8 Cold, Hard Truths about Exercise

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Making exercise a part of your routine is a challenge. Finding an activity you love and finding the time to do said activity on a regular basis requires determination, but the benefits are so worth the effort. A consistent exercise routine offers so many benefits to your mind and your body, many of which you are probably already beginning to experience if you've been active for some time. 

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 our lives. But some of those ideas are flat out 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. 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.


1. 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.

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 three mile per hour 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 exercise as a challenge to continuously improve on what you just accomplished.

2. 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 aforementioned "hard" feeling) 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.

3. 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 okay 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" versus exercise above, and 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.

4. 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 group classes, workout videos 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 percent or more.

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.

5. 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 okay 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.

6. 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 it all: watch your diet, consume fewer calories than you burn, and exercise with a combination of cardio and strength training. The same goes for dieting: Cutting calories will result in some weight loss, but your body will not necessarily look more cut if exercise isn't also part of your plan.

7. 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 to 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 two days! This is why it's important to find a routine that you enjoy and can stick with for the long haul.

8. Routine is the enemy of exercise.

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 it will also prevent plateaus in your progress.

For creatures of habit, or exercisers who lack creativity, this can be a real challenge. Luckily, 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.

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Good article Report
SNUZYQ2 4/2/2021
Cold, hard truths are the best medicine sometimes. Thank you! Report
Some cold hard facts, a real reality check, thank-you Report
PATRICIAANN46 3/4/2021
Thank You for a great article.................. Report
VHAYES04 1/27/2021
Ty Report
GMACAMI 12/18/2020
interesting article but more interesting comments Report
CECELW 10/22/2020
I learned a long time ago, everything counts. Just don't sit there like a log. move it Report
ARNETTELEE 10/14/2020
thanks Report
Good to know. Report
I say, if it can't count as exercise, don't do it. So my house is a dusty mess (cleaning it doesn't count), but there are paths worn into my yard. Report
CHERYLHURT 8/10/2020
Great Report
NANASUEH 6/25/2020
thanks Report
Much appreciated reminder of what is considered exercise and what could be a waste of time. Report
I don't think this article could have been written in a more abrasive way. Thanks for talking down to the world and making me feel like a worthless turd, because my "exercise" doesn't qualify. Report
Excellent Article! Thanks for sharing!!!!!!! Report
Great article! Thanks! Report
Thanks! Report
Thank you Nichole! Report
I'm glad to hear it always feels a little (or a lot) hard. It's not just me! About having to change things up: it depends on your purpose. Long lived people in the Blue Zones don't change their activity much over time but are "fit" for life beyond 90! But they are a lot more active in their daily lives and a fair number live in hilly regions. They also are not trying to look good in a bikini. Other than that, good stuff. Report
This is a wealth of information Report
And I thought I was on a roll. You have just knocked the wind out of my sail, coach Nicole but I must do what is best for me. Thanks! Report
Loved this article Coach Nicole. We covered it in our SparkLive! Class sessions this week, and we had some really good discussions from it. Our minds believe what we tell them, and fooling ourselves hurts the weight loss progress. I challenged myself this week more than ever, and have revamped some of my goals again. Thank you! Report
Thank you for saying ALL OF THESE THINGS. I've known them for a long time, but I always feel like a jerk when I say it to fitness newbies who don't do the work, then complain about never seeing results. Now I don't have to say anything! Yay! Report
I love this article! This is exactly what I need to hear- give it to me straight. I don't like exercise and I haven't found an activity yet that I love to do and it will get easier. But this is approach is better for someone like me, unlike the approach I've had from a few personal trainers. They promise that they will get me to love exercise and it hasn't happened yet. I have gotten stronger but I don't love it. I know it's something I have to do, like paying bills and taxes. Report
Ouch - I know it's true, but reading it hurts :) !! Okay, okay, I'll jump on the treadmill tonight and pick up those dusty weights - thank u for the kick in the pants! Report
Great article! :-) Interesting read. Report
These facts may be true, but George is right, if one doesn't find some activity they enjoy doing they won't stay with it.

I realized that when I was (am still am) struggling to find SOMETHING I enjoy and a saw a cowoker who absolutely loves to play golf. No one has to talk him into going to the golf course, we tease him because he spends ALL of his free time playing golf.

That's what I'm looking for, an activity that I don't have to MAKE myself do. I just do it because I enjoy it. The health benefits will follow naturally. Report
Awesome blog post Nicole. You are my inspiration. Your videos are awesome and really keep me going. Since I can watch them on my phone, I can do them anywhere! Thank you from the bottom of this former couch potato's heart. Report
Interesting post. I was just talking to my husband about changing up routines today. I have better results this time around because I'm not only sticking to the elliptical like I did last time. I also had no idea that you lose cardio endurance in two days. Report
Just starting out and these are some hard truths. Thanks for the motivation Report
I think you leave off an important truth, that if you transform it into a joyless grind it is not sustainable. What makes it forever is when a person finds the joy in it. I have no problem with any of it but I am afraid none of this is new. I would never try to motivate a person with this list. I think an important truth is that each individual must find what works for them and persue that relentlessly for their own health and happiness. Report
You speak the truth, but I kinda hate you for it at the moment. I know it lasts forever, but that's what kills me. Report
When I think about it, I know that what you wrote is the truth. I'm a "skirter;" looking for ways to get around things, so it was tough reading it. Yes, those are eight "truths," but it is also true that living is a practice and my (our) attitude can tip the balance from Hard to Satisfying. Thank you for keeping it real. Report
This article reminded me, my exercise and diet changes are lifestyle changes. I met my initial goals and then the military moved us, so I slacked off. I realized I've been allowing myself to over indulge while not exercising as my body needs. Thanks for the reminder! Report
For me, it is easier because I love to be active. My favorite place is the gym. I've been at one almost every day since I was 18. Report
A good reminder. And I really like the point about nutrition - you can't undo a poor diet by exercising. My friend found that out the hard way when he had a heart attack at the age of 46. He was a committed runner and a committed vegetable hater. His idea of a good meal was a hamburger - hold all the fresh stuff. If he wanted to make it "healthier" he'd add cheese. He had to change his ways in a hurry which wasn't easy but fortunately he's still with us.

It can be a bit daunting to think that exercise has to get harder and harder for the rest of our lives. But once we've met our weight loss goals then the trick is to balance diet, exercise and other lifestyle habits to maintain a healthy body. I'm not quite there yet and I still enjoy challenging myself with harder exercise but I doubt I'll be doing that when (if) I get to be 80.

For me, it was important to find something I really like - in my case it's martial arts. It's a great workout in many aspects (body, mind, spirit) and it's adaptable to a person's abilities. In between my three classes per week I still go to the gym just for the aerobics and strength part, but if I didn't have karate I'd be dragging myself to the gym. This way I always have something to look forward to. Report
OK, Coach. I hear ya! Report
It's so nice to hear the truth-it will never be easy, but it will make me feel better! I have already seen that to some extent. I look forward to gaining endurance and becoming stronger and more fit! Excellent article! Report
Just makes you think....out now.....what...LOL.....

Ohhh yeah thats what....get the butt up...and get moving! Report
This was a hard pill to swallow, but so so true every bit of it and I'm glad I read it! It reinforced what I already knew (in the back of my mind) but chose to ignore! I grew up hearing these words "run every day and you can eat whatever you want". It's hard to undo habits that you have grown used to from childhood but this article reinforces that it CAN be done but it WON'T BE EASY and it will never stop being a challenge you just have to get used to it and make it (exercise, eating healthy and being active) part of our daily routine. Thanks! Report
Yes -- and knowing all this can be accepted, tolerated, even celebrated as part of our personal triumph as we do our utmost to get and to stay on track -- again and again, if need be. NEVER give up for more than a minute: let's honour our life in the gift of a human form by taking the best care of it we can, as often as we can. Two years after shifting my lifestyle from more than a half century as a Couch-Patootie, I respect these truths and myself for hangin' in with my self-care anyhow! THANK YOU! Report
Thanks I really needed a wake up call. I think I am changing my workouts but I tend to do the same thing over and over again. I do find that summer is easier than winter because I can get outdoors more. Report
Thank you! Excellent! And now off to a walk on the beach--Not pouring anymore! YAY! Report
The part about being more active overall -- not just working out regularly -- really resonates for me. I *think* I'm fairly active in my day, but I also now think I have to pay more attention to that! You have given me something new to track -- this is great! Thanks! Report
Yes, the truth is hard to hear, but I really needed it today. I only use dvd's at home for my workout routines, and i remember when the "easy walking" routine would make me sweaty and out of breath and a cardio workout was just out of the question. But just by staying with it and challenging myself I've added cardio.
DVD of choice now is - Jillian Michaels Beginners Frontside - it's getting easier - I can get thru the 6 circuits where as before was a puddle of sweat on the floor after 1. Time to change it up. Thanks Report
Thanks! These are important facts to keep in mind everytime I reach for another snack, or think "I worked out yesterday, I can watch TV/read all day and not get off my butt!" :) Report
This is overall a good article but I am living proof that the statement that "exercise alone will not change your body" is not true. Yes, it will. When I started exercising, my blood sugar readings dropped dramatically and I also saw improvement in blood pressure, triglycerides, and cholesterol readings. Maybe exercise alone didn't change the outside much, but it drastically changed the inside. I think she meant to say "exercise alone will not change weight," but there is more to your body than what is revealed by the scale. True, you won't become "thin, toned, and cut," and a combination of healthy eating and exercise is healthier than just exercise alone, but that doesn't change the fact that research shows that the majority of people of any size who exercise are healthier than their counterparts who do not. Report
This was a wonderful article. Thank you Report
Thanks, I can see I need to continue to work on changing my habits and this helps move me in the right direction. Report
One of the exercise truths you listed doesn't actually seem true for me right now. I have a heart-rate monitor (Polar - with the chest band), and it consistently rates my calories burned as higher than Sparkpeople lists for the same exercise, and way way higher than my treadmill does when I use the treadmill. I've been assuming that its because I'm fairly new to exercise and am just so out of shape that it doesn't take as much to get my heart-rate going. Report