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16 fitness myths that need to be busted

From ‘hanging from bars increases height’ to ‘microwave ovens destroy nutrients’ , we put several popular and tenacious myths under the microscope

A persistent myth is that strength and weight training will make women muscular
A persistent myth is that strength and weight training will make women muscular (Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels)

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Your smartphone may bring the world to you today but when science has a face-off with myths in daily life, it is still usually myths that triumph. Many, sometimes passed down through generations, ratified and amplified by social media, are now accepted as facts of life. Who hasn’t heard that you can increase your height by hanging from bars or that drinking a glass of warm water in the morning helps in fat loss? We put 16 such popular myths under the microscope.

Lifting weights stunts growth

There is no scientific evidence to back this, says Amite Pankaj Aggarwal, director and head of the department of orthopaedics at Fortis Hospital, Shalimar Bagh, Delhi. Krishan Chugh, director and head of the department of paediatrics at the Fortis Memorial Research Institute in Gurugram, Haryana, agrees: “Age-appropriate weight-lifting as a strengthening exercise under expert supervision does not result in stunting.” In fact, there are really no downsides as long as you are careful and smart about it, says Dr Aggarwal, adding that one should only start when children begin to understand the importance of training effectively.

Children actually stand to benefit if they start strength training early. A safe resistance-training programme helps children and adolescents improve body composition, build muscle strength, muscle power, muscular endurance, bone strength, flexibility, physical performance, cardiovascular health, injury resistance, psychosocial well-being, apart from promoting good exercise habits, says Rajesh Parameswaran, head coach and founder of The Den Strength and Conditioning studio in Bengaluru.

Pull-ups and hanging from bars helps increase height

Again, there is no scientific evidence to support these claims, says Dr Aggarwal. A lot of factors determine height—from genetics to diet to muscle strength. “Those who go out and play sports like basketball or football are more likely to grow stronger because they are actually running around and are being able to use all their bigger muscles. So, it really is a combination of things and cannot be attributed to a single activity like doing pull-ups or hanging from a bar,” explains Poonam Sidana, a neonatologist and paediatrician at CK Birla Hospital, Delhi.

Swimming boosts height spurt

Swimming is one of the best exercises out there, says Dr Sidana, because it ensures that all the big muscles are used and it strengthens the core. But swimming alone won’t make a child grow taller. “The strength that a kid gains from swimming can impact the height positively but there is no isolated factor which can help children become taller. It depends on their genes, their food, their lifestyle and the amount of time they spend moving,” she adds.

Height varies slightly through the day due to the compression and decompression of the cartilage discs in the spine, explains Dr Aggarwal. “By decompressing your discs, some of these activities could temporarily increase your height to a very small extent. However, this won’t actually help increase your height, as any changes are quickly reversed,” he adds.

Strength and weight training will make women muscular

This is far from true. Women are built differently and it is very difficult for them to gain big muscles and bulk up. “Women have more oestrogen and men have more testosterone. And hence weight lifting will apply differently for both sexes. Due to the low levels of testosterone, women can never become like Arnold Schwarzenegger, not even close,” says Shwetambari Shetty, a fitness expert. “I have been lifting heavy weights for a decade now. I still wear XS-sized clothes and I am still petite…but toned and well defined.” Shetty says weight training does bring a host of benefits: building strength, reducing the risk of joint pain and injuries in old age, reducing risk of osteoporosis and osteopenia. It also improves metabolism, helping you to burn fat, adds Shetty.

Walking is enough exercise

Both doctors and fitness experts agree that walking is one of the best exercises. But they don’t see eye to eye when the question is: “Is it enough exercise?” It is for Vaibhav Daga, head of sports sciences and rehabilitation at the Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Mumbai. “Brisk walking is one of the best exercises as it is simple, free and one of the easiest ways to get more active, lose weight and become healthier. It is recommended to have 150 minutes of moderate to 75 minutes of severe activity weekly to lead a healthy and active lifestyle,” explains Dr Daga, also a sports medicine consultant. Walking is also very effective when it comes to building a baseline cardiovascular fitness level and a great form of exercise, especially for those who have not previously been active, says Rajeev Verma, consultant and head of the department of joint replacement and orthopaedics at the HCMCT Manipal Hospitals in Dwarka, Delhi. “Walking prevents diseases that affect our mental health and some heart-related conditions. About 30 minutes of walking a day can help you make progress towards your weight loss… plus, it’s a comfortable and familiar form of exercise,” says Dr Verma.

While it is exercise enough to safeguard your health, walking may not be enough to achieve fitness goals. Gagan Arora, Delhi-based celebrity coach and founder of Kosmic Fitness studio, says it should be a stepping stone to exercises such as running, strength training and the like that will help your fitness.

Wearing a sweatshirt to sweat more during exercise helps lose weight quicker

Sweating out is a sure-shot way to lose weight but not if you are sweating buckets because of a break from the air-conditioning or layering up to make yourself sweat. In fact, layering up to sweat a little extra while exercising can be harmful. “Neither wearing a sweatshirt nor jacket will help to lose weight,” says Bikky Chaurasia, consultant for internal medicine at the Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital. “Only the sweating which occurs through workouts and exercise helps reduce weight. Wearing jackets and sweatshirts is likely to cause a vitamin D deficiency as our body becomes less exposed to sunlight.”

Morning exercise is more beneficial than an evening workout

While fitness coaches steer clear of this debate as they have classes and clients at all times of the day, doctors agree that the most important thing is getting the workout and exercise done. “There’s so much conflicting research out there on the optimal time to workout that I would suggest to pick a time and stick to it. It will help the biological clock of your body. Being consistent is the key to improve performance or get results,” says Dr Daga.

“Regardless of the time of day you exercise, you will achieve gains in cardiorespiratory fitness and strength if done regularly,” says Dr Aggarwal.

Breathing through the mouth, rather than the nose, is more tiring

Just think about how you breathe while swimming. You inhale through your mouth and exhale through your nose. If you get tired, it’s because of the strain of swimming, not because you are breathing through your mouth. People consume same amount of oxygen while exercising and running whether they breathe through their nose or mouth. However, the respiratory rate, or number of breaths per minute, is lower when you breathe through your nose, says Dr Aggarwal. “This means it takes less work to consume the same amount of oxygen while breathing through your nose, which could potentially improve athletic performance and endurance,” he adds. While breathing through your nose is more efficient, breathing through the mouth may at most leave your mouth dry.

Crunches reduce fat around the tummy and tone it

Well, it is true that crunches will tone your midriff and help your abs pop but there is a caveat: Your body fat percentage should be extremely low, roughly 8-14%. In people with low body fat, the ab muscles are already visible and when they do crunches, the abs become defined and the sought after “six-pack” starts showing. Others won’t see any abs because they are getting toned underneath a layer of fat, which doesn’t get toned or tamed. They must first burn the fat sitting atop the abdominal muscles, through as cardio, sprints, HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and strength training and complement it with proper nutrition. While crunches do improve core strength, other exercises, such as planks, Russian twist, hollow rock hold, hollow rock, L-sit and L-hang, may be more effective.

Don’t exercise immediately after eating

The notion that exercising immediately after eating is unhealthy or not advisable is believed even by gym trainers, fitness enthusiasts and health professionals, says Deeksha Ahlawat, a senior dietitian at the HCMCT Manipal Hospitals.

“There is no scientific evidence to support the claim,” she says, but adds that waiting at least 30 minutes to an hour after a meal before engaging in physical activity is clinically recommended. “What we eat goes through a process of digestion — it is broken down into smaller components and absorbed into the bloodstream. This process can take anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours, depending on what and how much you have eaten and your digestive system,” adds Ahlawat.

“Contrary to popular belief, exercising after eating does not harm the body or hinder digestion. In fact, studies have shown that exercising after a meal can have several benefits, such as improving blood sugar levels, enhancing metabolism and aiding digestion by increasing the blood flow to the digestive system, which can improve nutrient absorption,” she notes.

But how much you eat and when should decide your workout, say experts. Eating a large meal or too much just before exercise can divert the body’s energy to the digestive system, reducing the energy available for physical activity. “Trying to exercise on a full stomach can be painfully uncomfortable and lead to cramping, bloating, sluggishness and nausea,” warns Dr Daga. Stick to a small pre-workout snack.

Ice, cold water give you sore throat, fever and cold

There’s no direct correlation, says Dr Aggarwal. Most of the time, flu, cold or cough are caused by a virus, he adds. “So, ice doesn’t make you sick, it’s other people. Most people catch a cold from a virus, which is generally passed from person to person whenever a sick person coughs or sneezes all over the place. The tiny mucous particles escaping your body contaminate whatever is around them, causing whoever is close by to potentially fall ill,” says Dr Verma. In fact, ice would be a good treatment for sore throat as it has a cooling effect on inflamed tissues, he adds.

A glass of warm water first thing in the morning melts body fat

Bhakti Samant, chief dietitian at the Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, admits this is a common belief. “But that is not the case,” says Samant. “It is a good habit to start your day with a glass of water but its temperature doesn’t matter, especially not for weight loss. There is no scientific data to back the idea. What a glass of water does is, it kick-starts your metabolism first thing in the morning. While warm water can have several benefits, like soothing your throat, flushing out toxins, relieving constipation, weight loss is questionable.” For weight loss, balanced meals and a good exercise routine would help, says Dr Aggarwal.

Microwave ovens destroy nutrients in food

This is a classic example of social media wisdom, says Samant. A microwave oven works by using electromagnetic waves to agitate the water molecules in food; this, in turn, generates heat and cooks the food. As a matter of fact, a microwave oven cooks or heats food quicker. “Loss of nutrients while cooking is not unique to microwaving alone. Nutrients can be lost through any form of cooking, including boiling, frying or baking,” says Ahlawat. “The less the food gets exposed to any source of heat, the less the loss of nutrients. In fact, microwave cooking helps to better preserve the heat-sensitive nutrients in our food due to quicker cooking,” adds Samant.

“The nutrient content in any food depends on a variety of factors, including the type of food, how it is prepared, and how it is cooked. Microwaving is generally a safe and healthy way to cook food without significantly impacting its nutrient content,” says Ahlawat. What really kills the nutrients in food is repeated reheating. So, stop doing that.

Milk is the best food

Milk is definitely a superfood for babies aged up to six months, but it is certainly not so for adults, says Amit Gupta, senior paediatric consultant at the Fortis Escorts Hospital in Faridabad, Haryana. Too much milk could lead to digestive and gastrointestinal issues and leave you feeling bloated, uneasy and nauseous. Many people cannot tolerate lactose and milk could disturb their digestion and release enzymes in the bloodstream which can lead to gastrointestinal issues. Too much milk could even leave you feeling fatigued, sluggish, and your skin prone to breakouts, including acne.

Ahlawat says the powerful dairy industry lobby “has successfully promoted the idea that milk is essential for health and that we need to consume large amounts of it to meet our nutritional needs. Milk does, of course, provide multiple nutrients: protein, calcium, several B vitamins, iodine, selenium, vitamin A, vitamin D, potassium and phosphorus, says Samant. But while milk does contain a high amount of calcium, other foods, such as leafy greens, almonds and tofu, can provide this essential nutrient, notes Ahlawat, adding, “Some studies have shown that consuming too much milk can actually increase the risk of bone fractures.”

There are clear downsides. “Milk is high in saturated fat, which can contribute to heart disease. Some people have an allergic reaction to the proteins in milk, which can cause symptoms such as hives, swelling and difficulty in breathing. Many commercial dairy farms use antibiotics and hormones to increase milk production, which can have negative effects on both human and animal health,” warns Ahlawat. Simrun Chopra, founder of Nourish With Sim (descrip), suggests limiting milk intake to a glass a day and having yogurt for a second dairy helping.

Juniper berries, hence gin, are bad for “manhood”

Gin gets its distinctive taste from juniper berries. It was a very popular drink in the colonial era, when it would be mixed with tonic water, which contains quinine, and consumed widely. The quinine was used as a pre-emptive strike against malaria. It is widely believed that a high intake of gin could result in lower testosterone levels and impotency, says Samant. “However, there is limited scientific data available to prove this and hence further research is needed,” notes Samant, adding, “Alcohol, when consumed in larger quantities, can lead to low count and poor mobility of sperms.” So, the problem isn’t juniper berries or gin but excessive drinking and that causes more harm than merely affecting sperm count and mobility.

Don’t drink water immediately after a meal

Our forefathers believed that drinking water immediately after a meal dilutes acids released by the stomach that help in digestion, weakening “the Jathar Agni”, notes Samant. “As per modern nutrition science, this is not true.” In fact, water aids in the breakdown of nutrients, leading to better digestion. It also helps in keeping gut health issues like constipation at bay, adds Samant. If you drink too much, though, you may feel bloated or too full.

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