7 Myths About Physical Activity

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A few weeks ago our colleague Catherine Cameron from the Participaction Blog asked me if I’d be interested in writing a guest-post on exercise-related myths.  We put together a list of myths that we have encountered, which she recently posted as a guest post on the Participaction Blog (in English and French).  I thought it was a post that would be of interest to our readers, so I have reposted it below.  Without any further ado, here are 7 myths about physical activity!

Myth 1: A child’s time is better spent focusing on the three R’s than on performing physical activity

People sometimes worry that time devoted to physical activity comes at the expense of academic achievement.  Luckily, that’s not the case.

Here is a summary of some of the evidence showing that physical activity actually improves academic performance, taken from the 2009 Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card on the Physical Activity of Canadian Children and Youth:

…a comprehensive Ontario school health initiative including physical activity as a key element indicated a 36% increase in reading and a 24% increase in math scores over a two-year period. A study of over5,000 students by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that girls with the highest levels of physical education participation had higher math and reading scores. Another U.S. study of over 12,000 students indicated that daily physical activity was associated with higher math and reading achievement, echoed by an Alberta study of 5,000 students, which showed that active living had positive results on school performance. Healthy bodies and healthy minds are what Canada needs to have a strong, thriving society!

The recently-released 2011 Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youthhighlighted new research suggesting that increasing physical activity may actually improve academic performance:

…school-based studies show that increasing children’s physical activity may be an effective approach to improving their academic performance. The inclusion of 30 minutes of physical activity 3 days per week for 4 months in a grade 3 curriculum improved scores on academic achievement tests. Similarly, a school-based childhood obesity prevention program that included physical activity for elementary students from low-income families not only helped with weight control and blood pressure, but also improved academic performance. This is particularly encouraging since children from low-income families are more likely to be physically inactive and obese, and to have lower levels of academic achievement.

Previously here on Obesity Panacea, Dr Angelo Tremblay has presented data from a recent study in Quebec which demonstrated that reducing class time and increasing organized physical activity results in increased fitness without any negative impact on academic achievement.

Myth 2: When you reach 65 vigorous exercise is a no-no.

Let me preface this by saying that before starting an exercise program people should meet with their physician or a Certified Exercise Physiologist to make sure that their exercise program is safe and appropriate for them.

However, there is plenty of evidence that older individuals can derive tremendous benefits from moderate and vigorous exercise.  For example, Dr Lance Davidson and colleagues at Queen’s University have shown that 6 months of exercise (both aerobic and resistance training) in obese and physically inactive elderly men and women resulted in:

  • increased muscle mass
  • reduced fat mass
  • reduced insulin resistance (an important risk factor for diabetes)
  • increased functional fitness (the ability to perform daily activities like getting out of a chair, or doing chores around the house)

The participants in this group were relatively healthy at the beginning of the study, but the improvements in health were still phenomenal.  I actually helped with this study during my Masters, and it was amazing to see participants in their late 70’s exercising at a very high intensity on a daily basis.  Regular exercise at this age is possible, and the health benefits are tremendous.  For a more detailed description of the study itself, click here.

Myth 3: Overweight people and obese people can’t be healthy… they’re fat, and have to lose weight before getting into shape.  If someone is slim, they must be healthy.

For many reasons, it’s important to focus on healthy behaviours rather than simply on body weight.  One reason is that you have a greater degree of control over your behaviour, while your body weight is influenced by many factors which are outside of your personal control.  But it’s also because healthy and unhealthy behaviours have a huge impact on your health regardless of your body weight.

For example, a recent study in the International Journal of Obesity looked at death rates in 47,000 Finnish adults over a 17 year period. They found that being just moderately active reduced a person’s risk of death by 25%, and being very active reduced their risk of dying by almost 40%.  Most importantly, these reductions were seen regardless of a person’s body weight. Another well publicized study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has shown that your risk of death is lower if you are obese and fit, rather than being lean and unfit.

And finally, there is a wealth of evidence (much of it from Bob Ross’ lab at Queen’s University) suggesting that exercise results in important health benefits even when body weight remains unchanged.  It’s worth noting that physical activity alone is unlikely to result in large weight loss for most individuals, but it is almost certain to result in improved health and physical function.

Myth 4: My kids get plenty of physical activity in gym class and recess.

As much as we’d like it to be, this just isn’t the case at the time being.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia recently examined the physical activity level during the school-day of 380 children in Vancouver.  They had each child wear an accelerometer, which is a small device that accurately measures the amount of time that children spend being sedentary (e.g. sitting), as well as the time that kids spend engaging in light, moderate, and vigorous physical activity.

They found that roughly 70% of the entire school day was spent being sedentary.  Not surprisingly, kids were sedentary more than 70% of the time in regular classes.  Shockingly though, kids were also sedentary for more than 70% of phys ed class! Kids were even sedentary for more than half of recess, and about half of their lunch period!  Even if you add recess, lunch and phys ed together, these children accumulated  less than 25 minutes of moderate physical activity, which is less than half the amount recommended by Canada’s Physical Activity Guidelines.

There is no question that school-time physical activity is an important contributor to total physical activity levels.  But physical activity during the school day alone is simply not enough.

Myth 5: You have to hit the gym to get a good workout.

There are many ways to become more physically active without going to a gym. Which is fortunate, because many people (myself included) really don’t like going to the gym!

One great first step is to buy a pedometer – this way you’ll know how many steps you take on an average day, which will make it much easier to track your progress.  A good pedometer costs about $20, and clips onto your belt or can fit in your pocket.  If you’re trying to increase your activity levels and don’t plan on heading to the gym, this is a very useful tool.

As for actually increasing your activity levels, there are many things you can do without going to the gym – going for walks, cycling, playing Frisbee, road hockey with your kids, adult sport leagues, etc.  In addition to these forms of structured physical activity, there are also many ways to work physical activity into your day-to-day life. This can include things like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, going for a 15 minute walk during your lunch break, or parking your car further from your office when you have to drive to work (and taking public transit or walking/cycling to work whenever possible).  Simply drinking plenty of water will force you to take more frequent bathroom breaks throughout the day, and there’s no reason that you can’t visit a bathroom on another floor or in a different part of your office from time to time.  Need to print a file? Why not send it to a printer down the hall, rather than the one next to your desk?  There are many ways to increase the physical activity in a typical work day, and for a list of 10 easy ways to do just that I suggest this previous post here on Obesity Panacea.

If you’re looking for a more serious workout, you can try Peter’s approach – he performs resistance exercise in his home office throughout the day.  Once or twice an hour Peter takes a short break to do push-ups and other exercises that can be easily modified for any fitness and skill level.  This is an approach which really caught the imagination of readers on our blog, many of whom sent us their own tips for being active throughout the workday, which you can read here.  And to hear a podcast where Peter and I discuss his workout regimen, click here.

One final approach to increasing physical activity without heading to the gym is to make your workstation less sedentary, and more active.  If you want to go all-out you can look into creating a treadmill or bicycle workstation.   For my part, I use a cheap pedal machine which fits neatly under the desk in my office.  Although it is certainly not vigorous physical activity, it allows me to be much more active during the workday than if I were simply sitting in my office chair.

All of this to say that there are many ways to be physically active that don’t involve going to the gym – the trick is simply finding something that works for you.

Myth 6: The benefits of physical activity are only seen after weeks of regular exercise

One of the most amazing things about exercise is that the benefits of a single workout are seen within hours of the workout itself, and last up to 3 days after the workout is completed!  For example, a single session of aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce important risk factors for diabetes and heart disease such as triglyceride levels, blood pressure, and insulin resistance, while also increasing HDL-cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol).  Of course the benefits of exercise increase over time, but even a single workout can produce measurable improvements in important risk factors.  For a fantastic review of both the short and long-term benefits of exercise, I suggest this phenomenal review by Dr Paul Thompson.

Myth 7: If I can’t meet the physical activity guidelines, there is no sense exercising at all

The physical activity guidelines are an excellent goal, but not everyone can meet them right off the bat (although the goal really should be to meet, and eventually exceed the guidelines).  Luckily, there are important health benefits that come from participating in any amount of physical activity.  For example, this study in 30,000 Danish adults found that those who engaged in some light physical activity (e.g. 2-4 hours of walking, light gardening, etc per week) reduced their risk of death during the study period by about 30% in comparison to those who did no physical activity.  While risk was even lower among those who were very active, it was only a few percent different from those light exercisers.   In other words, the largest reduction in health risk may come when people move from the “completely inactive” category to “slightly active” category, while there are smaller (but still important!) benefits of moving from “slightly active” to “very active”.

Other studies, like this one, make it clear that people who exercise the most tend to have the lowest risk of both death and disease. But if you are currently totally inactive, simply getting some activity is likely to reduce your health risk by a significant amount, and get you one step closer to meeting the physical activity guidelines.

What are your favourite physical activity myths?


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6 Responses to 7 Myths About Physical Activity

  1. Brittany says:

    Great post! It’s really nice to see all these myths listed all together like this and to see the new ones that I haven’t thought about before.

    Favorite physical activity myth: Exercise has to hurt to be beneficial.

    2nd favorite: Lighter activity, such as walking, burns more fat overall than jogging or running, rather that just a higher percentage of fat

  2. Theo Bromine says:

    Myth 7: If I can’t meet the physical activity guidelines, there is no sense exercising at all

    This is the one I find most discouraging. The “experts” say that the recommended amount is 1 hour of vigorous physical activity per day, and the implication really is that if you can’t manage that you might as well not bother. So then I ask myself whether the extra time I might live is really worth the misery of spending that large a chunk of my discretionary time on such boring activities. I have decided to ignore the experts, and instead try every day to go out for a 20 minute walk (weather permitting), and/or 3 games of pingpong with my spouse.

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  4. John says:

    “No pain, no gain”.

  5. Emme says:

    Myth 1: A child’s time is better spent focusing on the three R’s than on performing physical activity

    Here in Italy, we’ve known that for the last 2o00 years: “mens sana in corpore sano“.

    But, in reality, most of nowadays parents (like mine), totally buy Myth 1.

    It would be interesting to know if the effetct is due to some physiological change, or due to some psycological change (or both ?). I would say the second.

  6. Kimberly says:

    Myth 2: When you reach 65 vigorous exercise is a no-no.

    This one, to me, is particularly pernicious. I’m not working my tail off at my career just to retire at 65, and I’m certainly not going to take up a challenging sport like long-distance running just to abide by some arbitrary age-related cutoff. These “rules” are two symptoms of a culture that disrespects the elderly and their capabilities.

    Oh, and I’d like to point out that Philadelphia’s Broad Street Run, “the largest ten-mile run in the US,” gives out awards in the 80-98 age group. You bet your sweet bippy I plan on being a runner long enough to be able to compete for a prize in that category.