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Exercise Myths and Facts

by Richard Weil, MEd, CDE

To increase the intensity of aerobic workouts, try interval training once or twice a week. Interval training involves setting up a work-to-active-recovery ratio, in which you alternate more intense periods of activity with less intense, “active recovery” periods. For example, if you usually walk on the treadmill for 30 minutes at a steady, 3.5-mile-per-hour pace, here’s what a 30-minute interval training session might look like: Walk for 10 minutes at your usual pace (so you’re good and warmed up), then increase the speed to, say, 3.8 mph (which will get your heart thumping) for one minute. Return to your 3.5-mph pace for another 3 minutes, then pick up the pace to 3.8 mph again for one minute.

The work-to-active-recovery ratio in this workout is 1:3: The minute at 3.8 mph is the “work,” and the three minutes at 3.5 mph is the “active recovery.” Over time, as you get fitter, you’ll be able to extend the “work” time to 1.5 minutes and spend only 2.5 minutes at the slower pace. Eventually, your regular, steady pace will be 3.8 mph, and when you interval train, your “work” pace will be even faster.

You can’t build muscle after age 50.
This myth was shattered by a landmark study published in 1990, in which 10 frail nursing home residents, ages 90 to 96, lifted weights for eight weeks. After the study was completed, their strength gain averaged 174%, thigh muscle area increased 9.0%, and walking speed increased by 48%.

Other studies have shown similar results, so it seems clear that muscle loss is caused not by aging itself but by lack of activity. Not only is muscle gain possible, but it’s also very beneficial for older adults: Strength training helps increase bone mass, reduce the risk of falling, and preserve greater independence. It’s fair to say that it’s never too late to start lifting.

Exercise always leads to weight loss.
Disappointing as it may seem, exercise is much more important for weight maintenance than it is for weight loss. In fact, in virtually all studies that compare people who exercise to lose weight with people who diet to lose weight, the dieters always lose lots of weight, and the exercisers lose very little, if any.

That’s no reason to give up on exercise, though. For one thing, you gain important health benefits from exercise even if you don’t lose a pound. For another, when you lose weight by restricting calories, it’s very difficult to keep the weight off permanently unless you exercise to raise your metabolic rate and prevent muscle loss. Many weight-loss researchers believe that including regular exercise in a weight-loss program is the single best predictor of long-term weight-loss success. (If you cut calories but remain sedentary, there’s a high likelihood that you will regain all of the weight you lose.)

This may not sound like great news, but it is. It means that you do not have to do Herculean amounts of exercise to lose weight. If you get started on weight loss by reducing your caloric intake, then gradually increase your level of physical activity while continuing to watch your calories, you will steadily lose weight. As you lose pounds, you should find it easier to move, and by the time you reach your target weight, you should be physically active enough to keep the weight off.

If you find you have gained weight after starting to exercise, there are two probable explanations:

  • You may be gaining muscle. Muscle is heavier than fat, and it’s possible to gain 3–5 pounds of muscle mass in 4–8 weeks, particularly during a weight-lifting program. (You’re likely to gain more muscle from lifting weights than from doing aerobic exercise.) This is not a bad thing.
  • You may have started to eat more. Some people eat more when they first begin to exercise because they feel hungrier (although it’s not all that common, as mentioned before), and some people eat more because they think they are “allowed to” since they’re exercising. The problem is that exercise may not burn as many calories as you think it does. If you weigh 150 pounds and run for 30 minutes at 6.0 mph, you’ll burn about 300 calories. That may seem like a lot, but if you also eat an extra 500 calories throughout the day, you’re going to gain weight.
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