Fitness Myths Debunked

My apologies for being the bearer of bad news, but we have all been fooled in the world of fitness. Even the most discerning consumer of wellness tips, trends and products has been duped into believing both intentional and innocent lies in the industry. There is no need for bitterness toward the professionals in the field, however, as this is only to be expected when research and education have been limited in past years. The great news is, research has increased at an incredible rate and our questions are getting answered.

The following are what I consider to be the most commonly believed myths that somehow, despite already being debunked rather publicly, are still lurking in the minds of gym members everywhere.

  1. Spot reduction. You know all those inner thigh squeezes you’ve been doing? The countless crunches? The endless triceps extensions, pushdowns and presses? They’re great! But they’re not going to give you a chiseled look. Consider this fact: every single person has a 6-pack of abs. We all have the same set of muscles, special cases aside, so if the muscles are in an anatomy textbook, they are present in your body. The problem is the fat we store between our skin and muscles. This subcutaneous fat, a direct result of more calories in than out, can only be burned by changing to a caloric deficit of more calories out than in. This is not done with 600 crunches, 500 inner thigh squeezes and 300 triceps extensions. This is done with exercises that burn fat, including cardiovascular exercise like running and high-intensity exercise like a kettlebell class, and eating an appropriate number of calories in your day.
  2. Exercising turns fat to muscle. Muscle is muscle, fat is fat. They are completely different tissues that serve completely different roles and functions and they are named differently because, well, they’re different! In a deconditioned individual who is leading a primarily sedentary life, their muscles, including that 6-pack that really does exist, are weak and have possibly even atrophied, meaning wasted away. But the muscle tissue did not turn into the fat that lies between the muscles and skin. What happens is muscle becomes weak due to a lack of adequate use while fat develops due to an excess in calories that were not used for energy so they were stored away by the body. To reverse this occurrence, activity must be increased to address both the weak muscles and the excess fat. By increasing activity, you can rebuild your muscles as well as burn the excess fat.
  3. Resistance training will make me (a female) bulk up. Sure it will… if you’re maxing out the weight and repetitions every time you lift. The principle of Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (SAID) can confirm that if you train a particular way, your body will adapt accordingly. Lifting heavy weights will require your body to build larger muscles to accommodate lifting that kind of load. With every increase, as your body adapts, you will experience muscle hypertrophy, or growth. However, you have to impose a demand high enough for that adaptation to take place. Applying sufficient demands, not an overload of demands, on your muscles with resistance, cardiovascular, flexibility and balance exercises, you will provide the appropriate variety for your body to improve your heart’s efficiency, strengthen your muscles and burn excess fat. For specific recommendations on how much of each type of exercise you should be achieving each week, check out the American College of Sports Medicine (

Remember to be a discerning consumer of wellness tips and products because being safe and smart will allow your workout efforts to be more efficient and effective. My best to you as you get and stay on track to your wellness goals this year!

Ellen Thornburg is an Exercise Physiologist and Personal Trainer at the Duke Center for Living at Fearrington. She received her BA in Exercise and Sports Science and Psychology from UNC.

image by aktivioslo via flickr

The Skinny on Obesity: Part IV

In the first three installments of this series, Mike Clark and I defined obesity and the risk factors associated with reaching its unfavorable benchmarks. We have also identified the path that leads to obesity and, thank goodness, the path that returns or diverts away from the classification. In this New Year, as many individuals will contemplate, initiate, and, unfortunately, abandon resolutions to be healthier, it is important to understand that knowledge is not enough. While Mike and I may have shared a little more than you already knew about obesity, the fact is we do, for the most part, know the facts. The problem? Action.

Many wise souls have been credited for the quote, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” No matter who actually said it first, there is a lot of truth in the statement. Knowing now how obesity is either reached or avoided, the “secret” to accomplishing a healthy weight is taking action and applying this knowledge to your lifestyle. If too little exercise, too much food, and too little sleep lead to being overweight, then conversely enough exercise, food and sleep will lead to a healthy weight. So to change your course of action, so that you can truly expect different results, means you must in fact take “sane” action, that is, something different than what added the pounds in the first place.

A healthy weight is not a gimmick, seasonal sale, special event, sales pitch, or figment of your imagination. It does require work, effort and sacrifice, but don’t all worthwhile pursuits? Once you have made up your mind to take appropriate action toward a healthier weight, there are a few things to keep in mind that will help in your effort and sacrifice so you, too, can experience the blessings of health.

  1. Life happens. Kids and dogs make messes, cars break down, illness and injury happen, and sometimes it rains. Your best intentions may be sabotaged by life on occasion, but having some back-up plans in place can help you stay focused and successful when you cannot make it to the gym or your stomach growls while conveniently passing a fast food stop.
  2. It’s called a holiDAY. I love New Year’s, the Super Bowl, Easter, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, my birthday and Christmas just like many other totally normal, good-food-lovin’ American. But consider for a minute the word “holiday”. Eat your Grandma’s cake, Aunt Jane’s macaroni and cheese, Mom’s sweet potato casserole, and Dad’s ribs with the secret sauce. And enjoy it… on that day. It’s not a holiweek, holimonth, or a holiseason, and it most certainly is not a holiyear. Love the day of celebration, and the people you celebrate it with, for what it is and flip the calendar to the next day.
  3. Partake in (some) trends. The dance craze has hit the fitness scene and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Detox diets are running rampant and books are sold by the millions. You can pump iron, maximize reps, run a race every weekend of the year, and you can dance to any beat from any culture that has ever existed. There’s a fitness craze for that! You can purchase food to be delivered to your door, you can count calories, points and sheep, and you can avoid anything or eat anything if you set your mind to it. There’s a diet for that! Find what you enjoy in exercise and food and you will be successful, period. The point of exercise is to move, so move how you choose. Food is fuel so you should eat actual food, not a bunch of processed, manmade ingredients, and if you enjoy it you will keep making it. The concern with trends in both areas is that you have to consider what is safe, realistic, and enjoyable for you. Do not restrict yourself too much, but do not be naïve to the positive and negative consequences.
  4. You deserve health. Your family and friends deserve a healthy you. When all else fails, because we’ve already established that life happens, remind yourself that you deserve to be happy and healthy. If you need more than willpower, find some “why power”. Keep a picture of your loved ones near your gym bag. Write yourself a list of all the events you hope to attend in the future. Find a pair of your old jeans from college and hang them front and center in your closet. Whatever you choose to do, remind yourself regularly that being comfortable in your own skin, and having health to enjoy all that life has to offer, is something you absolutely deserve.

We wish you only the best in your future endeavors and pursuit of a healthy weight. Now go be active!

Ellen Thornburg is an Exercise Physiologist and Personal Trainer at Duke Center For Living’s Health and Fitness Center. She received her BA in Exercise and Sports Science and Psychology from UNC.

image by Filimonas via flickr

The Skinny on Obesity: Part II

How did we get here?

Reports on the ever-increasing obesity epidemic in our country are running rampant, so we should all know that the issue is a reality and is crippling us. In the first part of this series, my colleague Mike Clark defined what obesity is and how it can be measured. After acknowledging what obesity is, the next step is to clarify how we got here.

Why are Americans packing on the pounds? What decisions are we continuing to make that increase the likelihood of so many health risks and diseases? There are three categories to explore this week, including a lack of general movement and physical activity, poor diet choices and inadequate sleep.

Lack of movement

Our society has become sedentary. There is no question or denial of this statement. The latest report from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends at least 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise each week, both resistance training and flexibility to include exercises for all major muscle groups two to three times per week and neuromotor exercises to maintain or improve balance, agility and the likes at least twice per week. Not only has the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicated that only 20% of American adults are actually meeting these recommendations, ACSM has indicated that the failure to meet these recommendations is not the entire problem. Most Americans live such a sedentary lifestyle, defined as sitting at desks, in the car or in front of a television frequently and for long periods of time, even the 20% who are making a point to fit physical activity into their weekly routine may still be at risk for heart disease, diabetes and other complications.

Poor diet choices

There is also no question or denial that we eat far more than we used to. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) issued some staggering comparisons of how our portion sizes have changed over the years. In the 1970’s, two slices of pizza totaled 500 calories whereas now two slices would pack 350 extra calories for a whopping total of 850 calories. A standard cup of coffee was 8 ounces and your additive choices were milk and sugar. The norm for a purchased cup of coffee now is at least 16 ounces with milk, sugar and whipped topping for a total of 330 calories. Bagels have gone from a 3-inch diameter with 140 calories to 5- or 6-inch diameter with 350 calories. And another unfortunate truth to our portion woes is that dinner plates have gone from a 10-inch standard diameter to 12 inches. Americans are simply sitting too long and eating far too much.

Inadequate sleep

Sleep is a critical component to overall health and wellbeing. Your brain is able to process information and store memories, cells can recover and regenerate, to name a few theories. Based on sleep research, adults require seven to nine hours of sleep every night, yet the CDC says one in three adults are sleeping less than five hours. The School of Public Health at Harvard University claims that so few hours of sleep results in a 15% increased risk of being obese. This link between lack of sleep and obesity may be due to altered hormones that regulate hunger, more hours awake to eat extra calories, decreased ability to make good decisions regarding food choice, and lack of energy for adequate exercise.

In summary, this sounds like an article from Negative Nancy herself. The sky may be falling over the USA to some degree, but there are answers and there is hope! Stay tuned for Mike Clark’s next article in this series that addresses why we need to correct our patterns and exactly how to do so.

Ellen Thornburg is an Exercise Physiologist and Personal Trainer at Duke Center For Living’s Health and Fitness Center. She received her BA in Exercise and Sports Science and Psychology from UNC.

image by Filimonas via flickr