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8 Cold, Hard Truths about Exercise

It's Time for an Exercise in Tough Love

-- By Nicole Nichols, Certified Personal Trainer and Health Educator
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Many of you have been trying to make exercise a habit. Some of you may have already succeeded in that goal. Either way, I'm proud of you for making fitness a part of your life—even if you're not always perfect at it. A consistent exercise routine offers so many benefits to your mind and your body, many of which you are probably already beginning to experience.

Now it's time for some tough love.

We all have our own ideas about exercise: what "counts" as a workout, how much we need to do, and how it benefits us. But some of those ideas are flat our wrong (or simply misguided). If you're exercising and not seeing the results you had hoped for, it could be that you're missing out on these eight truths about exercise. Now they may be hard to hear, but trust that I'm sharing them with you for good reasons. Understanding these realities will only make the habit of exercise easier for you—and help you get even better results from your efforts.

8 Cold, Hard Truths about Exercise

Working out will always feel hard.
Exercise is work. It elevates your heart rate, makes you somewhat breathless, and causes your muscles to burn. It's tiring—sometimes exhausting. Yes, exercise does get easier with time, but it will never be "easy." If it were easy, it wouldn’t be exercise. You see, beyond just getting your body moving (which is great but will only get you so far), exercise has to challenge you. You have to work past your comfort zone in order to train your heart, lungs, and muscles to get stronger and fitter. Over time, yes it will become easier to walk at the 3 mph pace you started, but once that becomes easy, it's time to walk faster, which brings me to another cold, hard truth: You have to work harder as you get fitter. Think of it exercise as a challenge to continuously improve on what you just accomplished.

Not every movement or activity counts as exercise.
Let me preface this one by saying that any body movement is good for you. Whether you're fidgeting at your desk, walking across the office to talk to a co-worker, taking a single flight of stairs instead of the elevator, or playing Wii tennis—all movement is good, especially when you're just starting out. But here's the real truth: Not all movement is "exercise." The two are very, very different. For any activity to count as true exercise, it has to meet certain parameters, like lasting at least 10 continuous minutes (so those stairs you took or that walk from your car to the store doesn't count as a workout), it has to elevate your heart rate to an aerobic level (that "hard" feeling I mentioned above), and more. If you count all of these "activities" or body movements you do each day as workouts, then you are only shortchanging yourself—and you could be hurting your weight loss efforts.
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About The Author

Nicole Nichols Nicole Nichols
Nicole was named "America's Top Personal Trainer to Watch" in 2011. A certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with a bachelor's degree in health education, she loves living a healthy and fit lifestyle and helping others do the same. Her DVDs "Total Body Sculpting" and "28 Day Boot Camp" (a best seller) are available online and in stores nationwide. Read Nicole's full bio and blog posts.

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Member Comments

  • Needed to read that. - 4/23/2014 3:53:37 AM
  • BCLEMENT
    Of all the cold, hard truths mentioned, you skipped right over the very small impact that exercise has on weight loss. You would have to spend hours on a treadmill or other machine to even have the smallest impact on weight loss. Fitness level, musculature, yes, fine. Weight loss, no. Think about it: 200 C in one workout on the treadmill, 5 X per week (or the equivalent) and you've burned 1000 C, which is just over a quarter of a pound. While there are many benefits of exercise, weight loss is not always one of them. It's shamelessly oversold for that purpose. - 4/22/2014 10:52:27 AM
  • Thanks for the concise list! I have had to self-discover a couple of these eight cold truths, and was in denial about some of them until recently. Unfortunately, it took me until age 58 to really pull it all together. I am still coming to terms on the ‘forever’ truth. I think there is a need to mention within the eight truths how increasingly important knowing these truths becomes as we age. - 4/22/2014 5:27:59 AM
  • INGHND
    I don't find them depressing and discouraging!! If you work out on a regular basis you already know that you have to keep pushing harder when it gets easy!!!
    Thanks I enjoyed the article it was confirmation!
    Shake it up shape it up!! - 4/21/2014 5:36:02 PM
  • I would add that things are not always as black and white as we might like to think. I earned a living in a construction trade similar to what Ironworkers do, that involved a lot of climbing, crawling, and moving all kinds of weights, sizes, and shapes of things if every conceivable direction and position. We used rigging tools for much of it but those tools are heavy and hard to wrestle with too. Certain people had reputations as being very strong, as well as fast, coordinated, and so on. None of them that I remember had ever lifted weights or done any other kind of formal exercise. They were all farm boys, who grew up on a farm working hard all the time. I'm sure genetics is a factor, and a weight program would have made them even stronger. But hard work day in and day out can make you strong and keep you in good shape. Not everybody does that kind of work, but I just wanted to make the point that even if something is not technically defined as exercise it can still make you strong. - 4/21/2014 2:31:17 PM
  • Depressing and discouraging. - 4/21/2014 11:14:57 AM
  • I think something can count as exercise if you only do it for a minute if it's so intense that it gets your heart beating really fast. If you do several sessions like that throughout the day it can be a valuable addition to a bigger exercise program.

    If I spend a day working in my garden and by evening I'm so tired all I want to do is melt into my recliner and don't even feel like getting up to get a snack, I feel like I got some exercise, even though my heart rate might not have gone up. I guess now I should call it useful activity instead of exercise.

    I remember years ago reading about exercise physiology, and one thing that sticks in my mind is what were called the three fundamental principles of exercise: overload, specificity, and reversibility. This article talked about the first and third. The second, specificity, is that training effect is specific to training stimulus: you get good at doing whatever it is you do in other words. I would add balance, like for example if you move weights in one direction you should also move weights in the opposite direction. And variety.

    There have been a few times in my life when I was very active and did a lot of very intense exercise but still had a big belly and looked pregnant (but with good muscle tone), because I didn't exercise enough eating discipline. - 4/21/2014 10:42:06 AM
  • NIGHTBUTTERFLY
    what a delightful and motivating artricle, so if it doesnt matter anyway, might aswel all just vegetate on the couch and never indulge or enjoy life. wtf - 4/21/2014 10:32:45 AM
  • Can you please cite things? Where is it proven that muscle strength can diminish after 2 days of rest? - 4/21/2014 9:35:46 AM
  • MARY2619
    What caught my attention was the comments about cal burn readouts being overinflated on exercise equipment, etc. I think that the fitness tracker on this site is way overinflated. I'm pretty sure that I don't burn 300 cals doing 9 sets of lifts with my 10# weights, for example. - 4/21/2014 9:34:53 AM
  • Dear Lynna. The advice here is not really inconsistent. If you did 10 minutes of exercise everyday would you be healthier over the long run than if you did nothing? Yes. Would you ever reach your fittest? No. If you worked up to 30 minutes/day would you be even fitter? Yes. The first truth is an important truth, as we become fitter, we need to "up" our routineto challenge our bodies. The 10 minutes is our spark, but it is not yet our flame. If I'm in a blue mood and only do 10 minutes of pushups, abs, squats and stretches in the AM, will not that effort pay off? Yes. Will it make me into the fit person I want to be. No, but that 10 minutes makes me worlds better than nothing. - 4/16/2014 9:40:21 AM
  • I do agree not everything counts as exercise, however, I am confused it states that 10, 30 or even 60 minutes of exercise a day may not be enough. On spark they encourage at least 10 minutes everyday. Some parts of this article disagrees with what the site promotes. - 1/22/2014 10:55:13 AM
  • People need to chill here. If you're this resentful for hearing the truth about attaining and maintaining your health, you're deluding yourselves. It's unpleasant, and she did call the article "cold, hard truths," but that's the situation. Accept it. There is no magic bullet. If your quality of life matters, you'll listen. - 1/18/2014 12:28:44 PM
  • LOLA_LALA
    Well, I'm 62 and unable to do much exercise other than physical therapy. Nonetheless, my internist is very happy with my weight and BMI of 19.5, plus normal-range blood tests. So I wonder if our individual circumstances don't often override more general, broad-based exercise recommendations. - 12/9/2013 8:14:13 PM
  • ....So...does exercise really help us live longer, or does it just *seem* longer?

    This article certainly makes it seem like the latter will be the truth. For those of us without HRMs, without hours a day to devote to nothing but fitness, who may be bound to our chairs by our careers, this sounds like a whole lot of "why bother?" If I can't exercise at top form for a long period, it's no use. If my exercise is routine, it's no use. If I'm not sweating bullets and running miles, it's no use. All those years of taking the stairs and parking far away were of no use. Sounds like we're back to "The only way to lose weight is to beat yourself to a pulp and live on plain lettuce."

    I exercise -and I lift - because I like how it makes me feel, but I guess my belief that this effort was aiding my weight loss is just not right. Thanks for setting me straight on that, Nichole. - 11/16/2013 10:31:05 AM
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