Exercise myths

Exercise myths
Commonly we will find ourselves making excuses for skipping a walk or gym session after work; our joints hurt, it’s raining, we don’t want to get too bulky, or we feel a runny nose coming on….the list is endless. While we do need to listen to our bodies and give them rest when they need it is important to be able to identify when we should be pushing ourselves.

Our attitudes toward exercise are derived from a set of health beliefs. Our health beliefs define our behaviours and in this case the health behaviour is exercise. The motivation behind our exercise regimes will stem from:

  • what we perceive is the “norm” for that behaviour;
  • our risk perception of the behaviour (what we feel are the risks associated to our happiness, socialising and health);
  • how much control we feel we have over that behaviour; and
  • how we generally feel toward it.

Health beliefs vary greatly between individuals with different lifestyles and influences which is what separates the “gym junkies” from the “couch potatoes”. One thing that influences our health beliefs regarding exercise is the myths surrounding the area that are generally believed or unknown. It is important to understand the full and true benefits of exercise in order to extinguish the “barriers” between ourselves and exercise in order to change our health beliefs for the better.

Exercise during pregnancy

Many women are hesitant to engage in any sort of physical activity while they are pregnant, and rightfully so. Exercise has been believed to increase risks associated with pregnancies but many of these beliefs are unsubstantiated with no scientific proof. For example, studies have shown that moderate exercise is not a predisposing factor to spontaneous abortion, preterm labour or interuterine growth restriction.

Pregnancy and exerciseIn fact, studies have indicated that women who continue to exercise throughout their pregnancy are more likely to benefit and so is there baby. The following benefits have been indicated in exercising women:

While the neonates of women who exercise while pregnant do appear to be smaller, this size difference is not associated with any clinically significant negative health consequences. Investigators have even suggested that this may reduce the possibility of obesity later in life.

Please be aware that these studies were conducted in a sample of women who were classified as having low risk pregnancies. The results cannot be generalised for all women and each case needs to be assessed individually. It is extremely important that you consult with your doctor and obstetrician before you engage in any sort of physical activity while pregnant. It is important to keep in mind that pregnant ladies should only engage in moderate intensity exercise for a limited duration.

Pregnancy and exercise It is important to stay active during pregnancy to control weight gain, relieve stress and reduce muscle tension. Other exercises can strengthen abdominal and pelvic floor muscles.For more information, see Pregnancy and Exercise.

Family influence on exercise

Family influence on exerciseWithout many of us being consciously aware, our families and friends have a great influence on our health beliefs. If the people we live with do not consider exercise important we are more likely to feel the same way, this is especially evident with couples. Spouse activity greatly influences how we adopt and maintain exercise behaviours, as well as relapsing into poor exercise regimes. Likewise, if one family member changes their behaviour toward exercise the other is more likely to do the same.

This can be very helpful if all family members work to encourage regular moderate exercise but this also goes the other way and can be quite destructive if one partner “gives up”. It is important then to remember what influence you will have on the people around you and if you want to make a positive change it will help you to help them. It will be easier to encourage your children to get out in the great outdoors and run around if you do it too. If your spouse is working hard to maintain a healthy exercise regime you can help by becoming more involved, this will have benefits for you and for your family.

“Bulking up”

Bulking upMany women avoid working out with weights due to the fear of “bulking up.” However, contrary to popular belief, it is very difficult for females to grow muscle. Muscle hypertrophy (enlargement) is the major difference between male and female resistance training effects and this is due to the larger amount of testosterone in males. Testosterone has high anabolic effects and therefore males will grow muscle more easily and rapidly than females. Correspondingly, individuals with naturally higher testosterone release will grow muscle more than others, regardless of their sex.

Secondly, individual muscle fibres will only enlarge when muscles are overloaded with weight which is not the aim for some weight bearing activities such as resistance training.

More information on Resistance Training.

More information on Resistance Training Exercises.

Exercising during illness: Is there any truth to “sweating out a cold”?

Whether to rest when sick or “sweat it out” is often a major cause of debate and the evidence for either is limited. The generally accepted belief in humans is that if the cold is limited to a runny nose and a sore throat moderate exercise is not harmful and performance does not appear to be affected though high intensity training should not be resumed until 1 to 2 days after symptoms have subsided.

Exercising during illnessIf the cold extends to fever, fatigue and body aches and pains, very low intensity exercise, such as walking, does not appear to have any adverse effects. If these symptoms develop, intense training should not be resumed for 2 to 4 weeks after the symptoms subside. Exercise while these symptoms are present can lead quite a debilitating worsening condition that will render the athlete unable to exercise for a prolonged period of time.

Interestingly, bouts of exercise have been shown to improve immunity and reduce the long term risk of infection. The immune system responds to the short-term stress that is placed on the body during exercise. Furthermore, physical activity releases daily tension which in turn reduces overall life stress and therefore feeds back into a strong immune system. Just 30 minutes of moderate exercise 5 times a week has shown a significant reduced reporting of sickness and duration of sickness compared to no exercise.

Conversely, intense exercise has been shown to lower resistance to upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) and flu-like symptoms. The risk of contracting these common illnesses is especially increased in athletes during heavy training periods and after competitive events. Athletes who train hard but without overtraining are less likely to contract illness than those who overtrain in “bouts”.

Coaches and exercise trainers suggest that athletes should follow the following guidelines in order to avoid upper respiratory tract infection:

  1. Practice stress control in order to keep lifestyle stressors to a minimum
  2. Eat a well-balanced diet
  3. Avoid fatiguing the body through overtraining
  4. Make sure regular and adequate sleep is achieved
  5. Avoid rapid weight loss
  6. Avoid viral self-inoculation through putting hands near the face and mouth

Exercise and weight loss

Exercise and weight lossIn order to achieve weight loss a simple equation must be followed – make sure the energy in is less than the energy out. In other words ensure that energy used during the day is greater than the energy consumed during the day. The healthiest and quickest way to achieve weight loss is to couple kilojoule restriction with an increased energy output achieved by reducing time spent engaging in sedentary activities and increasing the amount of physical activity and exercise.

That said weight loss can be achieved by either restricting kilojoule intake alone or increasing exercise alone, though will be less effective. Initiating or increasing exercise without reducing kilojoule intake can reduce the amount of adipose tissue, importantly visceral abdominal adipose tissue and therefore will reduce insulin resistance.

Many people are mislead about different weight loss strategies and “fad” diets that are advertised. Adolescence appears to be the age group that is more likely to hold misperceptions regarding their weight and strategies to lose it. Adolescents tend to utilise risky weight loss strategies and have a higher incidence of mental health issues concerned with their weight loss. In a study surveying adolescent weight loss strategies less than 20% combined healthy diet with exercise while 15% only focussed on exercise and 25% only focussed on diet. Similar findings have been found in multiple studies. Adolescent weight is a good indication of weight in adulthood and as such is a time where developing good eating and exercising habits is very important.

Eating for exercise

A natural impulse after a big run is to prepare a large “guilt free” meal. The common and natural belief is “I went for a long run today so I can have pizza and icecream and it won’t matter”. Unfortunately this is not the case and this thinking can lead to weight gain.

The actual amount of food burnt off after one exercise session is overestimated. Cycling at a moderate intensity for 1 hour burns off approximately 1380 kilojoules or, put in take away terms, less than half a burger with cheese.

The amount of energy each individual requires in order to maintain their current weight is calculated using a number of variables unique to each person. The age, sex, weight and height is used to determine the amount of energy they require without taking into consideration any physical activity. This is called the resting energy expenditure (REE). This value is then multiplied by the physical activity level (PAL) score for the individual. The PAL score is dependent on lifestyle. A person who has a very sedentary lifestyle or light activity lifestyle will have a low PAL whereas those who regularly engage in strenuous activity will have a large PAL. The higher the PAL, the more energy will be required to maintain current weight. Going for a one-off run or swim will not change the PAL score and therefore will make a negligible difference to the energy required from foods. However, changing lifestyle behaviours from never exercising to regularly engaging in moderate to intense exercise will increase the energy “allowance” over time. Keep in mind that this greater energy allowance is not a gateway to junk food but rather a very slight increase in energy requirements that may be filled with one serve of carbohydrates (2 slices of bread) or less!

More information on Energy Expenditure.

Exercise and physical activity in the elderly

Exercise in the elderlyAs we age, the level of physical activity we engage in will naturally reduce, especially in women. Much of this has to do with the natural aging process and physical limitations. However, people tend to slow down more than necessary and this is due to health beliefs.

Attitudes toward exercise in older people are highly influenced by their self-identified fatigue and physical stressors such as muscle soreness and joint ache. Older people will avoid exercise for these reasons. However, what needs to be remembered is that physical activity does not need to be achieved through bouts of intentional exercise such as going for a walk or a swim. Often for the elderly a slight change in routine and lifestyle to incorporate more physical activity will have significant health benefits. For example, parking a bit further away from the shopping centre or using a shopping basket instead of a trolley for small shopping trips.

This is not to say engaging in intentional exercise will not have tremendous health benefits. Often the older people get, the more they enjoy the social aspect of exercising. Walking in the park with friends, water aerobics and lawn bowls can be fun. Social activities can take away the “effort” of exercise. In fact, older people who exercise regularly are encouraged more by the social side of exercise rather than the health benefits with many people reporting wanting to feel happy, see friends and engage in social contact rather than prevent osteoporosis or losing weight. These ideas can be incorporated into physical activity programs for older people.

More information on Weights Training in Older People.

More information

Fitness For more information on fitness and exercise, including stretches, types of exercise, exercise recovery and exercise with health conditions, as well as some useful videos, see Fitness


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