Lies, Damn Lies, and Exercise

Steve Blair and his many studies at the Cooper Clinic have found that fatt individuals who exercise regularly have roughly the same health profile as lower weight people who exercise, and a better profile than thin people who don’t exercise.

For many people “exercise” is a dirty word because it’s been a punishment, a horrible experience (hello dodgeball in Jr. High Gym), and/or the only reason they’ve ever exercised is a failed attempt to try to change the size and shape of their bodies, or because they think that they have to do it “exactly right” to get the benefit.

Many people look to “fitness professionals” to help them, but there are plenty of people who claim to be fitness experts without any training or certification at all (Jillian Michaels, for example, in addition to lawsuits for weight loss supplements, has had her credentials called into question by a fitness specialist in the LA Times) and they can say anything that they want. I can’t tell you the number of fitness infomercials I’ve come across that have made me want to laugh and cry with their obvious lack of knowledge about the human body.

I’ve been an AFAA certified fitness professional (the same body that now certifies Jillian Michaels). and while I did not maintain my certification I will say that I personally would never trust a “fitness” professional who said any of the following:

“work your lower abs”

This one drives me crazy because it shows a shocking disregard for human anatomy.  There is simply no.  such.  thing.  Your rectus abdominus is a single muscle responsible for flexion of the torso. This is the one they mean when they talk about your non-existant lower abs.  The entire rectus abdominus fires every time you flex your torso.  Your internal and external obliques are responsible for lateral flexion (side bends) Your transverse abdominus compresses the abdomen and stabilizes the vertabrae, and your erector spinea extends the trunk. Say it with me:  there is no such thing as lower abs.

“[Abdominal exercise of the moment] will give you a flat stomach/6-pack”

We have to stop buying into this.  The shape of your stomach is a combination of the muscle below and fat and skin above. There is no exercise that will target and change the shape of your stomach.  The ability to have a “6 pack”, which is just the ability to have visible abdominal muscles, is the product of being genetically able to have/maintain low enough body fat for the definition of those muscles to be visible (which includes the ability to maintain the low body fat necessary and where you might hold your fat), and then doing whatever it takes for you to have/maintain that.  There is a really great blog about it here (trigger warning:  the comments are not so body positive)

“Lifting lighter weights with more repetitions will help you tone without bulking up”

Sweet merciful Zeuss can we please stop saying this.  This myth is FRIGHTENINGLY pervasive and completely wrong. First of all, I wish that strength goals could be tied to how strong we want to be (ie:  how heavy is the grand kid who you want to pick up?) and not some kind of “ideal body shape” but that’s another blog.  Lifting a 2 pound weight a hundred times is basically a waste of time and energy, unless you are lifting it fast enough to get some kind of cardio benefit.  You are either over-taxing the muscle enough to make it stronger, or you are not. The resulting muscle shape is a product of genetics.  Truly “bulking up” is a product of genetics, a serious weight routine, diet, supplementation, and for some people even steroid use [Big thanks to reader Suzanne who pointed out that my original phrasing made it sound like I thought supplementation and steroid use were the same thing]. I often wonder if people would be happier if they spent less time worrying about having a visible bicep and focus instead on what they want their body to be able to do.

“Working your [thigh muscles, upper arms, stomach etc.) will melt the fat around them.”

This one just makes me giggle while realizing that way too many weight loss ads use the term “melt the fat away”.  If you are a fitness professional, you have to have a wanton disregard for the workings of the human body to espouse this particular belief.  No, Virginia, moving a part of the body does not create heat that “melts” the fat around the muscles.

If you want to be healthier you might first consider that health has many facets:  behaviors, genetics, stress, environment, access.  Obviously not all of these are under our control and no amount of healthy behaviors can guarantee health.  So my suggestion, which of course you can take or leave, is to consider choosing movement you like and then do it several times per week and see how you feel.  If you have more specific goals or want to get more technical than that then do some research and buyer beware, because people say some crazy things.

26 thoughts on “Lies, Damn Lies, and Exercise

  1. OK, if there are no such thing as lower abs, then when belly dancers learn to direct the contraction for an abdominal roll to lower, middle, upper rectus, what are we really doing? I’ve always been taught it that way — that the rectus is segmented (which also gives the six-pack appearance if your body fat is low) and you can train the segments to engage separately.

    1. The rectus is crossed by three fibrous bands called the tendinous inscriptions. They create the appearance of segmentation along the muscle but no actual segmentation exists. In fact, some people’s tendinous inscription don’t form a six pack at all. It is my understanding that “rolling” is created by utilizing the various attachment points of the muscle and the surrounding, supporting, and opposing muscles to push parts of the stomach forward and back or side to side, and is not a function of contracting different “parts” of the rectus abominus.

      1. Hmm, that makes sense, maybe it’s just easier to visualize it as moving in parts and that’s why they/we explain it that way. Thanks.

        1. Hey Cynthia,

          I think that you are exactly right. I don’t know about belly dancing but in the type of dance that I do we often explain things in metaphor or in ways that just aren’t anatomically correct 🙂


  2. I learned of your blog from a friend’s sharing of it on Facebook today, and have enjoyed what I’ve read so far.

    I wonder, sometimes, if future generations will look back on our culture’s skinny obsession with the same kind of incredulous attitude that we have for feet-binding and genital mutilation. We have people doing damage to their bodies, trying to fit a standard that their genetics resist, and some to the point of inflicting fatal harm. Eating disorders, steroids, fad diet pills with serious side-effects, unnecessary surgeries, and so on. People are doing these things to conform to someone else’s idea of what they should look like, and in the end, if they weren’t happy with who they were before, they aren’t happy with who they are after, even if they achieve the “right shape.”

    I’m looking forward to reading more.

  3. I actually had to banish the word exercise from my vocabulary in order to be okay with movement. I substituted the term physical activity and now I’m perfectly content doing various activities…and exploring new forms of movement. My school gym experiences range from horrible to indifferent so I really needed to find ways to give myself permission to move in the ways I wanted to move and not the prescribed ways some say I should move (you will not catch me doing step aerobics– EVER!).

  4. My dad had heart disease from my being about 9, and every time he so much as walked across the room my mother was screeching “dont do that you might have a heart attack, do you need a tablet,are you alright”. Eventually I was so afraid of exercise, on the grounds it might kill me, I didnt do any. Finally I went to an exercise physiologist at a local gym, and she put me on the bikes and treadmills attached to heart rate machines, BP machines etc, and taught me what exercise should feel like. It really helped me a lot.

  5. PE was such a nightmare for me. I thought I hated exercise. Looking back, though, I really loved exercise, I just hated PE class. In PE class, I’d get picked on in the locker room about everything from my weight to how often I shaved to the state of my underwear and get the worst position for everything and ridiculed when I didn’t succeed. Then, after school, I’d play baseball or catch or three flies up with my brother and his friends. On the weekends, my girlfriend’s and I would all go over to Tess’s house and dance like fools in her garage until we dropped. I think a bit more freedom in how physical education is taught would help a lot of people grow up to enjoy movement. Exercise can be a chore, but playing is joyful!

    1. Here in UK many schools are now “setting” for PE. The athletic sporty kids are in the top set, playing against people of a similiar ability and interest. The “take it or leave it” kids are in the middle set, less pressure and more opportunity to shine, and the ones who hate PE, are unco-ordinated, cant catch or kick a ball, etc are in the lower set. They do aerobics, dancercise, stuff like that, and the teachers of that group are open to suggestions from the students in the class.

  6. Exercise can be a chore, but playing is joyful!”

    Skyfire, I want to put this on billboards all over the world until people get it.

    I always thought I hated “exercise” when, it turns out what I really hate is doing some activity I don’t enjoy for no immediate, tangible payoff. But there are plenty of activities I straight-up enjoy for their own sakes (swimming, boating, hiking), and some which I’m kind of ambivalent on, but which I’ll do if it means spending time with a friend, or enjoying pretty scenery, or whatever (brisk walking).

  7. I totally agree about P.E. in American schools—they treat it like it’s the minor league farms or a precursor to the Olympics and if you don’t play like Derek Jeter or Serena Williams, you’re useless. They really need to revamp their programs and incorporate more modern types of physical activity—and get rid of that damn Superfit! That’s nothing more than a shaming tool for kids, regardless of weight.

  8. Thanks for opening my eyes up. On the other hand, I’m sad I can’t tone my arms up to look like the First Lady’s 🙂

    Keep up the good fight!

    1. Your First Lady has been all over our TV screen for the past couple of days. I will not abuse this blog by repeating what I said to my DH when I saw her in the dress she wore to the banquet tonight.

  9. I returned to dancing at 40 and within 9 months dropped about 5 sizes and I am, two years later, getting fitter all the time…BUT I say this to illustrate something VERY important.

    I have struggled my whole life with disordered eating, body image issues, etc., and I have “dieted” and “exercised” and been “fit” for short bursts.

    But my body and my life totally changed because I was HAVING FUN! I was eating MORE (as you would understand because you have a great grasp of physiology etc.) when conventional medicine would never have believed me with their “lower calories/more exercise” line of crap.

    The most recent studies are starting to confirm my experiences — that we maintain “health” when we are happy, having a good time, involved with other people, and connecting the mind body with things like dance, yoga, etc.

    And of course, “health” looks as many ways as there are people on this planet.

    BTW, I adore this blog.

  10. A bad PE teacher can do so much damage. I used to love playing and running around… and then I met my junior high (grades 5 – 8) PE teacher. He couldn’t be bothered to think up many other activities, so mostly we just ran and ran and ran. In the summer, we would run for the whole hour. I was an undiagnosed (as yet) asthmatic and all the running was hell on my body. At the tender age of 11, I was already getting tendon injuries in my feet that kept recurring until I finally graduated grade school and got away from that particular PE teacher.

    I suspect we ran all the time, because our school had a decent track team and he was trying to fit extra practice in for the runner via PE. During the basketball season, we would continue to run alot, but also do lots of basketball drill – again trying to fit in extra training for the team and ignoring kids that weren’t interested in the sport or weren’t able to keep up.

    It would’ve been nice if he had treated us like we were the kids that we were and let us do more fun things instead of the constant torture projects he assigned to us.

    As an adult I realized I actually did like running once I got past the panic attacks I had due to the very bad PE memories of being screamed at for not running fast enough or not being able to run for a full hour with few (and sometimes no) stops.

    But, however much I like any physical activity, I haven’t really reclaimed exercise from that old bully PE teacher. It feels intuitive to me to try to avoid activity… perhaps someday I will finally overcome this.

  11. Thanks for this, I didn’t know most of these things – though I did always suspect that “bulking up” was mostly a matter of genetics, just from my own experience. I’ve never done much weight training because I’d get big muscles just from the activities I was doing at the time – dancing now, martial arts for ten years before that, a bit of yoga, cycling. I also noticed that the thin people who did weight training tended to stay thin and the bigger people got more solid but stayed big. You are so right that the point of building muscle should be to get strong enough for whatever activities you are pursuing, and not about looking a certain way.

    However I did always know that “melting/flushing away the fat” is a physical impossibility and I am always rolling my eyes and sometimes shouting “IT DOESN’T WORK THAT WAY!!” at the TV when I hear claims like that. Trouble is, people still want to believe it’s that easy and there are plenty of hucksters willing to go on saying it and take their money.

  12. Warning: While I believe that this commenter is trying to be respectful this post includes opinions that are presented as facts, opinions that are not based on science, an unsupported extrapolation of one person’s experience to the experience of others, and negative body talk.

    A facebook contact friend shared a link to your blog post about dancing with fat, and I’ve read through some of the other posts. First, let me say that I could not agree with you more!
    One of the greatest frustrations that I see in our society is the constant bashing of overweight people, but at the same time, the constant promotion of unhealthy foods that cause the body to both retain weight unnaturally and feel hungry, so that one must eat more of the same unhealthy foods. It is food chains like McDonalds, all the sugars and chemicals that are put into all sorts of things that are supposed to be “healthy” and all the sweets, treats, pizza, etc., that our society is constantly being fed that are keeping the weights up, in spite of all the diet and exercise plans. It is such a schizophrenic message! All the additives and chemicals, and artificial sweeteners, only cause harm. If people would eat whole foods, eliminate all the chemicals from their diets including excessive amounts of alcohol, and do a moderate amount of exercise daily (not weight lifting and such, just half an hour of brisk walking!), then their bodies would get to the natural weight that they are supposed to be (not too fat, not too thin) and obesity, heart disease, and artificial diets, pills, personal trainers, etc, would become unnecessary. I say this as a person who has battled weight all my life, and finally hit upon the whole-foods eating strategy, and BINGO. I lost around 12 pounds in a few months, eat plenty but sensibly, don’t go hungry, and am not fiendishly exercising. I walk around 30 minutes/day, dance a few evenings/week, and am finally out of the diet cycle. It is such a neurotic mixed message that our society gives – be thin, but eat at MacDonalds; be thin, but treat yourself to these pastries and ice cream; be thin, but have a Budweiser! If one just eliminates all the poisons from one’s diet, one’s body will naturally assume the weight that is genetically appropriate – neither starved too thin, nor unnaturally fat – and one can be happy, healthy, and get out of this cycle.

    1. Thank you for the comment.

      First, I’m very happy to hear that you’ve found a path to health that is working for you and I completely respect and support your choices. However, it is my firm belief that your experience only applies to you. The broad, sweeping statement that you are making are unsupported by data. One of the things that we avoid doing on this blog is assuming that our experience is the same as other people’s experiences. There are plenty of fat people who eat whole food diets and thin people who consume predominantly processed food. While what you are trying is currently working for you, you can’t say that it will then work for everyone. Again, I’m glad that you enjoyed the blog and that we have some common ground, I hope this makes sense to you.


  13. I’m and ACE certified personal trainer and here is what I’ve always learned about high weights/low reps vs lower weights/high reps.

    1. HW/LR focuses more on hypertrophy, which is not the same as strength, and recruiting more fast-twitch fibers. Think throwing a shotput or doing the high jump.

    2. LW/HR focuses more on muscle endurance and recruiting more slow-twitch fibers. Think rowing or running a marathon.

    3. HW/LR is usually a weight at which you can do 6 to 8, maybe as many as 10 reps and the last few reps of each set are the hardest.

    4. LW/HR is usually a weight at which you can do 10 to 12, and maybe as many as 15 reps and the last few reps of each set are the hardest.

    It’s not about lifting a 2lb weight a million times. However, many people do interpret it as such. These are the same people who think the shake weight or the ab-doer are mah-velous machines.

    Both types of lifting will strengthen the muscle but the HW/LR tend to bulk up the muscles more because of the way they affect the muscle fibers.

    But, how much someone bulks up (or the appearance of said bulk) is dependent on body type. Some people naturally have more fast twitch and will bulk up more. Others have more slow-twitch and will never look like The Incredible Hulk no matter what.

  14. Firstly, I love your blog. While I’ve come across HAES elsewhere I’m finding it easiest to get my head round it by reading you, probably because of the accessibility of your writing style. I just wanted to raise a possible contradiction to this post on one point:

    “Lifting a 2 pound weight a hundred times is basically a waste of time and energy, unless you are lifting it fast enough to get some kind of cardio benefit.”

    There certainly can be a palpable effect on the body created by this kind of low weight lift: I wouldn’t, though, describe it as a “health improvement”, because it isn’t the kind of thing that would create a difference in most people’s lives (improved ability to pick up shopping/small child, etc.), and the majority of people wouldn’t notice anything happening.

    I fence: I recently got back into it after spending several years only working out in the gym. The essential upper-body action of fencing involves carting around a weight of around 1lb in one hand only for most of a (two-hour) session, moving the hand and its contents at speed. After around six weeks of two-hours-a-week fencing (which replaced one out of my two general gym cardio + strength sessions per week), my right hand was visibly larger than my left when both had been apparently the same size before, and my right arm could lift around 1kg (2lbs?) more than my left arm, for each given lift.

    I appreciate that this isn’t the kind of difference that most people would notice. I only noticed it because my body was very even beforehand and my lifting limits were very low, at around 8kg (16lbs?) in each hand. Someone lifting 30kg dumbbells wouldn’t have noticed a sudden ability to lift 31kg ones in one hand only.

    Just wanted to let you know – this does happen!!

    1. Hi Zoe,

      I’m so glad that you like the blog and thanks for bringing this up, I was thinking about more strength gaining work and I never even thought about it – you are so right!


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