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

  • 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. - 6/24/2016 9:49:48 AM
  • 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.

    - 6/14/2016 2:46:30 PM
  • 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.
    - 6/14/2016 9:40:36 AM
  • 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. - 6/14/2016 7:57:35 AM
  • The most depressing SP article ever. - 6/14/2016 7:45:31 AM
  • 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. - 4/12/2016 10:29:53 AM
  • 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. - 1/10/2016 8:30:56 PM
  • AWESOME article, really, really good. For some reason, reading that exercise will get easier but it will never be easy was just what I needed to hear today. It really built my self-esteem to realize that yes, darnit, I AM doing something hard. Every single point you made was golden. Thank you! - 1/6/2016 9:08:26 PM
  • Learning to love the truth, even when it is hard. Some of these were hard facts to face, but I'm grateful to have this knowledge so I can attack the urge to skip a workout (like I almost talked myself into tonight). I appreciated your question about how do I reward myself. I'm slowly learning that to truly reward myself means to stay away from those "treats" I'd allow myself for having a great week. They've repeatedly left me feeling guilty and frustrated on a Monday morning. - 1/6/2016 6:38:06 PM
    It is hard sometimes to think I will always have to work harder but that is also part of the fun. I have found now if I don't exercise for a few days due to vacation or visiting that my body craves it. I really do enjoy it -- to a point :)
    - 1/6/2016 12:54:25 PM
  • One of the things I don't like about SP is the exercise snobbery. It isn't exercise if it is not in a gym. If I go to the barn and shovel manure for 4 hours that is not exercise according to SP, but a leasurely walk down the street is exercise. And which one do you think is expending more effort an using more muscles? I count much of my farm work as exercise and it has not hurt my weigh loss at all, if I didn't I would be starving all the time. - 1/6/2016 9:53:01 AM
  • Cold, hard truth. Thanks, Coach Nicole! - 1/6/2016 9:20:32 AM
  • one of the better articles I have read here. Thanks for the reminders. Most of it I knew/had heard before, but it's always good to have a refresher :) - 1/6/2016 6:04:46 AM
    My body is very ironic. For about 5-6 weeks I thought I had hit a plateau. 1200 calories a day 3-5 on the elliptical 3-4 xs a week. Didn't lose any inches or pounds. Mind you I'm 5-3, 145 pounds, so you can imagine the frustration. Then, all of a sudden something sparked in me. Well maybe I'm not eating enough calories. Tested an increase of 100 calories daily until I saw a spike on the scale to my shock 1700 calories is just enough for me to shed half a pound a week plus I have one or two cheat days in a week.(Yes, pleasure meals). It seems counter intuitive, I do believe some people need exercise and a little bit more calories to lose. You don't want to shock your body. Your body will hold onto everything. I learned the hard way. I also have hashimotos. So without exercise I wont lose inches. It is a tuff battle. But I could have swore 1200 calories would be enough even on my sloth days. Turns out 1200 calories is for someone in a hospital bed. I can fare around 1300 calories on a lazy day. - 9/16/2015 8:20:45 AM
    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

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