Since 2005, I've had the privilege of developing and teaching fitness methodologies to humans just like you, and what I’ve learned is that most of you are overwhelmed by the herculean amount of information surrounding workout and diet practices. When I began graduate school in 2009, I wasn’t sure how I was going to combine my love for fitness research and development with my doctorate in physiology. But as I continued getting my butt kicked over and over throughout the process of developing my dissertation research, I realized that I loved the scientific process of seeking the truth without ego getting in the way.
True discovery is about identifying what’s real and what isn’t. For that to happen, personal biases and pride must be removed from the process. If left unchecked, anecdotal evidence often creeps its way into everyday life and litters the information highways of various media outlets with misinformation.
Granted that the fitness industry is seriously lacking in its checks and balances regarding the spread of misinformation (which frequently favors the financial interests of health and fitness companies), I saw a great opportunity to combine my education in academic research with my experience in exercise methodology development to form Jolly Bodies in 2016. I now spend most of my time developing exercise curriculums for Jolly Bodies and using my knowledge to combat the pseudoscience within the fitness industry. In other words, consider me your friendly neighborhood fitness guru.
Over the last decade, I have had hundreds of conversations with folks chasing the same image of "fitness" — one that has been manufactured and marketed to be desirable, but isn’t based in reality. Humans are hardwired to process thoughts through our limbic system (the emotional part of the brain) before those thoughts can get to the prefrontal cortex (the rational processing part of the brain). We’re emotional beings, and despite what we know to be true, it’s easier for us to make decisions based on emotions. The fitness industry knows this about us, too, to the tune of billions of dollars.
The way you feel about your body is certainly personal and can conjure up thoughts that leave you feeling vulnerable. Because that’s uncomfortable for many of us, it becomes easy to buy into the hype of something like a new diet or workout method that profits off these vulnerabilities. And what happens? Our thought processing gets stuck in the emotional part of the brain and we buy into it. Before we know it, we're a few Benjamin Franklins deep into a “magical” workout program, a weird ab belt that "shocks" the fat away into a black hole or more recently, genetic panels that claim to identify the specific foods and exercises we should be doing based on our DNA (that’s a whole article in itself).
It’s painfully human to ping-pong between the emotional and rational sides of our brain, and fitness myths make the game much harder. My goal is to provide you with fitness content that helps you simplify the game so you can have a leg up as you continue to navigate your health out of a dumpster fire of misinformation.
Let’s kick things off with addressing a few fitness myths that just won’t seem to die. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to be using terms such as “fat” and “muscle” as they are used in biological settings, not in a fitness ad or materials on social media that serve to shame and scare. If it helps you as you’re reading, when you see the word “fat,” remember its scientific name is “adipose tissue,” which cushions your organs and insulates you against the cold. Fat is critically important for your health, and it’s not a four-letter word here with me.
Myth #1: You can detox your body by sweating.
In recent years, the “detox” branch of the fitness industry has exploded. Teas, cleanses and most recently infrared (IR) heated exercise classes that claim to detoxify your body of heavy metals are now a dime a dozen. The problem? The kidneys and liver are experts at detoxifying your body. That’s what they were made for!
Sweat plays a completely different biological role. Its function is to cool down your body in higher temperature settings, such as an outdoor workout in the sunshine or IR heated group exercise class, so you don’t overheat and shut down. While a heated environment does increase blood circulation, which can make your joints feel amazing and help alleviate pain, there is no substantial scientific evidence or review to support claims that IR heat detoxifies your body.
Always remember to check the sources on these claims. Often they are missing altogether or based on studies that have been grossly misinterpreted or flat out exaggerated by the organization making the claims.
Bottom line: Sweat’s job is to keep your body cool, not to take out the trash. Your kidneys and liver are experts at that.
Myth #2: A workout can give you lean muscles.
I get that it sounds swankier than plain ol' boring muscle, but whenever I hear the phrase “lean muscle” I can’t help but think: “As opposed to…. non-lean muscle?”
Are there different degrees of leanness in muscles? Nope! Muscle and fat are two completely distinct, different types of tissue, just like your brain and pancreas are distinct organs. What most people think of when they think of “lean muscle” is an aesthetic that has more to do with body fat percentage than the underlying muscle tissue itself.
Our bodies are covered in skin, and directly under that skin is where most of our body’s adipose tissue lives. We call that subcutaneous fat. Under that lies your muscle tissue, followed by organs and bones. When you place your body in a calorie deficit (diet, increase exercise, etc.), your body utilizes fat as an energy source for itself. As fat stores decrease, the amount of subcutaneous fat decreases, making the existing muscular structure more visible in a mirror. The result may be a leaner aesthetic, but that’s not due to building a specific type of muscle.
Bottom line: Fat mass can either decrease or increase in size, and muscles can either decrease or increase in size. You’ve already got lean muscles. That’s the tea.
Myth #3: A workout can make your muscles longer.
The length of a muscle is determined by its origin and insertion (the points where it attaches to bone). You can't change the length of these anatomical landmarks. Muscles cannot be built to be longer or shorter, they can only get bigger or smaller. In other words, baby, we were born this way.
Bottom line: Can you change the length of your bones? Then you can’t change the length of your muscles. Unless you’re a human slinky.
Myth #4: Soreness = workout effectiveness
While some degree of muscle soreness from a new workout is expected, especially for beginners, too much can backfire on your fitness goals quickly. The pain you sometimes feel in your muscles one or two days post workout is called delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. Explosive exercises such as sprinting, as well as weight training are notorious causes of DOMS because they place a greater amount of stress on the muscles.
We’ve known for a long time that the body does exactly what it’s hardwired to do when faced with a repeated physical challenge: it adapts. It becomes stronger and more efficient, and as a result, the degree of muscle soreness decreases over time in response to the same stimulus.
For example, doing a bicep curl with a 10-pound dumbbell may induce soreness on training week one, but nada on week five. That’s because your body is a brilliant adaptation machine and you’ve become stronger!
Although your soreness decreases over time, that does not mean your workout lacks effectiveness. We know that too much of anything can be a bad thing for us, and that’s certainly the case for DOMS. If you frequently go into your workout already sore, you’ll involuntarily adjust your workout movements to minimize your pain, which increases risk of injury in another part of your body.
Further, while the research is still in its infancy, scientists are discovering more about genetic factors that may also play a role in determining why sometimes we see varying degrees of muscle soreness in unconditioned individuals that perform the same workout. If you find yourself consistently going into new workouts still very sore from prior workouts, take a day or two to rest or do some light walking to increase circulation to the muscles in a gentle way that supports recovery.
Bottom line: Soreness is overrated, recovery is underrated and chasing fatigue will put a halt on your progress.
Lee Ann Jolly, Ph.D., is the co-founder of Jolly Bodies Fitness where she leads the design and development of fitness programs based on the core concepts of creativity, education, imagination and efficiency.