Fitness Articles

8 Cold, Hard Truths About Exercise

It's Time for an Exercise in Tough Love

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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.

One workout may not undo a sedentary lifestyle.
Working out really matters for your health and longevity, but more research these days is telling us that simply exercising—whether 10, 30, or even 60+ minutes a day—may not be enough to offset the effects of an otherwise sedentary lifestyle. Just because you exercise doesn't mean it's OK to be a couch potato the other 23 hours of the day. Sitting, driving, working from a computer, sleeping—all of these "inactivities" make up the bulk of many people's days, and the longer you sit still, the worse the effects can be on your health. I talked a little about "activity" vs. exercise above. This is where those extra non-workout activities DO matter. They may not be true workouts, but they do have benefits. More movement is good—and that is how you achieve the benefits of an active lifestyle.

You're not burning as many calories as you think.
"Burn up to 800 calories an hour!" How often do you see phrases like that advertised on workout DVDs, group classes, and other fitness products? The truth is, most of these numbers are seriously inflated, and the average person won't burn a fraction of that claim. This is the case for treadmills, stationary bikes and other cardio machines, too. Those "calorie burn" screens can be off by 30% or more. SparkPeople tries to be a little more conservative with the numbers we use on our Fitness Tracker, but just remember that calculators/trackers are estimates. When it comes to weight loss, you're better off with a conservative approach to calorie burn. Assume you're actually burning fewer calories than a tracker or machine says you are. A better way to gauge what you're really burning is by wearing your own heart rate monitor. While a general fitness tracker would tell me that an hour of Spinning burned some 600+ calories, my HRM (using my gender, weight, and actual heart rate during the workout) showed closer to 400. That's a big difference that could really affect one's weight loss.

It won't allow you to eat whatever you want.
A walk around the block doesn't earn you a brownie. That yoga class doesn’t mean it's OK to indulge in an ice cream sundae this weekend. How often do you "reward" yourself for working out by undoing most of your efforts with one or more dietary splurges? Remember, exercise really doesn't burn as many calories as people assume it does, so a single workout—even a rigorous one—won't come close to offsetting just ONE big splurge. Yet I know many people who justify their food choices by saying "I worked out today." If weight loss is your goal, you have to keep these splurges in check; otherwise, you'll be fighting a losing battle and never really get ahead in the calorie equation.

Exercise alone won't change your body.
This is probably one of the biggest misconceptions I see. Most people believe that simply by exercising more, harder, or with some "magical" combination (think "muscle confusion"), they'll get rock hard abs, chiseled arms, and toned legs. WRONG. Exercise will not change your body much at all unless you are also cutting calories. To really change your physique, you have to do both: watch your diet, consumer fewer calories than you burn, and exercise with a combination of cardio and strength training. Same goes for dieting. Cutting calories will result in some weight loss, but your body will not necessarily look more cut or toned if exercise isn't also part of your plan.

You have to do it forever.
A lot of people don't like to exercise, but they manage to stick with it in order to lose weight. Once they reach that goal, it becomes easier to slack off and then lose the habit entirely. But whether your goal is to lose weight, look better, improve your health, or just plain feel good, you're only going to reach—and maintain—that result by continuing to exercise after you reach that goal. The benefits of exercise are quickly lost, too. You actually lose your strength and endurance far faster than it took to build up (unfair, right?). You can lose muscle strength in just a couple weeks off from pumping iron, and cardiovascular endurance? It starts diminishing when you rest just 2 days! This is why it's important to find a routine that you enjoy and can stick with for the long haul.

Routine is the exercise enemy.
I love routine as much as the next person, but the gym is not the place for it. For the best results, you have to change up your workouts often. This is good because it can help prevent boredom so you'll stick with it, but also prevent plateaus in your progress. For creatures of habit, or exercisers who lack creativity, it can be a real challenge. There are tons of ways you can mix up your workouts without becoming a gym rat or earning a personal training certification. The important thing is that you do it. Don't let your workouts become stale, and don't let your muscles get too conditioned to doing the same old thing for months on end. That's why lifelong exercisers are always reaching for new goals and trying new things. Not only is it fun, but it challenges their bodies in new ways so they always stay fit—and have fun doing it.

There you have it. Sometimes the facts are hard to hear, but ultimately, the truth can be liberating—and help you really become your best in the gym and in life.

What do you think about these truths? Were any of them hard to hear? Would you add any more exercise truths to this list?
 

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Member Comments

  • This is an excellent article. Some tough love here but sometimes that's necessary.
  • thanks for the good article
  • I think of hwy I am doing this and it pushes me thru to continue
  • Even when I'm not looking to lose weight, I still try to move...... It's tough sometimes cause I just don't feel like it AT ALL! Once I push through to the other side I get into and don't want to stop... Exercise is good for me and you too!
  • You are what you think. Always think positive, empowering thoughts and your life will welcome positive opportunities!
  • I think that you are right on with these truths. Thanks for the information contained in your article.
  • @ ALF, Thank You :)
  • Well written article! I don't understand when friends say, "I went to the gym today, so I can have pizza tonight." Then they are disappointed because they didn't lose any weight even though they went to the gym. (And probably gained from eating the entire pizza)
  • You have got to be kidding me. Why would anybody spend any hours of their life doing exercise. Are you so desperate to fit in that you do things you don't like to do just so somebody will think you are "hot". You even pay people to get us to do it. (a light bulb should turn on here) As for health benefits guess what we will all age and we will all die no matter what you do at the gym. The most you are going to change it by is a few years one way or the other. If you don't get diabetes or heart problems you will certainly die of some other disease that working out can't prevent. You only get a certain amount of time to live and why waste it doing something you really don't want to do. Screw anybody who doesn't like how you look or what you do. My athletic friends are in worse shape physically than I am being sedentary because of overused joints, bad backs, bad knees and elbows, and all the other injuries they have accumulated over years of "being healthy". Professional athletes don't live statistically significantly longer lives than the rest of us so can exercise really be all that good for you. I guess if you are spineless enough to do something painful just to conform to societies norms then knock yourself out. Doesn't make any sense to me.
  • I agree with all BUT the first one.
    "Working out will always feel hard" is totally untrue for me.
    I hate to push hard, I hate to sweat, I hate when my heart is racing and I'm short of breath.
    I tried that many times and always quit in 1-2 weeks.
    So I started easy, small dumbbells and stationary biking.
    When I got stronger and my routine was too easy even for lazy me, I changed for walking, running and yoga. I run 4 times every week, but never too fast, just comfortably.

  • I'm glad to see the positive comments about this article. So often when it appears, the same comments appear about it being "depressing" or "discouraging"

    The truth is hard to accept. The article clearly states that any movement is better than none. At 69 I'm not headed for the Olympic team (not at 29 either). The point here is to improve, to challenge yourself and what constitutes a challenge is different for everyone.

    My hard truth was the caution not to become an "active couch potato" - a vigorous workout followed by a day of loafing around.

    As for calorie burn, your body knows what's it's burning regardless of the calories quoted. The point of the article is to take a hard, honest look at what you are doing, especially if you are not seeing results.

    Weight loss/maintenance is 80% diet and 20% exercise. If you can't exercise then it's even more important to honestly track those food calories.
  • This article is right on the money. It should be available as a printable, in point form for us to post on our fridge or at our desk at work. Don't let it discourage you, let it motivate you. And if you have medical problems and meds affect your abilities... always remember that you must work the hardest that YOU can do. If you are someone who can't do 60 minutes of exercise, then what is your max and work towards that. Always strive to do YOUR best, not someone else's best. Take charge of your life, and live it.
  • The most depressing SP article ever.
  • This article has been up several times, and every time I read it, all it does is discourages me. And I bet I'm not the only one. What if someone can't do 60 min. of exercise? What if someone is on a Beta Blocker (depresses the heart rate) and can't get their heart rate up because of the medication? What if someone has physical limitations? This article tells us to get over ourselves, suck it up, and move it. And since we can't, I guess we're just out of luck.
  • I am not sure I am on board with most of these especially as I had a paternal grandfather who was an ex lumberjack and farmer and was NEVER overweight and did NOT worry about what he ate (mind you he rarely ate junk food or fast food). Also I am not sure the whole story is being told when we now seem to eat more over processed and food that is of dubious nutritional benefit.

About The Author

Nicole Nichols Nicole Nichols
A certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with a bachelor's degree in health education, Nicole loves living a healthy and fit lifestyle and helping others do the same. Nicole was formerly SparkPeople's fitness expert and editor-in-chief, known on the site as "Coach Nicole." Make sure to explore more of her articles and blog posts.

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