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Fitness Articles  ›  Exercise Basics

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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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
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

  • 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
  • This article is realistic. Thanks, Coach Nicole! - 11/14/2013 6:09:22 PM
  • SHARPEI7
    This article is downright discouraging. - 11/10/2013 9:56:52 AM
  • I believe that all forms of movement helps. - 11/10/2013 6:53:44 AM
  • Someone who commented which is in her 60's was concerned about vigorous exercise. I recently read that vigorous exercise for post menopausal women is not recommended because it raises cortisol levels (stress hormone) which can increase diseases of many sorts (esp. heart) because we no longer have estrogen produced in our bodies to help keep that cortisol level in check. What IS recommended is leisurely walking for an hour or more each day and yoga for its calming effects. I do both and have been able to maintain my 95 lb weight loss. - 11/9/2013 7:46:06 AM
  • After reading some of the comments, I had to read the article again since I didn't think the author was being negative at all.
    She says that all movement is worthwhile, but she is putting some cold hard facts in front of us.
    I thought she was encouraging us to strive to improve and I appreciate that. - 11/6/2013 8:41:54 PM
  • Great article. Thank you. That's why I try to do different exercise. - 11/6/2013 6:22:08 PM
  • Well, thanks for crapping all over my day. Coach Nicole, your tone makes me feel utterly hopeless. Sometimes "telling it like it is" can sound superior instead of helpful, and regardless of how true what you have written may be, the tone made this article just plain mean. I wish I had not read it. I already know what you have said. Every obese person probably knows it. But all of us need a bit more encouragement than the patronizing way you have expressed these truths.
    - 11/6/2013 6:13:06 PM
  • I like to reward myself for exercising with some other activity I enjoy. So, time in the spa, steam room or sauna after a workout is a great reward for me. - 11/4/2013 4:33:48 PM
  • While in theory, I agree that not all activities should be considered exercise, however, just because some activity doesn't burn a lot of calories doesn't mean it's not exercise or that you're not engaging in a workout.

    For example, I engage in some core exercises and whe they don't burn a lot of calories or losing lbs, I am definitely building strength and muscles. Furthermore, I believe that a big part of how I've maintained my 62lb weight loss is that for several months I have been gaining muscle weight.

    While I haven't lost any weight in months even though I'm still doing everything I did before, I am still losing inches/sizes. As far as I am concerned, that's more important to me than losing lbs because even though I weigh the same I an definitely leaner. JMHO - 11/4/2013 4:32:27 PM
  • Thanks, that was a real eye opener. I enjoyed the truth in that article, exercise is forever, get used to it, mix it up, find somthing you like doing etc. etc. It reminds me it isn't a short term thing until you reach a certain weight goal. Thanks for the reality check. - 11/4/2013 3:59:30 PM
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