Busting fitness myths

Posted on 15 October 2014

The medical truths behind nine outdated exercise notions you probably still believe.

Words Will Sinclair

  1. You need to stretch before exercising.

    ‘Stretching is a good principle but not necessarily because of the stretching alone,’ says Dr Kobus Uys, a spinal surgeon at Mediclinic Durbanville. ‘It’s more about getting you into “exercise mode”, thinking of what you want to achieve in your workout. Exercise is both physical and psychological, and the benefits of exercise are best achieved when your mind, your soul and the mechanics of your body are on the same level.’ From a physical point of view, static stretching on its own doesn’t really make much of a difference.
    In fact, to prevent injury and increase your performance, it’s best to do a proper warm-up with dynamic, full-body moves that get your blood pumping. But, as Dr Uys points out, it’s an ‘important part of your psychological preparation.’
  2. You have to hit the gym every day if you want to see real results.
    Rest days are just as important, because, ironically, that’s when the real work happens. During exercise, your heart rate rises, muscle fibres break down and hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, are secreted. When you rest, your body works on repairing the tissue damage, strengthening your heart and other muscles, and generally refilling your tank to make your body fitter, stronger and more efficient than before. ‘Listen to your body,’ says Dr Uys. ‘A good exercise programme runs for five days a week, with two rest days. You shouldn’t exercise more than those five days. Your body needs the rest.’
  3. For real benefits, your gym session should last at least 45 minutes.

    As with all things, your time in the gym is about quality, not quantity. ‘What we try to do nowadays is high-intensity interval training (HIIT) for short intervals,’ says Dr Herman Kotzé, a sports physician who works at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport. ‘If you’re spending your 45 minutes in the gym sitting on an exercise bike doing nothing, you’re wasting your time. If you’re going to sit on that bike, do HIIT for 10 minutes: it will speed up your metabolism, which will burn fat and help you lose weight.’
  4. Crunches will give you flat abs.
    Sure, crunches and sit-ups will give you abs… but because those exercises don’t burn kilojoules (and don’t blast fat) that chiselled rectus abdominis may be hidden under a layer of flab. ‘Rather spend your time strengthening your obliques,’ says Marina. The obliques assist with the diagonal or rotational movements in sport and everyday activities. So strengthen your obliques for better performance in sport and life.
  5. Running on a treadmill is bad for your joints, so it’s better to run on the road.
    ‘Treadmill running and road running are not quite the same,’ says physiotherapist Marina Wege of MBW Fisio’s. ‘There’s often a discrepancy between pace on the treadmill vs road pace. The reason is the fact that a treadmill has a belt that moves the leg backwards, thus assisting with leg turnover. It’s also easier to run faster or run at the same pace as running outdoors with less effort. When you run outdoors, the surface is hard and can have a camber. Running on the treadmill is much softer due to the “give” of the belt. So not only is treadmill running slightly easier but also “softer” on your joints and soft tissue.’
  6. No pain, no gain.
    Sure, you should feel a bit tender a day or two after working out (remember what we said earlier about your body repairing itself?). But if you feel sore during a workout, you’re either doing it wrong or you have an injury that you’re making worse. ‘If you’re talking about weight training, it’s all about form,’ says Dr Kotzé. ‘As I tell my patients, look at the athletes with the best physique: it’s always the gymnasts. And gymnasts do their exercises to a particular form.’ If you’re worried that you’re doing an exercise incorrectly, ask one of the personal trainers in the gym to help straighten you out.
  7. The more you sweat, the more you burn.
    Sweat is a biological response that regulates your body temperature – if you’re sweating, it could mean you’re working really hard or it could mean the gym’s air-con is broken. ‘It’s actually all about your metabolism,’ says Dr Kotzé. Again he recommends HIIT (see number 3), which raises your metabolism (the chemical processes in your body that convert or use energy) by raising your heart rate. ‘It’s not about sweating,’ he says, ‘it’s about getting your heart rate up and down.’
  8. Exercise can erase your bad eating habits.
    Oh, if only… Truth is, all-round fitness and weight loss are the result of a number of things. ‘It’s a multidisciplinary action, so you need to see exercise as part of a whole,’ says Dr Uys. He specialises in back pain, which is often a result of the patient being overweight – and he always complements the patient’s diet with an exercise programme. ‘If you’re very overweight (for example, 130kg with a BMI of more than 35), then diet will help you lose weight. But, talking from a back-pain perspective, you need exercise as well. You can’t just do one or the other on its own.’
  9. Squats are bad for your knees.

    Actually, squats are good for you – and they’re hard to beat when it comes to working your lower body muscles (butt, hips, thighs). Like Dr Kotzé says, what’s bad – in any exercise – is bad form. Marina points to a study published recently in the Journal of Orthopedic & Sports Physical Therapy, where researchers used mathematical models to determine load and stress under the kneecap during squats and leg extension exercises. They found that squatting halfway down (0° to 45°) in the squat exercise and straightening the knee from 90° to 45° in the leg extension exercise produced the least amount of load under the kneecap.

Did you know? According to a study published in the journal of strength and conditioning research, a distance runner’s running efficiency increases by six percent after lifting heavy weights twice a week for six weeks.

The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.

Published in Exercise

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