Daniel Craig, Senior Physiologist at AXA Health

Common exercise myths getting in the way of a healthier you

22 October 2020

Mother daughter workout

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We all know exercise has many physical and mental health benefits, as well as many different forms. There are lots of tips and tricks out there to help us achieve our fitness goals (whatever they might be) but, equally, plenty of misconceptions that can get in the way: 'exercising before breakfast is best', 'it’s only exercise if it pushes us to the limit' and 'working out causes joint damage' to name a few.  

So, Daniel Craig, Senior Physiologist at AXA Health has addressed some common exercise myths, so you can re-think - or relax about - your exercise regime, safe in the knowledge that you’re on the right track and when it comes to getting more active, it definitely doesn’t have to mean ‘no pain, no gain’.

“Do I need proper exercise equipment to achieve a good workout?”

Everyone has a weight at home – their own bodyweight. For that reason, not having equipment is no excuse for not exercising. If you're more comfortable working out at home then it’s about finding what works for you and ensuring that’s achievable.

You technically don’t need anything to work out, except yourself – whether that’s cardio or resistance training. Bodyweight exercises include squats, burpees, crunches, jumping jacks, running and lunges. If you have kids or a partner at home then get them involved; turning it into a fun activity for them but a workout for you. Can they take the dog for a walk around the park while you run ahead? 

Exercising in a gym does give you access to a variety of equipment, but what’s to say you can’t be creative with household objects to mix up your workout? Tins of food can be used as weights, and chairs can be used for arm dips, for example. So, not having access to exercise equipment shouldn’t hold you back from being active and working on your body.

“Does exercise lead to joint damage?” 

Fear of injury is a common reason for not exercising. Rest assured, however, it often takes many years of consistent strenuous activity to sustain an injury. Professional athletes, for example, may suffer from injuries due to the constant repetitive strain to the same muscles and joints.

For the everyday person who does a range of exercises, the chances of joint damage are minimal. It’s worth remembering that the physical and mental health benefits of exercise far outweigh potential joint damage that, comparatively, you’d accumulate over many years. You’ll be an overall healthier person for exercising, as it helps to reduce blood pressure, improve circulation and boost your mood.

By also doing a range of exercises it helps us stay on track and keeps the boredom at bay. Switching up the activity, whether it’s walking, dancing, or going out on a bike ride, can help the way we perceive exercise. Instead of viewing it as a chore, it instead becomes part of the journey to feeling good.

There is also a dietary element to maintaining healthy joints. A diet rich in antioxidants, such as dark green vegetables and fish, will help to reduce inflammation and preserve long-term joint health. So, joint damage needn’t be a concern that prevents you from exercising. However, if you are currently struggling with persistent joint pain, visit your GP.

“Will I sleep better after exercise?”

Sleep is vital to our overall health. Being active can tire the body out, so it’s easy to assume you’ll get a good night’s sleep afterwards - but this isn’t always the case.

Intense exercise just before bed or late in the day can actually hinder sleep. This is because once you finish exercising, your body is still - internally - extremely active, as you are still trying to regain hydration, for example. 

Exercise promotes the release of feelgood hormones called endorphins, which create a ‘buzz’ that surges through your body. So, find yourself an activity you enjoy doing and get those feelgood hormones flowing! However, perhaps not right before bedtime as you’ll feel so alert that, biologically, you’re not ready to slip into a sleep state. 

Even if you were to drift off soon after doing intense exercise, the quality of your sleep is likely to be worse, as your body is still working overtime.

To avoid this, work out earlier in the day, allowing a number of hours before you go to bed. Busy lifestyles mean this isn’t always possible so, if your only option is to exercise in the evening, opt for low intensity activities like yoga or going for an evening stroll. 

“Is it better to exercise in the morning than the evening?”

So, exercising earlier in the day is better for a good night’s sleep. However, a common misconception exists around working out before breakfast. Namely, that doing ‘fasted cardio’ - that’s exercising before consuming any food or drink in the morning - is better. 

Crucially, there is no ‘one size fits all’, with both fasted and non-fasted cardio helping to achieve very similar outcomes. It’s more important to find an exercise that you enjoy and feel motivated about. For example, if you’re naturally a morning person, then exercising first thing may give you the energy you need to be productive, whereas a night owl may feel livelier later on in the day. 

The key is to listen to your body cues – if you try fasted cardio then feel weak or sick because you’ve not eaten, then exercise after breakfast instead. There is no right or wrong. Instead, it’s about figuring out what works best for you. 

“Will exercise make my cold worse?”

Coming down with a cold can often put a workout regime on hold - you feel lethargic, your body aches and the brain fog won’t disappear. On the other hand, you wonder if working up a sweat and blasting out the cobwebs will actually make you feel better. 

In the case of a common cold, exercising can boost your immune system and speed up the recovery process. Crucially though, it’s best to consider low intensity exercises, such as walking, swimming or yoga; these activities keep you moving, while still giving your immune system a chance to recover. Avoid intense exercises, such as a spinning class, or exercising when it’s really hot outside, as this can conversely suppress your immune system – making your cold worse.

Having an active lifestyle all year round is important, as your risk of catching a cold is highest if you don’t exercise at all. Conversely, being too hard on your body and not resting can actually weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to getting ill.

If you do wake up feeling really poorly or are suffering from the flu, rest and recovery must take priority. If you’re worried that you may be suffering from more than a common cold and are debating over whether to continue exercising or not, consult your GP.

“What if I don’t have time to work out?”

Time is a gift. When we’re balancing busy home and work lives, it can be hard to find the time, energy and motivation to exercise. This can be a real stumbling block for some people, no matter what their positive intentions. 

If you can relate, it’s important to remember that something is better than nothing. Whether it’s going for a walk on your lunchbreak or fitting in a 15-minute session in your front room – you’ll never regret exercising, as it more often than not results in a happier you

For those who are really pushed for time, it’s easy to feel defeated thinking of exercise as an intense activity that needs a full hour (or more) of your day - so break it down. Look for opportunities to move like cycling instead of driving, taking the stairs instead of the lift or suggest a walking meeting to your peers so you can not only get some fresh air but bond with others – which releases oxytocin that makes us feel good.  

“Is High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) better than Low Intensity Steady State (LISS) exercise?”

Both HIIT and LISS have their benefits – it just depends on the goal. HIIT can be any type of exercise, as long as it’s done intensely. It’s most commonly performed in circuits. Low Intensity Steady State exercises include walking, Tai Chi and Pilates. If you are looking to improve your fitness levels and cardiovascular health, then HIIT is more highly recommended as it stresses out the body’s system for longer. But, due to this strain on the body, HIIT shouldn’t be done more than two to three times a week. LISS has other benefits, such as improving flexibility, reducing stress and boosting circulation.  

HIIT is seen as more advantageous for those who are pushed for time, as it can be done in up to half an hour. But, due to its intensity there is a misconception that HIIT burns off more calories. If you were to expend 100 calories in an intense 15-minute HIIT session, versus 100 calories in a 30-minute LISS session, the results would be the same. So, one is not necessarily superior to the other – it comes down to what you enjoy and feel comfortable doing. Let’s face it – everyone is different but if you have fun, you’re more likely to do it again!1 

“Does exercise mean I can eat whatever I want?”

The first thing to ask yourself here, is what does a good diet look like to you? A good diet should have a healthy calorie balance, be nutritious, and feasible to maintain in the long-term. Most importantly, a healthy diet should meet the needs of your lifestyle and become part of your journey to a healthier you. If you’re undertaking a restrictive fad diet that’s making you unhappy then in 6 months’ time are you still going to have stuck to it? 

The NHS advise that “many fad diets are based on dodgy science or no research at all”2, and highlight what the British Dietetic Association say: “There's no wonder-diet you can follow without some associated nutritional or health risk".

It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking you can eat plenty of food after a workout because you’ve ‘earned’ it. However, this can result in consuming many more calories than your body requires, leading to no physical change.

Nutrition is key to overall health, so if you’re eating poorly, exercise won’t counteract this. In other words, you can’t out-train a bad diet. You may experience other benefits of working out, such as improved mental health and flexibility, but eating badly won’t support a weight loss goal. 

Enjoying a balanced, healthy diet will boost your body’s capability to expend calories over the long term, which will get even easier when coupled with regular exercise. 

Exercising needn’t be complicated. There are a range of ways to keep fit, so don’t be afraid to mix it up when finding what works for you.

Ultimately, it’s about enjoyment, which will help you stay committed. Just remember to check in with your GP before making lifestyle changes. Don’t let misconceptions stop you from taking positive steps towards a fitter, healthier future.

Further information

Getting more active - your way - AXA Health

Food to fuel your feelgood - AXA Health

What to eat before and after exercise - AXA Health

Exercise and fitness hub - AXA Health

Diet and nutrition hub - AXA Health

References

1. Kim ES, Kubzansky LD, Soo J, Boehm JK. Maintaining Healthy Behavior: a Prospective Study of Psychological Well-Being and Physical Activity. Ann Behav Med. 2017 Jun;51(3):337-347. doi: 10.1007/s12160-016-9856-y.

2. NHS Live Well: How to diet

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