DANIEL CRAIG, SENIOR Physiologist

Don’t let these 10 common exercise myths hold you back from staying active

12 February 2020

We all know exercise has many physical and mental health benefits. There are lots of tips and tricks out there to help us achieve our fitness goals but, equally, plenty of misconceptions that can get in the way - “exercising before breakfast is best”, “HIIT is better than yoga” and “working out causes joint damage” to name a few.  

So, Daniel Craig, Senior Physiologist at AXA PPP healthcare 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. 

“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. 

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. 

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, will 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.

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. Fitness promotes the release of ‘feel good’ hormones called endorphins, which create a ‘buzz’ that surges through your body. 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. 

“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 more lively 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 the 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. 

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 get fresh air and your steps up while discussing work. Through the course of the day, you’ll actually expend a lot of energy. The key is being more mindful about your daily routine. 

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

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 bettering 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 - if you have fun, you’re more likely to do it again! 

“Is cardio the only way to burn fat?”

Cardio takes many forms, whether that’s swimming, cycling or boxing – and it’s just one of the ways to burn fat. To lose fat, your body needs to be in a state of negative energy balance. This means less energy is entering the body than is being expended. So, nutrition plays a huge part, as well as exercise. 

The more of your body and muscles that you’re using during exercise, the more energy you will expend. In short, any activity that requires moving our bodies will help with fat loss. The type of exercise needn’t be restricted.  

Fat is removed from the body as CO2 through our lungs, or as water through bodily fluids. Cardio naturally leads to sweating and heavy breathing as our hearts are working harder to take in oxygen. Therefore, cardio undeniably helps with weight loss, but any type of body movement can contribute to losing fat. Crucially though, if you’re planning on changing up your fitness regime with this particular goal in mind, consult your GP first.

“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.

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. 

“Should I only do strength training if I want to bulk up?”

Strength training, also known as resistance training, can support several fitness goals – one being muscle gain. But concerns over ‘bulking up’ – if you’re worried about adding weights to your workouts - shouldn’t be a deterrent, as this takes a long period of time. Take bodybuilders for example, who train frequently, consistently and intensely for years to achieve the level of ‘lean’ they need to be. This goes for both men and women. 

This form of exercise will help you strengthen and maintain muscles, reducing the risk of conditions like Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. With Type 2 diabetes in particular, strength training works the tissue that is responsible for sugar metabolism, which is the process of converting energy from food into fuel for the body. Therefore, it’s crucial to keep these in good shape to prevent developing the disease.

Resistance training can also prevent muscle loss as we age, so it holds the key to staying healthy and stronger for longer. These types of exercises help us develop strong bones, manage body weight and improve body composition, which can all improve our quality of life as we get older.  

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

How to fit change into your lifestyle - AXA PPP healthcare

What to eat before and after exercise - AXA PPP healthcare

Exercise and fitness hub - AXA PPP healthcare

Diet and nutrition hub

Got a health question?

We’re here to help you take care of your health - whenever you need us, wherever you are, whether you're an AXA PPP healthcare member or not.

Our Ask the Expert service allows you to ask our team of friendly and experienced nurses, midwives, counsellors and pharmacists about any health topic.