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COLUMN: 10 Fitness myths that could be stalling your progress

Are you guilty of number 7?
Thorold News health columnist Cheryl Gordon breaks down some classic fitness myths. (Stock photo)

1. Sit ups will give me a flat belly, and a six-pack.

Sit ups, or crunches, and all their variations are mostly a waste of time and possibly injurious. The muscle primarily worked during this exercise is the rectus abdominus, a superficial layer of muscle in the abdomen whose main job is to shorten the distance between sternum (breast bone) and pubic bone (front of the hips). Since many of us spend most of our waking hours sitting, where this muscle is already shortened, the rectus abdominus is already likely tight and inflexible. Doing crunches, etc. just exacerbates this muscle imbalance. The “six pack” look is largely thanks to genetics and is created by the thick, ropey connective tissue amongst the muscle fibres. Losing fat will show off the tendons but they can’t really “bulk up”. The risk of the exercise is on the spine. Holding the spine in flexion (that rounded shape that it makes when sitting up) with the load of the body weight on top of that flexion can be risky for disks and vertebrae. It’s just not worth it. Substitute planks, push ups, (carefully executed) leg lifts, side plank and supermans for a more balanced core exercise program.

2. Cardio exercise is necessary to lose weight.

Cardiovascular exercise is absolutely necessary, hopefully every day, to get the body moving through its natural abilities. Blood is pumped, lymph is distributed, muscles are worked and the head is cleared of clutter. But it is a very poor weight loss strategy. Your amazing body is a smart machine that adapts quickly to load. Even though the treadmill says you burned so many calories, it is likely incorrect for your body and it takes relatively little time to ingest those calories once you move on with your day. One muffin and latte on the way home from the gym has probably erased any calorie reduction. So exercise because it is a bodily necessity and feels great, but not specifically to lose weight. One important weight loss result of exercise, however, is when you feel connected to your body (as you might after engaging in enjoyable exercise), you are more likely to feed it carefully. The takeaway here = do what you love, not what you think you have to.

3. Eating fat will make me fat.

We all bought into this one. Fat is one of the three major macronutrients (carbs and protein being the other ones). Our bodies, especially our brains, absolutely need fat every day. The entire endocrine system collapses without fat. Research is mixed on how much fat and what kind of fats to consume. This is where we all just kind of collapsed and said “ok, no fat cause it’s just too darn confusing!”. Research generally supports consuming fats such as those in nuts, unrefined vegetable oils (think extra virgin olive oil) and in minimally processed fats like butter. Coconut oil has received much attention but as it is a saturated fat, consume modestly. Even when watching your weight 2 to 3 tablespoons of fat in your diet per day is basic health maintenance. Foods cooked by someone else (crackers, cereal, baked goods, prepared meats & salads, dips, frozen entrees, sauces, chips & snacks, etc.) will have fat that may be more processed that the healthy fats mentioned above. Read labels carefully.

4. Cutting carbs is the way to lose weight.

As mentioned above, carbohydrates are a macro nutrient. Be wary of any food plan that eliminates an entire food group unless under the specific direction of a medical team specializing in therapeutic nutrition. Many of us experimented with “gluten free” hoping it would flatten our bellies. Current research suggests that we may have done our health harm with this trend. Carbohydrates provide important energy for muscle function, particularly that of the brain. Whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes, important carb sources, also provide minerals, vitamins and the all important fibre. Try bringing these fibre rich foods back into your diet slowly instead of eating “gluten free” pastas, bread and other products that are mostly created with highly refined white grains. You’ll feel full longer and the body will feel more nourished overall.

5. Eating every 2 – 3 hours will keep my metabolism burning.

No one likes feeling hungry. Our brains are wired to get very anxious when hungry. So this advice is appealing. But it does not reflect how most of our bodies process food. Unless you have been medically diagnosed as hyperglycemic (burn sugar too fast), learning to embrace the normal range of sensations as your body naturally digests food is healthier in the long run. Upon eating, the food takes about 20 – 30 minutes to get to the stomach, where it spends up to 2 hours being broken down by the acids here. It is best to let the stomach do its job in peace. Adding more food may result in rushing the natural process and can cause symptoms of acid reflux or loose stools, for example. After the stomach contents empty into the upper intestine, the stomach spends some time preparing for the next onslaught. It builds an inventory of enzymes and acids for the next shift. This timing allows you to absorb more nutrition from your food. So what to do when you feel “hangry”? Ask yourself two questions. First, was it more than three hours since I’ve eaten? And then, do I have actual hunger growls? See if you can play with the sensations that arise when you feel the urge to snack. Mindfulness offers many tools for this practice. Leaving the stomach empty overnight is another important space in the system. The digestive track is very active overnight and doesn’t benefit from additional load when the big “elimination” is being prepared.

6. If thirty minutes of walking is good, then longer will burn more calories.

As mentioned earlier, your amazing body adapts quickly to loads. If we burn 200 calories in the first 20 minutes of our cardio exercise, that rate will fall as we continue. The body becomes efficient and conserves resources as soon as it can. Long term, steady state cardio exercise increases the risk of joint injury and can actually metabolize muscle instead of fat. The earlier point holds here. If you enjoy a long run or bike ride, great! Enjoyable exercise is what is therapeutic. But pushing another couple of kilometers out of your exhausted body is injurious in the long run and a waste of your time and energy.

7. There’s no sugar in my coffee, so sugar warnings aren’t for me.

Sugar, even sugar substitutes, play with your mind. Compelling research is suggesting that sugar may be implicated in heart disease, diabetes, obesity, inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and fibromyalgia (to name a few). Sugar also represents empty calories and, if trying to lose weight, cost you the opportunity to eat more nutrient dense food. Even if you don’t consciously add sugar as in coffee, there is hidden sugar everywhere. Barbecue chips, ketchup, salad dressings, alcoholic drinks, crackers, baked goods, hot and cold drinks, cereals, herbal supplements and convenience foods all contain significant sugar. There is natural sugar in dairy, fruits and vegetables that the body can process more readily. Read labels and ask questions to avoid added sugar (this includes honey, agave, coconut sugar, rice syrup, etc.).

8. Fresh fruit and veggies are better, but I can’t afford them in winter.

Poppycock! In my Ayurvedic training (a science of health from India that focuses on natural practices), we were encouraged to only eat fresh as it contains more life giving energy. And that is fine if you live somewhere like southern India that has access to gardening all year. In Thorold, however, frozen is an excellent alternative. Frozen produce is often flash processed very close to harvest preserving many nutrients. It might even been organic! And frozen is more economical. It’s also practical for those cooking smaller amounts as there is no waste. Frozen peas, corn, broccoli, cauliflower, berries, greens and beans are all in my kitchen and used interchangeably with fresh most of the time.

9. There is a magic health supplement that will solve this problem.

Food is your medicine and medicine is your food. From this wisdom came the notion that plants could help heal. It’s true. But plants have synergies and as yet un-researched properties that are not always easily mass produced. Natural health companies have many very useful products but the risk is in the marketing. Many products are marketed as if they were a pharmaceutical type solution – take this pill and eliminate a specific symptom. Approaching health holistically relies on complex systems finding balance and this requires patience and a multi-faceted approach. There is definitely a place for nutritional therapy, but this is best supervised by a regulated professional, such as a naturopathic doctor. 

10. Meditation is boring and won’t help me lose weight. Better to hit the gym.

The most powerful myth is that mindlessly pumping muscle will help us lose weight. To achieve many popular workouts, we almost need to dissociate from the body to get through them. This initiates the stress response (think cortisol!) and can inhibit weight loss efforts as well as exacerbate symptoms of stress in our health. Meditation is the opposite. It brings you home to feel, observe and inhabit your body and mind in an intimate and kindly way. The peace that comes with this practice infuses all aspects of your life, including your commitment to fitness and possible weight loss. Regular meditators develop an ability to self regulate that helps them navigate daily stress with less wear and tear.