Not sweating? You’re wasting your time. Feeling pain? Just push through it! Not everything you hear about exercise is correct or helpful. We separate the fact from the fiction.
When it comes to exercise, there are plenty of instant experts only too happy to share with you their emphatic advice on everything from the time of day that’s best for getting moving, to dire warnings about how eating before you go swimming might make you drown. Unfortunately their advice is not always accurate.
We’ve spoken to experts with years of study on exercise science behind them. Here they give their verdicts on eight common beliefs that might be stopping you getting the most out of your activity. So why not inform yourself and use it as motivation to get moving?
1. Belief: Exercise in the morning is best for your body
Expert verdict: Not necessarily. The time of day is less important than exercising regularly.
Exercise first thing may help you burn more fat, but studies have shown people often find exercise easier at the end of the day, allowing them to go harder and so burn more fuel anyway. And while getting moving can elevate your metabolism, the benefit from that is no greater in the morning than in the night. It’s true we seem to perform better at different types of exercise at different times of the day. But research suggests you can train your body to get used to exercise at a certain time of day. So if your early morning alarm leaves you more likely to slap the snooze button than slip on some sneakers, don’t worry that you’re missing out on the best time of day to get active. Finding a time you’ll stick at is what matters most.
More info: Is exercise in the morning best for your body?
2. Belief: Exercise wears out your joints
Expert verdict: Usually not. In most cases, exercise will benefit rather than harm joints
Exercise can certainly aggravate pain in damaged joints but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wearing away the cartilage. Cartilage is the living tissue that covers the ends of bones in a joint and helps them move against each other easily. When it’s damaged, it can cause pain. But there’s nothing to support the idea that joints are like car tyres or light bulbs with a limited number of “uses” before their lifetime expires. While there are circumstances where exercise might feasibly help wear cartilage in joints away, these tend to occur in only a minority of people. If joints like your ankles or knees hurt from exercise, you might need to try something with lower impact like swimming or bike riding. But stopping exercise altogether is not recommended as it’s one of the best ways we know to keep joints healthy.
More info: Can doing a lot of exercise wear out your joints?
3. Belief: You need to do vigorous exercise if you want to get any benefit
Expert verdict: No, you don’t. But vigorous exercise can have some important extra benefits for some people.
Despite what hard-core exercise fanatics will tell you – you don’t have to push yourself really hard when you exercise to get health benefits. If you’ve been inactive, and you start doing around 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise – where you’re breathing a bit harder than normal but you can still talk – you can cut your risk of heart disease by up to half (and reduce your risk of lots of other nasties too). With vigorous exercise, you’re pushing yourself further, so it’s hard to say more than a few words at a time. This does bring extra benefits over exercising moderately, but these are proportionally smaller, so there’s less “bang for buck” if you like. Still vigorous exercise can save you time; you can get the same health benefits as you would from a session of moderate exercise in roughly half the time. It can also add variety and it’s the best way to maximise fitness. That’s great for competitive sport, and the fitter you are, the less likely it is you’ll die of any health condition you can name. And some people just find it more enjoyable. If that’s not you, that’s fine. Just don’t let it be a reason to avoid exercise altogether.
More info: Do you need to do vigorous exercise?
4. Belief: You should never exercise with a cold
Expert verdict: It depends on your symptoms. Exercise with a light cold may be fine or even helpful.
Colds and flu-like bugs can throw a spanner in the works when you’re on a roll with an exercise regime. In general, exercise is good for immunity. But pushing yourself too hard can have the opposite effect, albeit only temporarily. Nonetheless that’s not helpful if you’re fighting a cold. So should you stop exercise with a cold or push on? A good way to tell is the “neck check”. If your symptoms are from the neck up and not too severe, moderate exercise is unlikely to hurt and might be helpful. But if you feel unwell and your symptoms are more troublesome, and particularly below the neck, it’s best to take a break. Exercise with chest congestion, pain in muscles and joints, or especially, with a fever can prolong your illness and be dangerous (it can make you faint and in rare cases cause heart damage). When your symptoms have passed, you can get back into things but be sure to do that gradually.
More info: Should you avoid exercise when you’ve got a cold?
5. Belief: Exercise means pushing through pain
Expert verdict: A certain level of discomfort is expected but pain is often a sign you need to stop
Some discomfort often goes hand in hand with the exertion of exercise. While this is simply a sign your body is making an effort, it’s important to differentiate that from actual pain, says Carly Ryan, exercise physiologist at Exercise and Sports Science Australia. While it’s hard to generalise, anything that feels stabbing or sharp tends not to be a good sign, she says. And if you’re feeling pain in muscles, joints or anything associated with chest pain, stop exercise immediately. But if it’s just a burning sensation in your muscles and it goes away when you stop, it’s probably fine to start moving once more. But if stopping and restarting sees continuation of say a sharp pain in your knees or a painful twinge in your hamstring, then it’s most likely pain because you’ve overdone it and you need to stop. Ultimately, if what you’re doing feels too much for your body, you may well be best to ease off.
More info: Should you ‘push through pain’ when you exercise?
6. Belief: Swimming after eating is dangerous
Expert verdict: There’s no evidence it’s dangerous but it may be uncomfortable
Plenty of us have had it drilled into us that “you can’t swim after you eat”. Why? Because it will give you muscle cramps and you’ll be unable to stop yourself from drowning. It’s true that after a meal, your gut draws blood from around the body, including from muscles, to help with digestion. This results in less oxygen and nutrients being delivered to muscles. And while this might increase the chances of the muscles not functioning as efficiently as usual, there’s no research suggesting it causes cramps that can make you drown. But doing strenuous exercise with a full stomach can be uncomfortable and has been known to make people vomit. So while a relaxed dip in the pool or surf after a meal is unlikely to kill you, it’s probably best to let your food sit a while before taking the plunge.
More info: Is it dangerous to swim after eating?
7. Belief: If you don’t sweat while exercising, you’re not working hard enough
Expert verdict: Not true. How much you sweat is not a good way to tell how hard you’re exercising.
Sweating is one of the methods your body uses to maintain a stable temperature. When you get too hot, sweat is released from glands onto the surface of your skin, where it evaporates and helps cool you down. While exercise can make us sweat, how much we sweat and how long we remain sweaty depends on a number of factors, such as the external temperature and humidity. Your fitness level can also affect how much you sweat too. So how do you tell if you’re working “hard enough” when you exercise? Any level of exercise has health benefits but guidelines suggest we aim for at least moderate intensity (where your breathing rate is increased but you can still talk), although going harder brings further benefits still.
More info: Is sweating a good indicator of a healthy workout?
8. Belief: Running means kissing healthy knees and ankles goodbye
Expert verdict: Running can cause injuries but there are simple measures that reduce the risk.
Would-be runners are often discouraged when they hear tales of the aches and pains that come with the territory of being a regular pavement pounder. The most common injuries include shin splints, jogger’s heel, Achilles tendinopathy and knee (or iliotibial band – ITB) strain. Not only are these painful, but they can cost a small fortune in physiotheraphy bills and sideline you for weeks. But experts say running itself doesn’t cause injuries; it’s that many casual runners don’t wear appropriate shoes or don’t do resistance training to keep their leg muscles strong. While there’s debate over whether forefoot or rearfoot striking (that is which part of your foot lands first) is better for speed and injury prevention, amateur runners are better to stick with what feels natural, says Sebastian Buccheri, exercise physiologist and board director of Exercise and Sports Science Australia. Most people wear the wrong shoes because they don’t know what their natural foot alignment is. He strongly recommends having a podiatrist assess your feet and stride, so you can be fitted with appropriate running shoes. It also helps to ease yourself into your running, include warm ups and cool downs before and after, do regular strength training exercises, and schedule days for rest and recovery.
More info: Do runners risk injuring their knees and ankles?