We all know that exercise is important. And as we get older, it becomes even more essential to maintaining a high quality of life. The trouble is, there’s a lot of conflicting information about which exercises are helpful, which are a waste of time and which can be downright harmful. In some cases, misinformation gets repeated so often, it becomes entrenched in our collective psyche. These fitness myths can be tough to dispel.
But in this article, we’ll see how recent research is busting five of the biggest ones held by adults 50 and over:
Myth No. 1: Exercise Needs to Be Hard to Be Effective
As a descendent of Dutch and Norwegian farmers, the phrase “no pain, no gain” feels intuitively indisputable to me. But where exercise is concerned, it’s simply not true.
For years we’ve been told to push past the pain, to feel the burn, and that feeling sore today is better than feeling sorry tomorrow, but it turns out that’s all more or less a load of masochistic nonsense.
In order to lose that (belly) fat, you’ll have to create a calorie deficit, and doing sit-ups burns very few calories.
As we age, exercising at the proper intensity and frequency becomes ever more important. Pushing yourself through a high intensity interval workout is fantastic. These types of workouts are linked with significant improvements in aerobic fitness and glycemic control, and may even be more effective for fat loss than other types of workouts. But you should only do intense exercise like this one or two days per week, taking at least one full recovery day off from exercise the following day.
Pushing yourself as hard as you can for every workout can lead to overuse injuries and it can keep you from reaching your fitness goals. That’s because the physiological adaptations to training, like improvements to aerobic fitness, muscle growth and even flexibility, don’t happen during exercise — they happen during recovery.
What’s more, research has shown that as we grow older, pushing too hard can actually cause muscle damage and impair regeneration. A smart, well-rounded exercise program includes workouts at different intensities with plenty of leisurely activity days or rest days in between.
Myth No. 2: Running Is Bad for Your Joints
One of the biggest fitness myths of adults over 50 is that running is bad for their joints. But recent research shows that notion is not accurate. Two separate studies published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that running posed no greater risk for developing osteoarthritis than walking.
Additionally, a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that obese women who performed 40 minutes of treadmill running three times per week for eight weeks lost significant weight and decreased obesity-related DNA damage without suffering any degradation to knee cartilage. This last finding is key, since other studies have found that body weight — and not exercise — is significantly linked to higher rates of osteoarthritis. In this way, running, which is one of the most calorically demanding forms of exercise, could actually protect your joints.
Myth No. 3: Lifting Heavy Weights Is Dangerous
After age 30, the natural aging process stops the production of new muscle cells in your body. If you don’t do anything about it, you begin slowly losing muscle mass. By the time you’ve reached your 50s and beyond, you could be losing muscle at the astonishing rate of 1 to 2 percent per year. Luckily, weight training can dramatically slow the loss of muscle and strength as you age. Studies have found that lifting heavy weights can have other anti-aging effects as well.
A 2010 comprehensive review of the scientific literature published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that lifting heavy weights had a similar effect on key muscle growth hormones as taking anabolic steroids. And an earlier study found that lifting weights can spark metabolic processes in the body that have a natural antioxidant effect, leading to better overall function in older adults.
The researchers determined that lifting heavy weights for three sets of six repetitions was adequate to elicit these hormonal benefits. Just be sure that you are thoroughly warmed up and using proper form for all lifts. It’s a good idea to consult with a personal trainer to learn the proper form and to determine the proper weight for you.
Also, scheduling in adequate recovery time after these higher-intensity strength workouts is key for injury prevention and to realize the muscle growth you’re after.
Myth No. 4: Exercise Isn’t Important for Weight Loss
Exercise gets a bad rap when it comes to weight loss, and for good reason: The majority of studies show that moderate amounts of physical activity alone net little or no weight loss. If you’re trying to lose some unwanted pounds, it’s true that cleaning up your diet should be your main focus. But there are a number of scenarios where exercise can play an integral role in achieving your ideal weight.
If you’ve been at a healthy weight for most of your life, but have noticed lately that the pounds are sneaking on a bit more quickly and not dropping off as easily as they once did, exercise could be your best strategy.
A 2014 comprehensive review of the current scientific literature found that physical activity, and exercise training specifically, was instrumental in preventing weight gain in those who’d lost weight and wanted to keep it off and in those who were already at a healthy weight and hoped to stay there.
For those who have some weight to lose, exercise can also play a significant role. As I wrote in my book, Reboot Your Body: Unlocking the Genetic Secrets to Permanent Weight Loss, exercise is like a weight-loss catalyst. The more you can do, the more quickly your weight will come off. Indeed, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends exercise as an integral part of any weight-loss program. It notes that for significant weight loss to occur, adults should aim for 250 minutes of moderately intense exercise or more each week. That averages out to 50 minutes five days per week — a small investment that can reap big benefits.
Myth No. 5: Sit-ups Will Help You Lose Belly Fat
Because abdominal fat is linked with greater health risks than fat elsewhere on the body, trying to reduce belly fat is a worthy goal. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as spot reducing (losing weight from only one area of the body). In order to lose any significant amount of belly fat, you’ll have to lose fat everywhere.
Fortunately, though, research has shown there are a few things you can do to target the visceral fat around your midsection to lose a bit more of it a bit more quickly. You may be surprised to learn, however, that doing sit-ups (or other abdominal exercises) isn’t among them.
While abdominal exercises are beneficial for building and maintaining muscle tone and strength, those strong, shapely muscles won’t be visible beneath a layer of belly fat. In order to lose that fat, you’ll have to create a calorie deficit, and doing sit-ups burns very few calories. Moderate to high-intensity exercise has been shown to be most effective for targeting visceral fat — even without implementing a calorie-restricted diet, according to a recent meta analysis published on the research website PLOS One.
If you want to optimize your diet for maximum belly fat reduction, a 2012 article in the journal Obesity found that individuals who ate a diet high in fiber from whole food sources such as whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables had significantly less abdominal fat. The study found that every additional 10 grams of fiber consumed on average per day corresponded to a 3.7 percent reduction in visceral adipose tissue.
Now that you’re better equipped to separate fitness fact from fiction, you should be able to set realistic fitness goals and follow an exercise program that can help you safely reach them.