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"Gung Ho!: A Marine Corps Boot Camp for Island Jarhead Wannabes" Alameda Magazine, Mar/Apr 2009

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TRAINING & NUTRITION MYTHS

Get the facts, Recruit!

Are you confused with all the ads, infommercials, and headlines about proper diet and amount of exercise necessary for good health and fitness?

Looking for the bottom line?

First, two things to keep in mind:

  1. Most information you see daily about proper nutrition, ideal body weight, and required daily volume/intensity of exercise that you find in the popular press (newspapers, infomercials, etc.) represent either absolute minimum standards that may prevent you from becoming a burden to publicly funded health care and from premature death and/or incomplete summaries of complicated research.
  2. The exercise and diet standards required for you to look good, improve your fitness level (lose weight, gain muscularity, improve cardiovascular health and performance), and sidestep the aging process are higher than what the magic pill sellers and amazing machine hawkers would have you believe, but probably not as difficult as you might imagine.

See if you recognize any of the following fitness myths I've heard often during the past two decades. Read the real scoop beneath each myth. These are just a few of the questions that folks routinely ask me. Follow some of the links to find more information about training, diet, and supplements (but remember to come back here and find out more about how you can get started on developing your ideal physique).

MYTH: 10 minutes of exercise, three times a day is sufficient.

MYTH: Lifting weights will make me bulk up.

MYTH: I just want to tone, so I should only lift light weights.

MYTH: When you stop lifting, the muscle turns to fat

MYTH: If you eat fat-free you don't have to count calories

MYTH: Low carb (or any other diet fad) is the best way to lose weight.

MYTH: For a great body, I'd have to train several hours a day, 7 days a week

MYTH: I need dozens of pills and powders daily to build a good body.

MYTH: The machine on TV will really get me in shape.

MYTH: 10 minutes of exercise, three times a day is sufficient for me to get physically fit.

What the Surgeon General's report (July 1996) actually said is that at minimum, a moderate amount of exercise daily is required to achieve health benefits. It gave some examples such as 30 minute of brisk walking or raking leaves, 15 minutes of running, or 45 minutes of volleyball on most, if not all, days of the week. The recommendations were intended to demonstrate the least that people need to do to modestly improve their health.

Because most folks look for an easy way around even minimum requirements where exercise and discipline are concerned, the Surgeon General and major sports medicine organizations like the ACSM tried to find ways to help Americans live longer healthier lives by just getting up and moving a LITTLE BIT during their average day. Completing some form of exercise for at least 10 minutes at least 3 times daily will cause some positive physical changes for the completely inactive person - ANY change is better than none.

In fact, in January 2005, the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services finally updated these recommendations with the hard truth Americans need more exercise:

  1. To maintain a decent fitness level and lower your risk of chronic disease, you need to exercise at least 30 minutes on most days of the week;
  2. To prevent weight gain, you need to exercise at least 60 minutes on most days;
  3. To lose weight OR to maintain significant weight loss you've already achieved, you need to exercise 60-90 minutes every day
Most people already know the truth - if it sounds too easy to be true, it is. Don't be fooled. If you're obese and cannot sustain activity for long or if you just want to feel a little better, get up and move (walk, stretch, climb some stairs) 3 times a day for about 10 minutes. But studies showing that these 10 minute bouts are effective all used obese, completely sedentary subjects - the people for whom ANY change at all will yield modest results. If you're looking to actually GET IN SHAPE, work an hour of vigorous exercise into your schedule 3-5 days every week.


MYTH: Lifting weights will make me bulk up.

Many factors control how much and how quickly you will build muscle mass: genetics, pounds lifted and number of repetitions, duration of rest periods, training consistency, daily caloric intake, and quality of nutrients. Most people who express this concern, aren't being realistic. If you lift weights that force you to perform no more than 8-12 repetitions per set, for 3-4 sets per exercise AND you consume no more calories than you can burn daily, bulking up to gargantuan bodybuilder proportions is not very likely.
Get to know your body and how it responds to exercise. Keep in mind that you must build some muscle in order to have any shape to that physique and that carrying muscle burns more calories than carrying fat (you'll burn calories even while you're resting!!) Once you see how your body responds to real training, you can modify your routine to get the shape and size you really want. You may choose to: use lighter weights that allow you to do no more than 15-20 repetitions per set (for definition); change exercises to emphasize different body areas; lift slightly heavier weights for 4-10 repetitions per set (for strength gains), add more sets, and/or moderately increase your calorie consumption to encourage more muscle growth.


MYTH: I just want to tone, so I should only use light weights with high reps.

This one is tricky because it's been oversimplified and repeated ad nauseam in the sound bytes. The only possible processes involved when you use progressive resistance training (e.g., weightlifting) are: increasing muscular size (hypertrophy), increasing muscular strength, increasing muscular endurance, or increasing muscular power. If you lift weights in the appropriate rep range, you will always build some muscle. There is no physiological process known as "toning." What people are referring to is emphasizing defined muscularity without excessive muscle mass. Lifting lighter weights in sets of 12-20 reps combined with a sensible fat loss program of proper diet and aerobic work will help you moderately increase your muscle mass while removing the layer of fat that hides the definition. But remember: you can't shape the vase until there's enough clay on the wheel. You have to build some muscle mass before you sculpt out the muscular definition you want.

Also, be realistic about what it means to use light weights. How many rail- thin, shapeless folks have you watched wasting hours each week doing endless reps with dumbbells about the size of an office stapler? This method is a big waste of time unless your office products give you a lot of trouble. Even if you're "body-sculpting" you have to use weight that enables you to complete no more than 12-20 reps each set - if you can keep going with that weight you need to increase your resistance to force you back into that rep range. Otherwise, you'll just get really good at moving staplers all day (muscular endurance). Remember to start by building a little muscular size with weight that forces you to complete no more than 8-12 reps per set for a few months before you start trying to shape that muscle with slightly lighter weights and higher reps.

MYTH: When you stop lifting weights, all your muscle turns to fat.

Once and for all: muscle and fat are completely different substances. One cannot become the other anymore than you could turn lead into gold. But you've no doubt seen (or been) the muscular high school or college athlete who no longer hits the playing field but has kept eating at the training table. The muscle fibers shrink because they're not challenged in the gym or in the game. But the body size hasn't gotten smaller (in fact, maybe it's a bit rounder?) because it's moving all those extra calories to fat storage (now that they're no longer being played off).

If you reduce your activity level, you must adjust your diet for your new level of activity. If you stop playing a certain sport or just want to buy a smaller sized wardrobe, reduce your daily caloric intake, reduce your weightlifting poundage, increase your reps, and/or increase your amount of aerobic activity.


MYTH: As long as I eat low-fat and fat-free products, I don't have to count calories to stay in shape (or lose weight).

Boy, the American Heart Association, American Dietetic Association, various physician organizations, and hundreds of trainers are sorry this one ever got out of hand. Of course Americans' consumption of saturated fats became an obvious problem about 30 years ago, but despite our steadily decreasing average daily fat intake, Americans' physical girth has steadily increased during that same time. One big reason: the preponderance of low-fat and fat-free foods that are loaded with sugar and sodium to disguise their lack of taste. Another reason: fat-free foods that have no nutritive value at all (so eating them makes you feel full but keeps you from eating real food). Recent statistics show we're much more likely to consume twice as much food when we know that food is low- or non-fat. Yes, we've lowered our fat intake. But we're promoting fat storage in our bodies when we consume more carbohydrates (usually processed sugar) than we can burn or when we consume empty calorie foods that reduce our appetite for quality nutrients.

Despite the possible short-term effectiveness of many fad diets that advocate mounds of fat-free foods without heed to overall caloric intake or breakdown, you will not get and stay in shape following this quackery.

The truth:

  1. You need some fat in your daily diet because several essential vitamins cannot be used by the body without it (the fat-soluble vitamins) and because your body learns to hoard what it gets denied, but there only TWO essential fats that must be consumed because they can't be manufactured in the body;
  2. Your body can make fat from almost any nutrients consumed in excess, so your daily dietary requirements are quite low;
  3. If the fat-free food contains more calories than you can burn (probably from sugars added for taste), you will convert the extra calories to bodyfat;
  4. Junk food with a fat-free label is still junk. The quality of your fuel controls your body's performance and the quality of the shape-giving muscle it produces.
Best bets:

  1. eliminate the junk, empty calories, and excess simple carbohydrates whether they're fat-free or not;.
  2. stick to very small amounts of saturated fats which can lead to heart disease; and
  3. focus on the monounsaturated sources for th essential fats your body needs.

    MYTH:Low carb (or any other diet fad) is the best way to lose weight .

    For starters, the low carb fad is back on the scene again, the only difference is that it's finally found HUGE commercial success. The first one promoted commercially showed up in 1864 when a British undertaker named Willliam Banting got too fat to tie his own shoes; he followed advice from a friend of his, an ear surgeon named William Harvey, and went on a diet of very few carbs but plenty of alcohol. He lost weight and wrote about the miracle diet in his "Letter on Corpulence" which ultimately sold more than 100,000 copies although he never wanted it published. Banting lived another 14 years and managed to keep his weight in check. But here's the part the low carb fanatics leave out when they cite Banting as a nutrition pioneer and the father of their movement: In the 1860's, Dr. Harvey wrote that this regimen should not be carried on for too long, and Banting had completely altered his diet by simply controlling his portion sizes, reducing his intake of protein and fats, and resuming his intake of carbs. In other words, he learned to balance his nutrition and stop demonizing one nutrient more than any other.

    In modern times, the low/no carb craze has emerged again and again:

    1. in 1961 with a diet by Herman Taller (2 million copies sold, but Taller convicted of mail fraud in 1962 for selling worthless safflower capsules as a nutritional supplement),
    2. . Again in 1967 by Irwin Stillman (dead in 1975 of a heart attack),
    3. Again in 1972 with Dr. Robert Atkins' first effort - "The Diet Revolution,"
    4. Again in 1976 by Richard Linn (a liquid protein diet which ended up killing at least 60 people by 1977),
    5. Again in 1978 with Herman Tarnower's Scarsdale Diet,
    6. Again in 1991 with the Hellers' "Carbohydrate Addict's Diet,"
    7. Again in 1996 with Dr. Atkins "New Diet Revolution" (same stuff, new cover),
    8. And again in 1999 with Dr. Atkins reissue of his same old diet which finally takes off on the bestseller list where it remains today (Atkins, of course, dead now after an icy slip and fall but history of myocardial infarctions (heart attacks) discovered during his emergency room exams after that accident)
    Recent studies show that many people do lose weight on very low carb diets, just as they do on every diet, but the problems still greatly outweigh the short term benefits:
    1. Good cholesterol levels increase but so do the bad cholesterol levels - leaving you still, if not more susceptible to cardiac problems;
    2. Eliminating any one nutrient means you won't get sufficient amounts of the many vitamins, minerals and other compounds found in these foods, many of which help your body process the nutrients found in the rest of the diet;
    3. Your brain operates on carbs only, so brain functioning, including short term memory, suffers;
    4. You lose 2.5 grams of water with every gram of carbohydrate you eliminate, so much of the initial weight loss comes primarily from water weight (which will be back when you lose interest in the restrictive regimen - which you will), and you run the risk of dehydration;
    5. Those with any history of kidney problems (potentially 1 out of every 4 Americans, unbeknownst to most of them according to the American Kidney Foundation), run the risk of causing kidney damage as the body is overworked disposing of the waste from all that excess protein;
    6. With carbs as the body's preferred energy source and the one most efficiently used for that purpose, you won't have enough energy to train as hard as you need to make the physique and performance improvements you really want. You may be smaller, but you won't be any harder;
    7. After a year, (as shown in the very few studies that bother to follow subjects for longer than a few months), subjects on the most popular low carb diet lost no more weight than those on any other plan and then gained their weight back faster and packed on even more weight than their counterparts later.
    Do yourself a favor. Learn what each of the major nutrients does for your body and then use your common sense - you're an omnivore for a reason. Get the proper fuel balance from quality food sources including every major nutrient. Nothing is magic and nothing is evil.

    MYTH: To get a great body, I'd have to work out several hours a day, 7 days a week.

    Nope. Although some elite athletes may practice several hours daily and rarely take a day off, remember that they're working on physical strength, agility, and possibly mass building; improving their playing skills; cycling on- and off-season training time; and getting paid to do it. Keep your workout to 60-90 minutes in order to stay mentally focused on what you're doing, and then give yourself at least 1-2 days rest each week in addition to plenty of sleep each night. Your muscles and heart get stimulated during the exercise session, but growth, strength improvements, and skill attainment actually occur outside the gym while you're recovering. The body you want - while not available in the 15 minutes promised by some salesmen - is available for about 5 hours a week, consistently.


    MYTH: I'd have to take dozens of pills and powders every day to get in really good shape.

    Again, time to separate necessity from desire. Depending on the quality of your diet and the training level you wish to attain, you may want to add a few supplements to your daily regimen. But for the average person who just wants to look better and perform well, you don't need to buy out your local vitamin store.

    The current DRI (formerly known as the RDA ) for most nutrients is insufficient to help you achieve significant muscularity, excellent endurance performance, or quality muscular definition. It's barely sufficient to keep us alive. That's the point of the DRI's: minimum recommendations to keep a hypothetical population of sedentary people alive without poisoning them with any overdoses. In addition, the quality of our conventional over-processed foods grown in substandard soils or force-fed hormones and antibiotics also will not adequately fuel great physical performance.

    So first, get the highest quality, minimally processed, drug- and pesticide-free foods you can afford

    Then, at minimum, you should take a quality, potent multi-vitamin from a reliable source. I recommend Twinlab products because they are consistently rated some of the best in the world with quality ingredients whose presence consistently checks out in independent lab tests (if they say it's in there, it really is).

    You can check on the quality of other manufacturers' products with an inexpensive annual subscription to ConsumerLab.com. These folks independently analyze many of the vitamins, herbs and other nutritional supplements you find on shelves and report on whether each one:

    1. actually contains what the label claims;
    2. meets recognized standards of quality as well the level of quality claimed on the label;
    3. is free of contaminants; and
    4. can be readily broken down for proper use in the body.
    In addition, ConsumerLab also posts reports of FDA and Federal Trade Commission warnings, alerts and citations against the snake-oil salesmen and potion- makers who advertise bogus physique and performance enhancers and cure-all's.

    For those constantly on the run without the time or facilities to eat all of the small, frequent, quality feedings they should get, you may try meal replacement shakes or bars. The key: choose high quality products that aren't filled with sugars, fats, (partially hydrogenated or tropical oils), or low quality ingredients. And be sure to control your serving sizes to fit your actual daily caloric needs. Check out bars by Luna, Odwalla, MetRx, Parillo and PerfectRx. Check out powders like Gainers Fuel, Mass Fuel, or Diet Fuel by Twinlab. Gainers Fuel and Mass Fuel provide very good meal replacement with good mixability, and you can simply reduce the serving size to meet your needs (thus stretching your dollar as well).

    Some other supplements can help you achieve your specific goals, some provide some health benefits, some will not do any harm (but probably won't do much good either), and some should simply not be used at all. Read reputable sources for information on the supplements you're considering, check out the claims, read the science behind them (if it's only studies allegedly performed by the manufacturer or their cronies, put it back on the shelf, it's a joke), look at the results in people you meet who are using them and have goals similar to yours, and look for reliable manufacturers.

    You can rely on ConsumerLab.com for some good reporting on the science behind many of vitamins, herbs and other supplements you might be considering. If a product contains everything the manufacturer claims but none of that stuff has been proven effective at anything you're wasting your time and money.

    Another good source is Muscular Development Magazine. It is published by the folks who produce Twinlab supplements, so there is some product bias and some long ads that are cleverly disguised as legitimate articles. They're also on about the 8th change of format in the past few years, with the magazine currently looking more like men's locker room drooling material than reputable science. But it does contain very high quality articles and is associated with heavy-hitting contributors from the internationally respected sports organizations and certifying bodies. They have always cited the sources behind all claims and all their products. You can then go find the research for yourself to get more information.

    Be sure to get quality advice from a trainer or sports nutritionist who is familiar with your goals, physical history, current body composition, etc. But here are some basics:

    1. Creatine monohydrate (provided you have no history of kidney problems) and a good whey protein powder supplement are essential for putting on quality muscle mass.
    2. L-Carnitine is a good idea for aiding in recovery between training sessions (also the function of creatine) and for burning fat.
    3. Chromium picolinate is a good idea for fat-burning y helping make your insulin drive more efficient, especially for those with a large amount of weight to lose
    4. .

      Read legitimate studies to find appropriate dosages, standardizations, and length of time for use.

      Stay away from "miracle" promises like you see on infommercials and the gym juice bar, unnecessarily high dosages in many products called "mega"-something or other, useless sprinklings of herbs and spices added to make products seem complex (like in the Thermo-this-and-That and Metabo-something fat burners), and inexpensive "sports bars" available in the impulse buying aisle at the supermarket next to the candy. If you want to throw money away, just head for the casino - at least there's a chance you'll win.

      MYTH: The new machine I saw on TV (ab exerciser, aerobic rider, gliding walker, blade-waver - pick one) will make me work out, shorten my workout, make my training easy, and burn fat in my problem areas.

      No, it won't. Practically every machine you'll see in the gym or on TV was designed to imitate a free-weight or body-weight exercise. (There are a few exceptions such as leg curls for the hamstrings that are difficult to execute without a machine). Unless you require physical therapy, have problems with balance, have a condition which prevents you from making full use of both limbs, etc. most of the apparatus you find in the mall or on TV is superfluous.

      In my experience, most weekend athletes and weight loss seekers will purchase an average of 3 pieces (over a lifetime) of miracle-promising equipment that will each become an expensive coat rack about 30 days after the date on the sales receipt. A 1997 survey found that half of all American households contain at least one piece of exercise equipment. At last count, only 1 in 4 were still in use in the home

      1. Be honest with yourself and keep it simple. First work on the discipline to just get up and complete 30-60 minutes of body-weight exercises several times each week for several months. After all, if you won't do pushups, crunches, dips, and some stretching where no equipment is required, you probably won't do it just because there's a brand new Health Climber under the bed.
      2. The push to buy a machine that will shorten your workout doesn't even make sense as a goal. We already know you need to train at least 30-60 minutes on most days of the week to make serious gains, so how could shortening the time you spend get you anywhere.
      3. If training were easy, we wouldn't call it a workout. The point of exercise is to challenge your muscles and your heart so that they rise to the challenge, grow and get stronger. Making training easier = no improvements.
      4. As for reducing fat in those problem areas, you should know by now there is no such thing as spot reducing. Therefore, you can't choose to burn fat in specific areas with or without a new machine. Losing inches will come when you reduce your total bodyfat by:

        1. increasing your metabolic rate (the body's energy-burning furnace);
        2. working aerobically for at least 30 minutes 2-3 times each week at 65-75% of your maximum heart rate; and
        3. by changing your nutrition habits to include small frequent feedings with sufficient protein to help build muscle, small amounts of fat, and no more carbs than necessary to fuel your activity level.

        In my experience, most people have at least one area that holds out as a fat repository - maybe it's your hips, thighs, obliques (love handles), double chin, etc. - but you just have to keep chipping away at the total bodyfat level until that final area yields as well. It will come.

      So why is it still a multi-billion dollar a year industry even though most of the products are shlock and most people don't even continue using them? Two hints: 1) most people still cling to the false hope that there's an easier answer than "get off your butt and train"; and 2) when was the last time you followed up on a money-back guarantee?

      Still have a few questions of your own?

      Email or call me with any questions or confusion you have. I'll be happy to try to answer them or point you to the right source. And if I get more than a few of the same question I'll post them here for easy reference

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All text, FitBoot©, FitBasic ©, and the FitBoot logo ©1998, 1999 & 2000 by Charla T.-McMillian. You may neither reprint nor distribute any text from this website, in part or in its entirety, without the author's express permission.

The information contained on this website is not intended to substitute for medical advice or for the advice of a qualified nutritionist. Individual needs and results may vary. You should seek the advice of your physician or a qualified trainer before starting or significantly modifying any exercise or diet program.