4 Common Exercise Myths, Debunked

By Elizabeth Millard |

Whether you heard them from friends, online, or at the gym, fitness myths can put a damper on your workout routine. Here’s what’s real, and what’s not.

Common exercise myths, debunked

Raise your hand if you grew up hearing (and believing) that you needed to wait an hour after eating before swimming to avoid cramps.

There’s no truth to this familiar “wisdom.” And it turns out there are several other widespread exercise myths. Many are likely a product of wishful thinking. Other times, it’s just a “fact” that’s been repeated so often it sounds true — even though it’s not.

Below, we asked fitness experts and exercise researchers to help separate fact from fiction when it comes to some of the most common exercise myths. Here’s what you need to know — and what you should forget.

As always, safety is key. Get your doctor’s OK before beginning a new exercise program. If you have a chronic condition (including osteoporosis), balance issues, or injuries, talk to your doctor about how you can exercise safely.

Get and stay active with SilverSneakers! Classes and events are happening right now at participating gyms, online through SilverSneakers LIVE, and at community centers near you. Activate your free online account to get started.

Myth No. 1: You Need to Take 10,000 Steps a Day

This sounds like such a solid, reliable number, but it’s actually not based on exercise science. Believe it or not, the number 10,000 came out of a 1965 marketing campaign to sell pedometers in Japan.

When fitness trackers were introduced, the number found new popularity. It’s not necessarily a bad goal, says Jole Gravesande, O.T., an occupational therapist and Pilates instructor. But what’s more important is the quality of those steps, she says.

“If you’re just dragging yourself around to say you did that many steps, and feeling tired as a result, is that really doing anything?” she says. “If you did 5,000 instead in a more deliberate, focused way, it’s likely that would do much more for your health. Like any kind of fitness, quality matters over quantity.”

Plus, research backs up the idea that a lower step count can be beneficial. A 2019 study in JAMA Internal Medicine on older women found that as few as 4,400 steps daily was associated with longer life compared to those who were more sedentary. Although more advantages were seen as step counts went up, they tended to level off at about 7,500 steps — not 10,000.

Myth No. 2: You Can Choose Where You Burn Fat

Blast belly fat! Tone your backside! Goodbye, underarm jiggles! It would be nice if you were able to target fat in such a focused way, but the fact is that there’s no such thing as spot reduction.

What is achievable, however, is to reduce the amount of fat throughout your whole body. Do that and you’ll see the improvement you’re looking for in those specific areas, explains Ryan Glatt, C.P.T. He is a certified personal trainer and brain health coach for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

The best approach of all is to focus on building muscle — a key component not just for fat loss but also for numerous other benefits, Glatt says. Strength-training workouts done two to three times a week will help you both protect your muscle mass and get stronger.

There’s so much research into the many ways strength training supports your health, he says. “Not only do you get better body composition, but there’s correlation with brain health as well,” he says.

SilverSneakers group fitness classes are great ways to get started with strength training. Two classes to try:

Myth No. 3: At a Certain Age, You Can’t Improve Balance

Totally false, says Scott Herman, C.P.T., a certified personal trainer who works with active older adults at Life Time, which runs fitness centers across the United States.

“Loss of balance can be from not doing any exercise for a long time, not just because of age,” he says. “It amazes me that people think we cannot improve balance when you can work on it in many different ways, no matter what your starting point.”

There are some age-related factors that can affect balance, he adds, such as diminished eyesight or hearing. Some medications have side effects that can also mess with coordination. But even then, it’s possible to take a slow-and-steady approach with balance exercises.

Herman suggests starting with the Single Leg Stance. To try: Stand next to a sturdy chair or the wall for support, if needed. Lift one foot off the floor and hold for 10 seconds, or as long as you can without wobbling. Switch legs and repeat. Every day, try to add one more second.

You may also want to try the SilverSneakers 7-Day Better Balance Challenge. It begins with two quick balance assessments that you can do at home and includes short follow-along video workouts and mini drills led by SilverSneakers trainer Andi Kwapien.

“When you have better balance, you lower your risk of falls and feel more confident, so it’s worth working on,” he says.

Myth No. 4: You Should Stick with Low-Intensity, Low-Impact Workouts

There’s a prevailing belief that older adults should never jump, bounce, or run because high-impact workouts like these may be detrimental to joint health.

In fact, the opposite is true, says Belinda Beck, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at Griffith University in Australia and director of The Bone Clinic, a health service focusing on bone, muscle, and joint health.

Higher impact activities like hopping, burpees and jumping jacks have been shown to help stimulate bone growth in older adults. The resulting protective effect helps to lower the risk of osteoporosis, fractures and falls. (Learn more about the benefits of high-impact exercise for older adults here.)

“We act like older adults are so fragile and they can’t handle impact or it will destroy their bones and joints, but we’ve done research showing that’s not true at all,” Beck says. “Both animal and human studies have found that bone only responds to beneficial stress that comes with force.”

Subscribe to our newsletter
It's quick and easy. You could be one of the 13 million people who are eligible.
Already a member? Click to discover our 15,000+ participating locations.

Follow Us

In one of her studies, published in the Journal of Bone Mineral Research and involving 100 older women, the results of a supervised high-intensity resistance (aka strength training) and impact training program for the workout group was so significant that participants kept doing the exercise after the study concluded. Some of the exercises performed included squats and a combination jumping move.

“In addition to better bone health, high-intensity, high-impact workouts also improve muscle mass — and that means greater mobility,” Beck says. “All of that contributes to healthy aging.”

If you haven’t done higher impact activities recently, first get the green light from your doctor. Ask them if there are any particular exercises you should modify or avoid.

Once you have the all-clear, you may not want to (pardon the pun) jump right in to high-impact activities. Instead, gradually work your way up from low-impact to medium-impact and then to high-impact movements.

Here are low-impact and medium-impact jumping jack variations you can try:

Recommended reading: Is It Ever OK for Your Knees to Extend Beyond Your Toes?

See our sources:
Study on how many steps older adults should take: JAMA Internal Medicine
Study on high-impact exercise for older adults: Journal of Bone Mineral Research

Check Your SilverSneakers Eligibility Instantly

SilverSneakers members can go to thousands of gyms and fitness locations across the nation, plus take SilverSneakers LIVE online classes that are designed for all fitness levels. If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, it may include SilverSneakers — at no additional cost. Check your eligibility instantly here.

Already a member? Get your SilverSneakers member ID and exclusive fitness content by activating your online account here.

Not eligible for SilverSneakers? You can still get 200+ free SilverSneakers On-Demand videos and stay in touch with us by creating your online account.

Find out if your health plan already includes the SilverSneakers benefit.  CHECK YOUR ELIGIBILITY