Fitness Articles

8 Cold, Hard Truths about Exercise

It's Time for an Exercise in Tough Love


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

    Excellent advice and well written. Until I started SP, it never dawned on me that doing the same exercise would cause plateaus. So changing things up has really helped even tho my weight loss is very slow. I guess patience and continual movement are the keys. - 8/7/2014 11:22:48 AM
    How depressing for newbies like myself :( - 7/27/2014 12:43:10 AM
  • MZMOCK810
    When I'm working out I am always saying to myself "If I just keep doing it I will learn to love it" or "If I keep it up I will become one of those people that loves to workout". Patiently day by day I wait for that switch to flip where I look forward to working out and love it.

    Reading this article actually helped propel me through my second workout today as I started thinking "Hardly anybody loves working out". It made me feel better to know that it feels like a "chore" to pretty much everybody. Knowing that most people feel the same way about it as I do helped me to feel like I'm not alone and that there's not something wrong with me because I don't enjoy working out despite how long I've been doing it. - 6/11/2014 9:20:23 PM
  • Great article. I love the ring of truth ... and many of these I have discovered by trial and error.

    "Routine is the exercise enemy" was hard for me to hear. But I appreciate having to look at that now. Thank you. - 6/11/2014 7:26:15 PM
    Awesome article that as it's written by a pro, we (especially those of us not in the business) should really pay serious attention to! She won top honors in this business. As she points out exercise is only half, but 50% is a lot of anything, so we got to figure out how to get some in our lives. Anyone who reads this will know 1 if they're doing it right, 2 what is and what is not exercise 3 how much/ how long/ in min. and how long over all (in your life). This site hired the best person to write this article.

    The only thing I might add is when I used to go to gyms I never wanted to work out as hard as the employees that were showing me the different machines as I wanted to work up to a fit level and not get hurt going too fast. I learned from my (very bright and fit) boyfriend that one should work at around 80%, 70 is too easy, and 90 is only for serious athletes in the Olympics etc. He showed me how counting my pulse etc. did the math for me, but trainers, gym employees or googleing it can tell you also. - 6/11/2014 5:18:42 PM
  • "Some people don't like exercise."

    Then don't exercise. Find an activity you love, and do it. I commute by bike, and my normal round-trip burns about a thousand calories. I switched to triathlon last year, so I no longer go for 6-hour bike rides on the weekends, but those rides would burn thousands of calories. But that's not why I did it. I did it because I love riding a bike.

    These "truths" shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. We live very cushy lives. We have remote controls that allow us to watch television for hours without ever moving. We "dial" a telephone number by puching buttons. Even typing this on a computer's keyboard is using less energy than typing it on a manual typewriter would have used.

    So you can whine about life being hard, or you can rejoice in how easy our lives are and pledge to challenge yourself to keep your body fit. - 6/11/2014 1:40:55 PM
  • I didn't find this article depressing but it just proves you need to find something you enjoy doing so you won't want to quite doing it. If all I could do was run I wouldn't be able to stick to it because I don't really enjoy it. Now dancing or working out to DVD's that's for me. I can see myself doing those things for the rest of my life. Yes, if you quite moving you will start to deteriorate. It is a fact. - 6/11/2014 12:38:20 PM
  • The tone of the article seems right, though I'm not sure if the facts are. I also believe that a level of fitness sufficient to permit an active and agile lifestyle may be enough, and constantly reaching for new heights or changing routines and seeking new challenges may not be necessary to live in a healthy and comfortable way, unless, of course, exercising itself is your recreation. - 6/11/2014 12:29:02 PM
  • MZMOCK810
    I won't deny that this article was hard to take in, however, no matter how discouraging it may seem...keep moving. No matter what, keep moving. - 6/11/2014 11:51:29 AM
  • Some people have said this is depressing and discouraging - well I understand that. I suggest you try to see the bigger picture. You have to move, whether you call it exercise or not. If you stop moving you will lose alot. I have relatives that literally lost the ability to WALK because of inactivity. I'm 54, and yes it gets a little harder as you get older, but IMO "slowing down" will be detrimental. All the same, I'm dealing with a lower backache and sometimes my knees hurt. But neither one of those is as bad as having to use one of those electric carts in WalMart, or ending up a diabetic like my siblings. And yes, it's a little frustrating that the 1 1/2 hours I spend grocery shopping doesn't count as "exercise," but I also understand why it doesn't. Last year I did have some stomach problems that pretty much knocked me out of running, and I gained almost 10 lbs as a result. I'm trying to get back into running, and BOY, have I lost some strength and stamina! Of course I want to lose the weight, but I also want to build up my endurance and muscle tone for my back and knees. Like the author said, you gotta keep doing it - move it or lose it! - 6/11/2014 9:40:50 AM
  • It's so important to like the exercise you do. I love triathlons and training for it, becuase it requires so many varieties of workouts that I can never get bored :) - 6/11/2014 9:32:52 AM
  • While these certainly are truths, they are total bummers to contemplate. I am so tired of everything having to be so hard. - 5/4/2014 1:39:04 PM
  • This is good. Thanks for sharing. - 5/2/2014 6:16:53 AM
  • Needed to read that. - 4/23/2014 3:53:37 AM
    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
Popular Calories Burned Searches: Biking/Cycling: 20-22 km/h (3 minutes per km - 2.72 minutes per km)  |  Biking/Cycling: 23-25 km/h (2.6 minutes per km - 2.4 minutes per km)  |  Biking/Cycling: 26-31 km/h (2.3 minutes per km - 1.9 minutes per km)