The fitness industry is immersed in a whole host of myths regarding weight loss/ gain, how and when to workout, which workout is the best for you and so on. Most times these myths are propagated with no scientific evidence. It seems easier for instance, to believe in a myth, than investigate the real reasons you are not losing weight. Here we explore five very common fitness myths that could be preventing people from achieving their goals.

1. Spot Reduction

If you have excess fat stored in one particular part of the body, such as the thighs or abdomen, the best way to lose is by “spot reduction”. This calls for doing hundreds of sit-ups or leg lifts to work the Abs, or squats and lunges to work the legs.

“Spot reduction” does not work to burn fat in any one particular area of the body. Fat is ‘burnt' from all over the body and, often, the last place you are likely to lose it, is the first place you gained it. If you have a genetic tendency to gain abdominal fat, as most Indians do, that would be the hardest area to address. Persisting with a regular cardio, weight training and watching your diet is the only way to lose fat anywhere.

Often I come across a client who says, “I only want to lose my paunch, I am absolutely fine otherwise”. I wish it were that easy! Targeted exercise does succeed in ‘toning' a specific area, making it shapelier provided, (please note, provided), one loses the fat over that area. So, for instance, doing sit ups may produce strong abdominal muscles, but if they are encased in a couple of layers of fat, one is hardly able to see that muscle neither will one automatically achieve a slim waist. One needs to burn the fat over the muscle using cardio and watching one's diet.

2. You will burn more fat if you exercise longer at a lower intensity.

The most important focus in exercise and fat-weight control is not the percentage of exercise energy coming from fat but the total energy cost, or how many calories are burned during the activity. In other words, the total number of calories you manage to expend determines how much fat you burn in the “long term”.

For instance, if you consistently burn 300 calories in a low intensity, half-hour walk, it is true that, during the course of the walk, the energy is derived from fat stores. If you work at a higher intensity - burning 400 calories in the same half hour - although the immediate energy requirement for the workout is derived primarily from the blood glucose, in the long-term, the greater calorie deficit achieved from the higher intensity workout will lead to greater fat loss.

Your intensity of workout however needs to be determined by your fitness levels and goals. A beginner, for instance, will find it difficult to sustain a high intensity workout. It is practical, therefore, to start at a lower intensity, for a longer duration and work your way up to burn more calories. The objective should be to ease gently into a fitness routine, not to make oneself so uncomfortable during the workout that one has trouble maintaining it.

3. “No pain, no gain”. If you're not going to work out hard and often, exercise is just a waste of time.

This philosophy prevents a lot of people from even contemplating an exercise programme. It seems too much of an effort. However, research continues to show that some exercise is better than none. For example, regular walking or gardening for as little as an hour a day has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and so on.

This is where ‘goal setting' becomes crucial. Your goals need to be realistic and suited to your fitness levels, personality and time available. You don't necessarily have to workout at a stressful level of intensity to achieve the long-term benefits of regular exercise.

4. If you exercise intensely, you will always get the results you want.

This is not always true; genetics play an important role in how people respond to exercise. Studies have shown a wide variation in how different exercisers respond to the very same training programme. Your weight loss, development of endurance, speed, strength or muscle mass in response to a particular exercise programme differs from other people following the very same programme. Sometimes it takes time to understand one's body and adapt and alter one's fitness routine accordingly.

Some individuals for instance may respond better to high intensity workouts four times a week, while others may need longer workouts five to six times a week. Some may respond miraculously to an addition of a regular intense stretch routine while others may adapt well to increasing the duration of their weight-training schedule.

5. If you want to lose weight, stay away from strength training because you will “bulk up”.

This is the most common excuse women find to refrain from weight training. It is hormones and not weight training that gives one a masculine physique. There is enough evidence to authenticate the need for all women to partake in regular strength training. This will increase their muscle mass, build bone strength, prevent osteoporosis and, most importantly, help them lose fat. Both cardiovascular training and strength training have been found to be crucial in aiding fat loss. Building adequate, strong muscle is important not only for weight loss but to improve the aesthetics of the body, improve posture, strengthen the back and joints preventing backache and improve body mechanics. Upper body strength and muscle mass in particular tend to deplete rapidly from disuse. It is important to train these muscles to keep them functioning and strong.

Start getting fitness savvy. Don't allow popular myths from preventing you in going after your goals. Be prudent, but aspire to be the best you can.

Dr. Sheela Nambiar M.D, is a Obstetrician/Gynaecologist, Fitness and Lifestyle Consultant NAFC (US) and Director, TFL Fitness Studio, Chennai. E-mail drsheela@tfl-inc.com

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012