As much as we have discussed basic exercise tenets and shared our philosophies about these issues in this newsletter and with our clients, we continue to get the same questions and hear the same concerns. I guess some things we hear so many times we give up on even considering the possibility that they aren’t true.
Here are our philosophies on four of the most common myths in the exercise field today.
Myth #1: The best form of exercise for losing weight (reducing body fat) is cardiovascular exercise.
This is perhaps the oldest and most frequently stated exercise myth and it is no less false than it was when it began 30 years ago. Furthermore, this statement operates on the assumption that we have to choose one form of exercise over another. If this is the case, which it typically is not, then that form of exercise should be strength training.
While it is true that more calories are burned during a typical cardiovascular workout than during a typical strength training workout, the truth ends there. If you are focusing on reducing body fat, it is much more productive to consider how many calories you burn throughout an entire day, not just during a single workout. If you must burn 3500 calories to lose one pound of fat, then it stands to reason that you will lose more fat if you can increase the rate at which you burn calories all the time, not just when you are exercising. After all, you are only working out for 30-90 minutes per day.
That being said, you may now be asking why strength training is better than cardiovascular exercise for increasing the rate at which you burn calories all day? Great question! It is because muscle is a very metabolically active tissue and it therefore burns more calories at rest than other tissues (including fat) in your body. And as you may suspect, strength training is much more effective at increasing muscle tissue much more than cardiovascular exercise. The more muscle tissue you have, the more calories you burn at rest — when you are not working out.
Clinical studies have shown that while the resting metabolic rate (RMR) remains slightly elevated during the 90-120 minutes following a cardiovascular workout, it remains elevated for 24-36 hours in the period following a strength training workout. Research has also confirmed that relatively minor changes in resting metabolic rate can have a rather profound effect on overall fat loss or gain.
This is not to say that you should disregard cardiovascular exercise. Cardiovascular exercise is essential for increasing your body’s utilization of oxygen and circulation of blood to vital organs and muscle tissue. But it should not be the main focus of your exercise program at the expense of strength training if your goal is reduction of body fat. Incidentally, strength training is also more beneficial for increasing bone density and improving joint integrity.
Myth #2: Weight training will only make you look bigger and bulkier.
This is a legitimate concern that we hear most often from women, but even from larger men who are trying to slim down. This myth stems from the commonly held belief that if you increase muscle tissue on an already bulky body, the muscle will just add to the mass and make you bigger.
Well, that would be true if you increased the muscle and did not simultaneously lose any body fat. But this is not how it works. It’s much more complicated. First of all, we have already explained (see above) why increasing your muscle tissue actually helps to burn body fat. Also keep this in mind: muscle takes up less space than fat. Therefore, if you increase muscle tissue, which in turn reduces body fat, you will lose inches and look thinner.
Now if you have tried this approach and not received the described results, there could be a relatively simple explanation. The most likely reason is that your bulk or size is really water weight. This is the case if you feel swollen or bloated and you’re your skin is turgid to the touch. If so, there are several reasons you could be retaining water. One is that you are dehydrated. If you are not drinking enough water, your body will retain water, usually in places you don’t want. You should be drinking at least ½ ounce of filtered water for every pound of your body weight.
Another reason could be that if you are menstruating, you may be more bloated during the several days before your period. Another reason may be that you are consuming too much iodized salt or too many refined carbohydrates like bread or pasta that can cause you to retain water. Eating these kinds of foods also promotes the storage of body fat, but that is a different article (see Life Without Bread and Pasta on this website). Another reason may be that you have food sensitivities or allergies.
As for women who fear looking too muscular, this only happens in a very small percentage of women who have abnormally high levels of testosterone — the hormone that allows men (who have naturally higher levels of the stuff) to build muscle so easily. If this is the case, you should consult with your OB-GYN about balancing out your hormone levels. Professional female body builders often supplement with testosterone to get that more muscular look.
Myth #3: Pilates elongates your muscles, giving you that leaner, more slender look.
As wonderful as this possibility sounds, it is simply not founded in biological science. In fact, it contradicts a basic tenet of muscle physiology: the length of a muscle cannot be altered.
Now this may appear to be inaccurate because you swear that ever since so-and-so started practicing Pilates she looks slimmer and taller and just so damned perfect! Well there are a couple of logical explanations for this. First of all, one of the basic foundations of the Pilates technique is to focus on maintaining proper posture throughout the practice. In fact, a Pilates workout tends to emphasize the postural muscles on the back of the body. This emphasis encourages a more upright posture and thus, a more slender, taller look.
Another explanation is that since discovering Pilates, so-and-so has been more motivated to work out and has been more faithful and more intense with her workouts. Perhaps she has been doing the same old workout routine for years and this Pilates thing is just the variety her body needed. Now she is more motivated and therefore she gets better results from her workouts. But unless she practices other forms of exercise and eats properly, she will eventually hit a plateau with Pilates just like she did with her previous workout routine.
So again, it is not possible to alter the length of a muscle. What you got is what you get. Every individual is born with relatively short, medium, or long muscle bellies. The length of a muscle — the distance between one joint and the next — is comprised of two parts: the tendon and the actual muscle belly. The longer the length of the muscle belly (the part of the muscle that actually contracts), the shorter the relative length of the muscle tendon. So you could say that the length of the muscle tendon determines the length of the muscle belly, and vice-versa. You may increase the total mass of the muscle belly by working that muscle, but this will not affect its length.
The only possible ways to alter the length of a muscle are through surgery or injury. And in either case you could only wind up with less length, not more.
Now this is not to say that Pilates is not a good thing. As described above, Pilates is another form of exercise that can compliment your program and add enjoyment and motivation to your workout. In fact, we encourage people to practice as many different forms of exercise as their lifestyle will allow. Pilates can be an extremely rigorous and beneficial workout. In addition to emphasizing the postural muscles, it focuses on strengthening the core muscles in the abdominal region and on the eccentric (negative) part of the muscle motion, which can promote increased flexibility in some people. But it will not elongate your muscles or burn more calories than an equally intense weight training workout.
Myth #4: You can increase the fat burning effects of your workout by exercising first thing in the morning, on an empty stomach.
Truth: This is a tough one because for years we believed it ourselves. In fact, the best-selling book by Bill Phillips, Body For Life, claims that this is one of the keys to the widespread success of his program. And there is not really any scientific data to back up or refute this claim. However, after years of trying it out on ourselves and our clients, we have reached a different conclusion.
The premise upon which this belief is founded is quite simple, which should always raise a red flag. Blood sugar (glucose) is typically at its lowest point first thing in the morning because it has been several hours since the last meal. Conversely, blood sugar is typically more elevated in the first few hours following a meal. The less blood sugar (glucose) there is available during exercise, the quicker the body will be forced to go to its fat reserves (adipose tissue) for energy. Consequently, you will burn a higher percentage of body fat if you work out on an empty stomach then you will if you work out within a few hours after a meal.
There are a few flaws in this logic. First, the body does not switch to its fat burning energy system that readily. It needs a certain level of blood glucose available for that system to kick in — typically between 75 and 85 mg/dl. Now that minimum level is typically not maintained in people who suffer from hypoglycemia or diabetes. In fact, in these people, blood sugar levels can drop below the minimum several times per day and often very quickly. And as we discussed in prior issues (see this website for relevant articles), these metabolic conditions are more common than we thought and most people who have them have not yet been diagnosed.
Another problem with this premise is that certain factors must be present for us to have enough energy to begin exercising in the first place. One has already been addressed and that is that our blood sugar has to be at least 75 ml. Another factor is our endocrine system, namely our adrenal and thyroid glands. If these glands are not healthy and functioning the way they are supposed to then no matter how much available blood sugar we have or how much we want to work out, our bodies simply will not respond. And adrenal dysfunction and hypothyroidism are fairly common conditions. In fact, forcing yourself to exercise when cortisol (a hormone produce by the adrenal glands) is too low or too high can place undue stress on the adrenal glands.
Another less physical but related issue at play here is motivation. Some of us are morning people and some of us are evening people. Likewise, some of us prefer to work out in the morning and some later in the afternoon or early evening. While these preferences are also heavily influenced by our adrenal function (referred to as our “circadian rhythm”), they have a lot to do with how much we put into a workout. If you are not a morning person and you attempt to force yourself to work out first thing in the morning, you will probably work out with less intensity than if you worked out later in the day. And the benefits you receive from your workouts are always determined by the intensity with which you work out.
So while working out on an empty stomach may seem like a great idea, the reality is a bit more complicated. The solution is to schedule your workout for the time of day when you tend to have the most energy and motivation. If this not practical for you, then you will just have to work out when you can and be more diligent about your diet and other lifestyle habits.
We hope this will put these issues to rest or at least cause you to consider them in a different light the next time they come up.