5 myths about exercise, debunked

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on May 13, 2024

5 myths about exercise, debunked

When it comes to exercise and fitness, myths and misconceptions are rife. So it’s time to break them down, for good

Most of us understand how important exercise is for our health, but when it comes to the finer details, there can be a lot of myths and misconceptions floating around. From the idea that you have to exert yourself for it to be worth it to notions about what kind of bodies count as ‘healthy’, these myths can do a lot of damage, making the jump to embracing this habit a whole lot more intimidating.

But, with a convincing (and growing) body of evidence revealing just how powerful exercise can be for our overall wellbeing, it’s time we busted those myths, and invited everyone up to the starting line.

1. Exercise is a big commitment

When looking to make a change in our lives, it can be tempting to do a complete overhaul. With an exercise plan, this may look like forcing yourself into the gym five days a week, spending hours there at a time. But that level of commitment isn’t necessary for a good level of baseline health, and breaking that myth can bring down a significant barrier.

The NHS recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week – that includes taking a brisk walk, riding a bike, dancing, hiking, playing doubles tennis, or even pushing a lawn mower! It also states that 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity a week can give the same benefits, which can include running, swimming, aerobics, and sports like football, rugby, netball, and hockey.

But there are also other easy ways you can bring exercise into your routine. For example, doing some squats or balancing poses while the kettle is boiling, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, going on ‘walking meetings’ or taking phone calls on walks, and cycling to work instead of driving.

Spread evenly across the week, it becomes easier to see how – little by little – movement can be worked into our days.

2. Exercise only has physical benefits

Staying active is a key pillar of physical health, but that’s only one side of the story. Long before you see any visible physical benefits, such as muscle toning and weight loss, you will feel the mental benefits, including improvements to mood and anxiety levels, improved concentration, self-esteem, and energy levels, along with a decrease in stress. In fact, these benefits are felt so quickly you may experience them from day one.

Whether it’s letting off some steam during a vigorous workout or mindful moving with moderate exercise, the benefits are clear to see. At the start of 2024, landmark research published in the British Medical Journal, which examined 218 studies and 14,170 participants, confirmed what many have learned first-hand: exercise is an effective treatment for depression, with the effects being comparable to psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy.

3. Healthy bodies all look a certain way

‘Healthy’ looks totally different from person to person, and there is no reliable way to judge a person’s health based on their appearance alone. Many of us also hold on to an idea of what we expect a ‘healthy’ body to look like based on the selective images seen in the media. The conclusion: there’s one way to be healthy.

Not only is this untrue, but this myth can also deter people from pursuing a healthier lifestyle, as the image they have in their mind feels totally unattainable. The reality is that two people can do exactly the same exercise, and eat exactly the same food, and still look very different. We each come in different shapes and sizes, and what may fall into one person’s healthy range will be different for another.

Comparison can be a destructive force when it comes to exercise and perceived health. Body dysmorphia, when someone spends a lot of time worrying about the appearance of their body, is something that has seen some growth, particularly among those who exercise regularly. A study published in the journal PLoS One looked at participants in a fitness setting and found that 38.5% were at risk of body dysmorphic disorder. It can develop into a debilitating condition that requires professional support, but breaking down myths about what 'healthy' or 'fit' bodies should look like is also a positive step.

4. Only intense exercise is effective

Back to the NHS recommendations, and considering that the health benefits of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week tends to be equal to 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, if you’re looking to build up healthy habits around exercise, there really is no need to put a lot of pressure on yourself to dive straight in at the deep end.

What’s more, intensive exercise isn’t an appropriate option for everyone, including those with disabilities, mobility restrictions, and chronic conditions. The good news is that a lot of exercise routines can be adapted – for example seated yoga routines and low-impact classes.

But you may also find that taking things slow is more effective for you as you’re better able to fit it into your routine, and remain consistent – rather than burning yourself out with intense, difficult workouts that you’re not always in the mood for. Plus, the bottom line is even if you only manage a 10-minute session, that’s 100% better than nothing at all.

5. No pain, no gain

First off, it’s worth stating the obvious: if exercise is causing you prolonged physical pain, it could be a sign that something isn’t quite right and you should speak to your GP.

Taking care of yourself shouldn’t be unpleasant. In fact, making it as pleasant as possible is the key to longevity. Find movement and exercise that you genuinely enjoy. This could be anything from following dance tutorials online to enjoying playground games with a group of friends. Developing a healthy relationship with exercise, which is based on nourishment rather than punishment is key.

Maybe you love lifting weights, or perhaps you prefer to take long and leisurely walks while listening to your favourite music. Whatever it is, exercise shouldn’t feel like a punishment. It’s a means of taking care of yourself on both a physical and mental level, and the more time that you invest in finding something that you enjoy and look forward to doing, the better.

But it's also important to understand the value of rest and self-care. Not only is this vital for your overall health, but a study published in the journal Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment found that a lack of sleep can result in low motivation to take part in leisure activities that you would usually enjoy. So, create a nurturing, compassionate relationship with exercise – it's one of the key elements of longevity.

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