For every good piece of information out there about weight loss, diet, and exercise, there’s a bad piece. While most of this information is spread out of ignorance, it leads many people to try things that don’t work for them, leading them to give up on their weight loss journey before it’s begun.
The problem is, some of these myths have become pervasive, leading even smart people (like you!) to believe them. Here are 4 myths about exercise and weight loss you probably believe:
Weight Loss & Exercise Myths You Believe
1. Myth: Exercise is the best (or only) way to lose weight.
Truth: You can’t outrun a bad diet. If you eat processed, high-sugar, high-fat foods, you’ll likely stay the same weight or even gain weight, even if you work out for hours a day. Eating satiating and nutrient-dense foods is far more important for weight loss than exercising more.
The truth is, weight loss is 20% exercise and 80% diet. It’s all about calories in versus calories out. Yes, exercise helps you by burning more calories (during and after exercise), but it’s still a numbers game, and often the numbers aren’t in your favor. If you run for 30 minutes, you’ll burn around 300 calories – far less than the average meal. That means you’d have to run for over 2 hours to burn off a Big Mac with medium fries and a medium Coke, and who has time to do that every day just so they can eat McDonald’s?
For most of us, it's more feasible to lower our calorie intake than it is to burn more calories by exercising more, which is why cutting calories through changes in diet is more effective for weight loss.
In a best case scenario you’ll support your weight loss goals with a good exercise regime, but diet is what matters most.
2. Myth: You only need to focus on cardio for weight loss.
Truth: Cardio does indeed burn plenty of calories. However, if you increase your muscle mass, this can also increase your metabolism and burn more calories in the day, since your muscles need calories. Strength training is equally as important for this reason.
Remember, women are not designed to get bulky! Unless you plan to start doing serious competitive weight lifting or CrossFit, you don’t need to worry about growing big muscles. Lifting weights at the gym (even heavy ones!) will give you toned, lean muscles. The women you may have seen on stage at bodybuilding competitions who are very muscular have usually taken steroids to get that way, which can pose some serious health risks.
3. Myth: The more you sweat, the more fat you burn.
Truth: Sweating is not an indicator of fat burn, rather it’s influenced by genetics, age, weight, fitness level, and the environment in which you work out.
Sweating is the body's way of cooling and reducing body temperature. You can still burn plenty calories walking uphill or lifting weights, which are slower-paced than a run. If it’s cold out, you may not sweat at all on your run because your body wants to conserve heat, not cool down.
While getting on a good sweat can indicate that you’ve worked hard, it’s not the only indicator. That’s why sweating suits and waist trainers don’t work – they may help you become dehydrated, but they’re not going to help burn fat. Elevating your heart rate and moving your body is the best way to burn calories.
4. Myth: You can target workouts to burn fat in specific areas.
Truth: You can’t spot reduce fat in your body - science simply does not support this idea. The key to burning fat with working out is based on the number of active muscles we have at once. The body burns fat based on its overall fitness, rather than small muscle fatigue, so targeting fat loss in specific areas isn’t realistic. For example, crunches will give you definition, but they will not compare to those who combine fat-burning exercise with targeted muscles as well.
Instead of homing in on your abs, biceps, or shoulders, start with improving your overall health. This doesn’t mean you should go on a strict diet and work out for seven hours a week; everyone could stand to improve their overall health. But if your general fitness and health improve, you are much more likely to be able to reach those fitness targets.
While this isn’t the news you want to hear, if you naturally hold weight around your thighs and butt, that’s going to be the last place to slim down. That’s not to say that everywhere else on your body will lose weight first—you can’t spot-reduce, remember—but it is the area with the most fat and so can take a while to start to look visibly slimmer.
Don’t Be Disheartened
It’s important to remember that losing weight is rarely a linear journey. We don’t always see gentle and steady progress over time, and our weight naturally fluctuates. In fact, if we’re aiming to lose weight, we may even see our weight go up before it drops down again if you’re working out, because you’re gaining muscle you didn’t have before and muscle weighs more than fat.
If you see yourself slightly deviating from your goals but you’re sticking with a routine that has worked for you in the past, stay motivated, stay on track, and trust that your body will get there eventually. If you believe you have truly plateaued, talk to your personal trainer, doctor, or nutritionist for advice – don’t follow strange tips and tricks you find on random websites unless you can find medical sources that back up their statements.
Dr. Nancy Rahnama, MD, ABOM, ABIM, is a medical doctor board certified by both the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her specialty is Clinical Nutrition, that is, the use of nutrition by a medical doctor to diagnose and treat disease. Dr. Rahnama has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of weight loss, gut health, improved mood and sleep, and managing chronic disease.