming down almost always starts with your diet. By making even a few small changes to your eating habits, you can begin to lose weight. When making dietary changes, the best strategy is to focus on one area at a time. You can always add another area later. Below are six tips to help you jump-start diet-based weight loss:

Time Your Food — Perhaps the most powerful strategy is to decrease your eating window to six to eight hours making sure you don't eat at least three hours before bed time. This is a form of intermittent fasting or time restricted eating we call Peak Fasting.

Avoid drinking fruit juice and soda, and most especially diet soda — Drinking your calories is a bad idea, and fruit juice and soda are loaded with sugar. Within 20 minutes of drinking soda, your blood sugar spikes and your liver responds by turning massive amounts of sugar into fat. A high sugar intake contributes not only to weight gain, but also diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and premature aging.

Drinking diet soda also has been positively linked to weight gain. Research indicates your brain can tell the difference between real and artificial sugar, which means consuming artificial sweeteners increases your craving for the real thing and therefore may lead to overeating and weight gain.

Eat plenty of organic vegetables — One of the best ways to improve your health is to make sure you're eating plenty of fresh, organic vegetables. If possible, grow your own or source them locally and consume the majority of them raw. A great way to boost your vegetable intake is to juice them. I highly recommend juicing organic vegetables as a means of restoring or improving your health. Learn more about the benefits of juicing.

Limit fructose from your diet — No matter how hard you may try to rationalize sugar as part of a healthy diet, the truth is it only serves to damage your health. Americans love sugar, and the average adult consumes about 20 teaspoons of added sugar every day.

For optimal health, limit your fructose intake to less than 25 grams (g) per day if you are in good health and to less than 15 g per day if you are dealing with a serious illness or chronic disease. Be sure to include fructose from whole, raw fruit and berries within these limits.

Keep eating out to a minimum — The reason your favorite restaurant foods often taste better than your home-cooked meals is because they most likely are loaded with artificial flavors, hydrogenated fats and sugar.

Given the reality most restaurants — even some pricy, five-star establishments — rely on frozen, precut and precooked foods, the chances are good your restaurant meal is highly processed and nutritionally inferior to anything you can make at home using fresh, organic ingredients.

Plan your meals — Taking time to plan your meals, which may include taking lunches to work or a healthy snack to get you through your evening commute, is vital to your weight-loss success. You have a better chance of making healthy changes if you work from a weekly meal plan.

Your meal plan must be backed up by a strong commitment to grocery shopping and food preparation. While it takes considerable time and effort to eat healthy, you won't regret the positive results you'll see in terms of weight loss and other areas of health and well-being.

Stay away from fast foods and processed foods — Avoid fast food and processed food if you value your health. It is loaded with chemicals, sodium, added sugar and other toxins. The cheap price of fast food is enabled somewhat by the use of subpar meat from animals raised in CAFOs, where they receive heavy doses of antibiotics and a diet of genetically engineered grains while being subjected to illness and overcrowding.

Myth No. 6: It Takes a Few Weeks to Get 'Out of Shape'

Truth: Your muscle tissue can start to break down inside of the first week you stop getting regular exercise, and the declines continue from there.

If you need one motivator to keep exercising, this might be it. It's a horrible feeling to lose muscle tone and the other gains you realized when you were working out regularly. For that reason, aside from illness and emergency situations, I advise you to not allow anything to come between you and your workout.

"If you stop training, you actually do get noticeable deconditioning, or the beginnings of deconditioning, with as little as seven days of complete rest," states Shawn Arent, Ph.D., director of the Center for Health and Human Performance at Rutgers University. "It very much is an issue of 'use it or lose it'."10

Myth No. 7: Games and Puzzles Are the Best Workout for Your Brain

Truth: While mental games and puzzles have some effect on your brain, physical exercise is still among the best ways to ensure a healthy brain. In fact, there's ample evidence showing physical exercise, especially strength training, is vitally important for healthy brain and nervous system function. A number of studies have linked leg strength to various cognitive benefits.

A 2018 study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience11 indicates your neurological health is as dependent on signals from your large leg muscles as it is on signals from your brain to your muscles. According to Medical News Today, "The main takeaway of the new findings is that leg exercise — weight-bearing exercise, in particular — 'tells' the brain to produce healthy neurons, which are key for … [coping] with stress and life changes."12

The researchers called out climbing stairs, dancing, hiking, tennis, walking and weightlifting as healthy examples of weight-bearing exercise. Study author Raffaella Adami, Ph.D, professor and researcher in the department of health science at Italy's University of Milan, said:

"It is no accident we are meant to be active: to walk, run, crouch to sit and use our leg muscles to lift things. Our study supports the notion that people who are unable to do load-bearing exercises — such as patients who are bedridden, or even astronauts on extended travel — not only lose muscle mass, but their body chemistry is altered at the cellular level and even their nervous system is adversely impacted."

Myth No. 8: Your BMI Is an Accurate Measure of Your Overall Health

Truth: Instead of using body mass index (BMI), experts suggest measuring your waistline — using either your waist-to-hip or height-to-waist ratio — is a more accurate measure of your overall health. BMI is an outdated metric now primarily used by insurance companies to set premiums — charging those struggling with obesity higher rates than those who possess average BMIs.

A primary reason why BMI is a flawed tool relates to its use of weight as a measurement of your disease risk. In reality, a high percentage of body fat is correlated to a higher risk of disease.

Because your weight varies according to the density of your bone structure, you may weigh more if you are big-boned but not necessarily have a higher proportion of body fat than normal. Two tests designed to give you a far better idea of your body composition and potential health risk are your:

  • Waist-to-hip ratio (demonstrated in the video above)
  • Height-to-waist ratio