Fitness Articles

8 Cold, Hard Truths about Exercise

It's Time for an Exercise in Tough Love

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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.
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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.

Member Comments

  • DANDYLINES
    Thank you for this intelligent article. I recently attended a YMCA program on fitness and they now use the physical activity. They are emphasizing just moving and getting up and doing something. I suppose that is for beginners, but this is a more reliable article and information. - 7/8/2015 6:06:21 PM
  • I think the article made a great point about one workout per day does not makeup for living a sedentary life. It's too easy to say "Well I workout for ____ minutes today so I can lay around and watch TV the rest of the day (and night). An active lifestyle means getting up and moving every hour of the day. - 7/8/2015 1:07:04 PM
  • I really appreciate this site with all these articles! I love being active but exercise is hard for me to not fall into a routine. I dance 1-2 times a week for about 3 hours each session but at the gym it is so easy to do the same thing over and over again! Some gyms I guess have more things, mine just has those cardio machines. So in this, I have to set my goals with dancing in order to push myself. - 7/8/2015 11:17:26 AM
  • EWAGNEV493
    I found this article to be very helpful & actually wrote down the 8 truths! Now going on a 2 hr outdoor bike ride as it is a beyond beautiful day here in Omaha, NE (sunny, no wind, no humidity & 72 degrees for day's high)! - 7/8/2015 10:55:50 AM
  • Thanks for this article - I agree. I'm reading a book called Being Mortal by Atul Gawanda at the moment - and the facts about the decline of physical fitness and strength as we get older (even from 40 onwards) is very startling. I am someone who 'exercises' regularly but avoids the 'hard' - and consequently I don't see much change, but I am maintaining my stamina, strength and suppleness by doing something every day. - 7/8/2015 5:13:37 AM
  • MAMAKITTEH1
    Thanks so much for posting this helpful info. It is important to stay active on a daily basis and how and what exercise you need obviously depends on the individual but itís actually surprising how little you really need to stay fit....you DON'T need to work yourself to exhaustion. I used to work out for HOURS but cut my routine by over half a few years ago. I now do app. 3-4 30 minute strength training workouts a week and moderate intensity walks whenever I can (which is pretty often because I walk everywhere!). Iíve been able to maintain my weight and fitness level and actually have more energy, no more leg and lower back pain from running like a maniac and I've noticed I don't binge and overeat like I did when I worked out so hard. If youíre interested in finding more information about what really works for both men and women, check out this revealing program called Stop Working Out! If youíre burnt out and exhausted from unnecessary exercise fatigue, you wonít be disappointed. You can find the page here:

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    - 7/3/2015 9:22:54 AM
  • MLD1983
    I'd have to disagree with danjodea; it does stem from a lack of exercise. We lose a lot as we age (muscle, strength, coordination) and occasional workouts and walking the stairs here and there aren't enough to keep the body able to handle daily tasks; I think also, because of this reality, that's part of the reason we're always pursuing convenience with another app or machine to take the place of physical activity. This wasn't the case in the 40s; most were working hard jobs, sometimes two of them, and did a lot for themselves.

    I think more articles like this are needed; I feel like there's been this effort, in the last decade or so, to buck the idea that exercise has to be challenging and is hard to do...not that it should be killing you but exercise shouldn't be convenient either. - 5/26/2015 3:11:09 PM
  • I have to add a p.s. to my previous comment, after having read some of the others. I was less than 40 years old when I had my six pack and exercise buddy. I'm 63 now. More than 23 years of comparative inactivity later, I doubt I'll be able to look like that again. It's called menopause. - 5/26/2015 12:08:06 PM
  • Ugh. Hard truths to read. However, when I look way back to my six pack (yes, this 210 pound woman used to weigh 142 and had a six pack) I remember I was doing cardio and strength 4-5 times a week, for at least an hour and a half. I also trained with my fitness buddy, who long ago moved to Kansas. I really need to get up to speed! - 5/26/2015 12:03:47 PM
  • As an addition to DANJODEA's comment (with which I agree) the availability of processed foods has also allowed us to eat without regard to preparation or health value. I recently watched a great talk that basically said "eat what you want, but make it yourself". Not only do you get more health benefits by starting from scratch, but you are also far less likely to frequently make foods that are less healthful because they're typically more difficult! Think of the work entailed in making french fries (just the fries!), versus making cedar-plank salmon with steamed veggies or salad and some quinoa. It's a much better meal with half the effort of making just a side dish.
    It's a myth that cooking at home takes too long and is too difficult for the average person. There are PLENTY of quick, easy and cost-conscious recipes that make eating at home delicious and fun. - 5/26/2015 12:02:53 PM
  • "SparkPeople tries to be a little more conservative with the numbers we use on our Fitness Tracker..."
    --- This is the one that troubles me. Because SparkPeople is too conservative, I have to constantly adjust my numbers. Even the SP activity tracker has to be adjusted. I use a heart monitor to keep things consistent which takes away from all the conveniences the site builds in. - 5/26/2015 10:25:16 AM
  • I agree with all but the first: exercise will not always be hard!
    Yes it is always hard to increase intensity of your workouts, but many of us are happy with amoderate intensity, and once that is reached exercise feels easy.
    I do 4 runs, 3 walks every week and yoga every day - all the runs and walks and some of the yoga sessions are easy and pleasant, and still keep me fit. - 5/26/2015 10:03:21 AM
  • I am only speaking for myself in saying I find this article helpful and motivating. I have been trying to get myself back on the exercise track for a couple of months. One of the things I find hardest is when I get on the treadmill and have a hard time getting myself to walk over 3 mph. Sometimes it's even hard to get myself UP to 3 mph. But after reading this article, I realize that it's not the speed at which I'm working that matters, it's how hard I am working. So as long as I'm feeling like I'm working hard and my body is feeling strained, I'm going to feel like it was a good workout. - 5/26/2015 9:08:44 AM
  • From a certain point of view, this article is completely correct. From an overall perspective, I'm not so certain.

    The modern "obesity epidemic" isn't from lack of exercise, although for many people the sedentary lifestyle certainly contributes; it's from a crappy diet. If we could eat better, normal daily movements plus occasional workouts would suffice.

    Watch some newsreel footage (not movies!) from the late 1940s through the 1960s; very few people are overweight, even those with relatively sedentary lifestyles (working at a desk all day). Most of those people didn't go to gyms every day - or even at all. Gyms, until relatively recently, were places where athletes went to improve athletic performance. As recently as the early 1970s, gyms as we know them today didn't exist; the modern gym was "invented" in the early 1980s.

    Two things have gone wrong. First is portion size; second is the "innovation" of highly processed foods.

    Portion distortion began in the late 1970s and really got rolling in the early 1980s. "Where's the beef?" may have been funny then, but really, the original McDonald's burger was a properly-sized serving of beef (three ounces). The quarter pounder was considered a big burger at the time; now people order double burgers, a "small salad" is three cups of lettuce and half a cup of dressing, and a small soft drink has gone from 7 ounces to 20 ounces.

    We've been consuming processed foods for centuries; as gross as it might sound, haggis is a processed food. However, highly processed foods created simply for convenience force us to consume excess quantities of junk: high fructose corn syrup, bleached flour, sugar, and a whole host of simple carbs replaced complex carbs. There's room here for several articles; just be aware a lot of the processing of foods is for convenience, not to make it better. Remember that the next time you eat a fortified protein bar.

    So exercise properly, yes, but you really need to take a long, hard look at your diet as well. - 5/26/2015 7:50:04 AM
  • Great Post! - 5/19/2015 6:56:00 PM

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