It’s no secret that we live in a 24/7 information economy. Not only do we have access to the latest news on our phones, tablets and our computers, but the barrage of never-ending headlines scroll through our televisions every hour of every day. There is always a new study, a new survey, a new truth. We can discover the definition of a word with the click of a button, take a virtual tour of far-away cities in a flash, and can read articles and e-books until our heart’s content.
This information overflow takes no exception with the world of diet and fitness. TV shows, magazines and books tell us how to get our “dream bikini bodies,” and it’s likely that there are more weight-loss websites than people in the world. I’m surrounded by it for a living– and though we have access to a surplus of truly great, informative, helpful fitness information, we’re also overwhelmed by a surplus of terrible fitness information. An incorrect website, a poorly researched article, or a misrepresented study here and there… that’s all par for the course. But there is some persistent bad advice out there that is so broad in reach and so thoroughly ingested that it deserves calling out. With that in mind, here are my top six (in no particular order) terrible fitness tips.
Repeat after me: There is no such thing as spot reduction.
Most everyone, no matter how fit, dislikes a certain part of their body. Whether it’s a lower stomach pooch or saddlebags that just won’t scram, we all have little parts of our body we wish we could change. This is the reality that makes the concept of spot reduction so darn alluring. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if there was a diet plan that targets, then removes, that pesky upper arm jiggle? Or a machine that just takes away those love handles? Countless exercise gadgets, fitness DVDs, and diet programs have preyed on this universal weakness, promising a swift death to those areas we all hate.
They don’t work.
They don’t work because you cannot lose weight in one place and one place alone. Can you tone a specific muscle? Sure. But even a super toned muscle has a hard time peaking through a thick layer of fat. My father jokes that “we all have a six pack, it’s just a matter of what is on top of it,” and he’s right. We lose weight in layers. So, when you lose 10 pounds, it is 10 pounds over your entire body.
Every human has a body shape; we all tend to gain weight and accumulate fat in specific areas. For example, my legs and my butt will always be proportionally larger than the rest of my body. No matter what I do, my “gymnast thighs and bubble butt” (as they’ve so flatteringly been called) are thicker than the rest of my body. They were at my heaviest, and they are at my lightest. And while they’ll likely never be my favourite part of my body, I’ve accepted that I can only do so much to change them.
Now, this is not to say that you cannot build muscle or tone in specific areas. Quite obviously, a curl is going to build your bicep and a squat is going to build your glutes. But that is not the same as losing weight in one spot only. The right plan involves some of each– losing weight in full-body layers, and building muscles strong enough to peek out from underneath.
If you have pesky trouble areas that won’t stop bothering you, there are two things to do. First, combine a super clean diet with a balanced cardio and strength plan, and pay extra attention to building the muscles around your problem area. Then once you’ve done that, focus on the good, not the bad. Accept the body genetics has given you, and just work to get your best body possible. No gadgets required.
This advice is given out alarmingly frequently. The concept is simple; by making your meals smaller and spreading them throughout the day, you’ll keep your metabolism active and “revving in high gear.”
There are two problems with this. First off, there is very little scientific proof that eating more frequently will increase metabolic rate. Some studies claim an increase, others claim it makes very little difference. Neither side has the proverbial smoking gun.
Secondly (and in my view, more importantly), this technique can easily and sneakily lead to increased calorie consumption, and actually make you gain weight. When nutritionists use the term mini-meals, they mean meals in snack-sized portions. But here’s the snag– very few people look at 3 ounces of poached fish and a cup of steamed spinach and see a “meal” (mini or not). These mini-meals appear shockingly small to most people, so portions grow. And, before they know it, people are eating six regular meals a day. Nothing mini is going to come from that.
Simplify things. Instead of sticking to a rigid schedule or plan, eat healthy foods when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re full.
If you’re a regular gym-goer, you likely know that the elliptical is usually the most popular in the cardio room. A machine that uses a continuous skiing-like motion, the elliptical has more devotees than Justin Bieber has Twitter followers. I’m neither.
We believe what we want to believe, which is why we believe it when, after 30 minutes and barely breaking a sweat, the elliptical tells us we’ve burned 565,567,291,561 calories.
I’m exaggerating, of course. But it seems to me that there is a correlation between the elliptical’s ever-growing popularity and its totally out of whack “calories burned” monitor. It’s an easy machine to use. So easy, in fact, that it is often recommended as the initial cardio tool for the obese, and is frequently placed in senior citizens’ communities. And despite all of this, it claims to burn about three times the calories as the treadmill.
If you don’t feel like you’re working hard, you aren’t working hard. This machine does not have superpowers; it feels easy because it is, in fact, easy. Listen to your body and gauge your physical responses. Steer clear of the fancy gadgets and “calorie burn” monitors, and take note of your heartbeat and RPE (rate of perceived exertion) for results that’ll beat the elliptical any day.
Ever since Dr. Atkins came out with his eponymous diet plan, we’ve been collectively terrified of bread. Nothing strikes fear in the heart of a dieter quite like a baguette, and now, with the popularity of Wheat Belly, even the protein in wheat has us quaking in our boots.
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Carbohydrates are an important nutritional group just like any other; our bodies need them to function properly. Should you be eating box after box of Kraft Dinner? Of course not. But you also shouldn’t be eating pounds of meat while avoiding fruit because of the threat of carbohydrates.
While it’s true that, as a country, we consume too many carbohydrates, it isn’t the whole story. We also consume too much fat, too much protein, too much sugar and too many calories. Over-consumption is doing us in, not carbohydrates. Instead of adopting a radical program and throwing away anything in your kitchen that has even passed by a piece of pasta, incorporate healthy carbs and the principle of moderation into your diet. Unless you’re Celiac, don’t give gluten a second thought, and be mindful of your portion sizes. Don’t forget to occasionally treat yourself with some warm, fresh baked bread … it’s worth the splurge. To read more about the problem with going gluten-free for weight loss, please click here.
No, it’s not. Not to your body, anyway. You cannot eat 1,000 calories of Snickers bars and 1,000 calories of steamed spinach and expect the same results in your body. It simply doesn’t work that way.
Our bodies process and metabolize food in complicated and varied ways. Though the science is complex and ever-evolving, it’s clear that calories aren’t the only factor. Sugar, fat, protein and carbohydrates all affect our systems and, in turn, our waistlines. For a truly healthy diet, you must be mindful of more than just your food’s calorie count.
That doesn’t mean, though, that you should all together ignore calories. If you consume more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. Period. Be aware of nutrient groups, and know how they benefit your body. Need energy? Healthy carbohydrates are your friend. Want to stay fuller, longer? Add protein to your meals and snacks. Keep a balance of healthy fats, protein, fiber and carbohydrates, and your body will function at its best.
Ok, this last one is the mother of all bad workout advice, so it’s getting a little ink. This so-called wisdom is as pervasive as it is erroneous. Its ill effects are so powerful and widespread, they reach to even the darkest corners of the gym. I see it every day, as more times than not, I am the lone girl in the weight room.
Cardio room? Full of women. Locker room? Packed with girls. Even the machine-assisted weight room draws in some ladies. But the free-weight room is almost always a genuine female dead zone.
Why are we so terrified of weights?
It isn’t a new problem. We only have to go back 100 years to see women discouraged from any form of exercise. Seen as a generally masculine pursuit, experts feared women were simply “not suited” to athletics. Indeed, a 1912 Harper’s Bazaar article posed the portentous question, “are athletics a menace to motherhood?”
Sadly, these attitudes weren’t left behind with the model-T (at Harper’s Bazaar or anywhere else.) In fact, almost 75 years later, an article in the same magazine asked “Can Sports Make You Sterile?” showing the persistent nature of fears regarding women and exercise. And though we’ve generally drastically improved these attitudes, we’re still incredibly resistant to lifting weights. We run, we bike, we swim … but ask us to do a shoulder press, and we blanch at the thought. In fact, according to the International Health, Racquet, and Sports Club Association (IHRSCA), barely one-third of women already working out regularly use free weights.
This is not good. As I see it, we’re facing three separate problems.
First off, many women don’t know how to use free weights. They’ve never been taught, they don’t know how it will help them, and they’d rather not go into the weight room and either a) waste time, b) embarrass themselves, or c) inadvertently cause an injury.
Secondly, women are intimidated because there aren’t any women already women in the weight room, and they don’t want to join the boys club. This is something of a vicious cycle.
Thirdly, and most disturbingly, women don’t want to use weights because they are afraid they’ll bulk up. Generally, women are working out to make themselves smaller, while men are working out to make themselves bigger. Men use weights, so weights must make you bigger, right?
Men (specifically, muscular, gym-going men) work exceedingly hard, with every intention of bulking up in the weight room. They lift very heavy weights, and generally consume a diet very helpful to building muscle mass. More to the point, men have levels of testosterone that women simply do not. Men build muscle in a way that women do not, will not, and cannot.
Ladies, are you planning on benching 180 pounds? Doing curls with 40s?
I didn’t think so.
Cardio is great and irreplaceable, of course. It is the best option for all-over fat reduction. But you want a well-rounded approach to fitness, and cardio is only part of the equation. You need muscle to look lean and toned. You need muscle to boost your metabolism, burn body fat, lower your blood pressure, and boost your endurance. No matter how skinny you get, if you want to look toned, you need muscle. Doubt me? Think of the women with the best bodies out there.
Jessica Biel? Beyonce? Gisele Bundchen? Muscle. Muscle. Muscle.
Remember to choose free weights over the “weight-assist” machines at the gym. These machines are ineffective and a waste of everyone’s time. You’re going to get a better all-over workout with free weights because they aren’t stabilizing your body — you’re fully in control of what you’re lifting, and how you’re lifting it. With free weights, your obliques are keeping you steady while you’re working your shoulders. Your lower abs are engaged while you’re doing flys. Your glutes are squeezing while you’re doing curls. Those weight machines make it easy. You don’t want easy. You’re not going to get results with easy.
You can always start small. Try using three or five pound weights, and work up to something more. You won’t believe the changes in your body! If you really don’t know where to begin, consider investing in a few sessions with a trainer. This will teach you proper form, which will make your exercises more effective and keep you injury free. And get over your weight-room shyness! A toned body is nothing to be ashamed of.
Note: If this looks familiar, that is because it is a re-imagining & re-working of a previous post and of two articles I wrote for the Kingston Whig Standard. Good advice is worth getting perfect!