It's easy to fall into the trap: A workout buddy passes along an exercise tip, and then you pass it on to several folks you know. Your kid’s coach gives you advice, and sure enough you hear the same thing from several other parents. So you figure it must be true. But experts say that in the world of fitness, myths and half-truths abound – and some of them may be keeping you and your family from getting the best and safest workout.
"Some myths are just harmless half-truths, but many others can actually be harmful," says professional triathlete and personal coach Eric Harr, author of The Portable Personal Trainer. "They can cause frustration in working out and sometimes even lead to injury," he notes.
One reason myths get started, says Harr, is that we all react to exercise a little differently. So what's true for one person may not be true for another.
"In this sense you sometimes have to find your own 'exercise truths' – the things that are true for you," says Harr.
That said, experts say there are also some fitness myths that just need busting, and the sooner the better!
To help put you and your family on the path to a healthier, safer, and more enjoyable workout, WebMD got the lowdown from several top experts on what's true and what's not when it comes to exercise tips.
Fitness Myth No. 1: Running on a treadmill puts less stress on your knees than running on asphalt or pavement.
"Running is a great workout, but it can impact the knees -- and since it's the force of your body weight on your joints that causes the stress, it's the same whether you're on a treadmill or on asphalt," says Todd Schlifstein, DO, a clinical instructor at New York University Medical Center's Rusk Institute.
The best way to reduce knee impact, says Schlifstein, is to vary your workout.
"If you mix running with other cardio activities, like an elliptical machine, or you ride a stationary bike, you will reduce impact on your knees so you'll be able to run for many more years," says Schlifstein.
Fitness Myth No. 2: Doing crunches or working on an "ab machine" will get rid of belly fat.
Don't believe everything you hear on those late-night infomercials! Harr says that while an ab-crunching device might "help strengthen the muscles around your midsection and improve your posture," being able to "see" your abdominal muscles has to do with your overall percentage of body fat. If you don't lose the belly fat, he says, you won't see the ab muscles.
But can doing ab crunches help you to lose that belly fat? Experts say no.
"You can’t pick and choose areas where you’d like to burn fat," says Phil Tyne, director of the fitness center at the Baylor Tom Landry Health & Wellness Center in Dallas. So crunches aren't going to target weight loss in that area.
"In order to burn fat, you should create a workout that includes both cardiovascular and strength-training elements. This will decrease your overall body fat content," including the area around your midsection, he says.
Fitness Myth No. 3: An aerobic workout will boost your metabolism for hours after you stop working out.
This statement is actually true -- but the calorie burn is probably not nearly as much as you think!
Harr says that while your metabolism will continue to burn at a slightly higher rate after you finish an aerobic workout, the amount is not statistically significant. In fact, it allows you to burn only about 20 extra calories for the day. While there's a little bit more of a metabolic boost after strength training, he says, it's still marginal.
"It doesn't really count towards your caloric burn," he says.
Fitness Myth No. 4: Swimming is a great weight loss activity.
While swimming is great for increasing lung capacity, toning muscles, and even helping to burn off excess tension, Harr says the surprising truth is that unless you are swimming for hours a day, it may not help you lose much weight.
"Because the buoyancy of the water is supporting your body, you're not working as hard as it would if, say, you were moving on your own steam -- like you do when you run," says Harr.
Further, he says, it's not uncommon to feel ravenous when you come out of the water.
"It may actually cause you to eat more than you normally would, so it can make it harder to stay with an eating plan," he says.
Fitness Myth No. 5: Yoga can help with all sorts of back pain.
The truth is that yoga can help with back pain, but it's not equally good for all types.
"If your back pain is muscle-related, then yes, the yoga stretches and some of the positions can help. It can also help build a stronger core, which for many people is the answer to lower back pain," says Schlifstein.
But if your back problems are related other problems (such as a ruptured disc) yoga is not likely to help, he says. What's more, it could actually irritate the injury and cause you more pain.
If you do have back pain, get your doctor's OK before starting any type of exercise program.
Fitness Myth No. 6: If you're not working up a sweat, you're not working hard enough.
It's possible to burn a significant number of calories without breaking a sweat: Try taking a walk or doing some light weight training.
Fitness Myth No. 7: As long as you feel OK when you're working out, you're probably not overdoing it.
One of the biggest mistakes people tend to make when starting or returning to an exercise program is doing too much too soon. The reason we do that, says Schlifstein, is because we feel OK while we are working out.
"You don't really feel the overdoing it part until a day or two later," he says.
No matter how good you feel when you return to an activity after an absence, Schlifstein says you should never try to duplicate how much or how hard you worked in the past. Even if you don't feel it at the moment, you'll feel it in time, he says -- and it could take you back out of the game again.
Fitness Myth No. 8: Machines are a safer way to exercise because you're doing it right every time.
Although it may seem as if an exercise machine automatically puts your body in the right position and helps you do all the movements correctly, that's only true if the machine is properly adjusted for your weight and height, experts say.
"Unless you have a coach or a trainer or someone figure out what is the right setting for you, you can make just as many mistakes in form and function, and have just as high a risk of injury, on a machine as if you work out with free weights or do any other type of nonmachine workout," says Schlifstein.
Fitness Myth No. 9: When it comes to working out, you've got to feel some pain if you're going to gain any benefits.
Of all the fitness rumors ever to have surfaced, experts agree that the "no pain-no gain" holds the most potential for harm.
While you should expect to have some degree of soreness a day or two after working out, Schlifstein says, that's very different from feeling pain while you are working out.
"A fitness activity should not hurt while you are doing it, and if it does, then either you are doing it wrong, or you already have an injury," he says.
As for "working through the pain," experts don't advise it. They say that if it hurts, stop, rest, and see if the pain goes away. If it doesn't go away, or if it begins again or increases after you start to work out, Schlifstein says, see a doctor.