fitness myths

Five Things I No Longer Believe About Exercise

I saw a writing prompt the other day that asked me to answer the question, “what do you believe about exercise?” I thought about that for a while. I think it’s an interesting question and one that is probably worth answering one day. Today is not that day. What it got me to thinking about, though, was what are some of the things I used to believe about exercise that no longer ring true. Below are five of them. I wonder if you believe/d them too?

It should be everyone’s number one priority, always. I used to say this, or some variation of it quite often. . I’m not saying I don’t believe that eating well and moving your body is important. Self-care, of which exercise is a component, is critical. I just mean that I know that sometimes other things take priority. Sometimes those things only temporarily take priority (think crisis or acute stressful event). But for some people, exercise isn’t ever going take the top spot, or if it does it’s not going to be anytime soon. There’s too much going on and too many other things they want to be doing. And that’s okay. Life evolves and what appropriate self-care looks like for each of us changes accordingly.

It’s not supposed to be fun. If I wasn’t suffering through a workout, I didn’t think it “counted.” Now, if there’s nothing about it that I look forward to, I find something new. A new piece of equipment, a new playlist to listen to, a new format, a new class, take it outside, etc. If I don’t, I’m not going to stick with it.

It’s a means to an end. My relationship with exercise was instigated at the age of fifteen when a doctor told me I was fat. He encouraged me to exercise, and this married weight loss and exercise in my mind for the next couple of decades. I do exercise to change my body. But now it’s to make it stronger. I exercise because I like the feeling of it. I exercise because it improves my mood and my sleep. It makes the rest of my life easier.

Strength training is not for me. I took a weight training class in school and failed the final exam, which was to bench press the bar. You’ve seen a bench press, right? It’s a long bar with circular weights added to the end of each side. You lay down on a bench with the bar over your chest. You lower the bar toward your chest and then push it back up so that your arms are straight. I couldn’t do that, even with no weights on the bar. So, for many years I only did cardio. But what I’ve learned is that strength training is important. I’ve learned that I like feeling strong. I like lifting heavy things. And I can train to do almost anything. I could have pressed that bar back in high school. What I lacked was the knowledge, training plan (and motivation, if I’m honest) to learn how to do so.

I will always love barre/Pilates/rocking out on the treadmill. I thought that once I found a form of exercise that I loved, I would always love it. I haven’t. As with many things in life, you can go through phases. When you connect with something, its an amazing feeling. But I have taken breaks from certain kinds of exercise, sometimes for financial reasons, injury or just plain lack of access to classes. And when I’ve gone back, I have sometimes found that the exercise I was evangelical about isn’t the same. Or, to be more accurate, I changed. My body changed. What I needed or wanted from exercise had changed. Or the spark was just gone and who knows why.

There you have it—what I no longer believe about exercise. Are there things you’ve changed your mind about as you get further along in your own fitness journey?

Don't Wait on the Weights

Does weight-lifting intimidate you? Maybe you had a bad experience in high school gym class and have avoided the weight rack ever since. Or are you afraid that if you strength train you'll get bulky? Or do you believe that cardio is the key to weight loss, and strength-training shouldn't enter the equation until after you've reached your goal weight? 

Here's what I would tell you in response to those concerns: it shouldn't; you won't; and untrue, respectively. Let's address each of them one by one though. As always, I recommend consulting a physician before beginning any exercise program. 

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The intimidation factor. The good news is that I'm not telling you to buy a gym membership and start racking hundreds of pounds on the bench press bar tomorrow. You don't need to do that. I recommend having two sets of dumbbells--one lighter set for the smaller muscles of your upper body, and one heavier set for the larger muscles. When I started, I had a set of 3lb dumbbells and a set of 5lb ones. Then I moved up incrementally as I got stronger. The 5lb dumbbells became my light set and I bought 8lb dumbbells for my heavier set. Then I moved up again to 8lbs and 10lbs. And so on. I knew it was time to upgrade when I finished a set of an exercise and knew I could keep going, with good form.

Let me tell you, I LOVE when I have to buy new dumbbells. I feel so proud of myself and my body. That's one of the great things about strength training is that I can see and feel improvements in a way that I don't necessarily with cardio. If you aren't sure how to go about strength training on your own, you have a couple of options. Invest in DVDs you can do at home. Any of Jessica Smith's workouts would be a good choice. I use this one and this one quite often myself. I also like these ones from Coach Nicole and SparkPeople.

If you're new to exercise I would recommend at least a session or two with a personal trainer. If training this way isn't something you can afford to do regularly, you have some options. Take the workout DVDs you're going to do at home and ask him/her to watch them and then coach you on proper form. That way, you'll have some idea of how to do the exercise safely and effectively on your own. Or ask them to design a workout you can do at home with the equipment you have, and then come back every 6-weeks or so for some new exercises. 

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You won't get bulky. This is one I hear a lot, actually. It's rare for a woman who engages in a normal strength-training routine to get bulky. Women have less testosterone than men, and it's this hormone that is responsible for the larger muscle gains men experience from weight-lifting. You may find that strength-training actually has the opposite effect on your body. A pound of muscle takes up less space than a pound of fat, so your body can look and feel smaller at the same weight, depending upon the ratio of lean muscle to fat. 

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And finally, the old do-cardio-first -to-lose-weight rule. Any of you who read this blog regularly or are familiar with our studio know that we never talk about weight loss as a goal of exercise. And I'm still not really going to. But...I am going to address it in this context for two reasons. One: because the idea that you do cardio for weight loss and then worry about strength-training is a fitness theory we reject as fitness professionals. And two: because regardless of whether we think weight-loss should be a goal, the reality is that it is why many women start exercising. So, for us not to address it at all seems irresponsible.

Here's the short version of why we recommend an exercise plan that combines cardio exercise and three days each week of strength-training: it's more efficient and effective.

It's generally true that if you engage in cardiovascular exercise (walking, running, biking, etc.), and change nothing about your diet, that you will run a caloric deficit. Meaning, you will burn more calories on the days you do that exercise than on the days you don't, which may lead to weight-loss. But muscle is more metabolically active than fat, 24-7. So by increasing your lean muscle mass you burn more calories at rest every day, not just on the days you work-up a deficit by spending an hour on the treadmill. There are many good reasons to include cardio in your workout plan (I do it), but focusing on it to the exclusion of strength, flexibility and balance-training is a mistake. That's true whether your goal is weight-loss or just being holistically healthier and fitter.  

If there are other reasons you're reluctant to weight-train, leave them in the comments below and I'll do my best to address them in a future post. Take care, friends!