Crunches give you six-pack abs-and other exercise myths

Want to get in shape? Don’t let outdated advice hold you back. Too many teens (and adults) still believe hand-me-down advice that’s been repeated over and over but never proved by science. Here, two fitness pros help you separate exercise fact from fiction.

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1. Crunches give you six-pack abs.

Fact: Everyone has six-pack abs-sort of. Your abdominal muscles are laid out just like a bodybuilder’s, in nice symmetrical rows up and down your belly. Most people, though, have a layer of fat over the abdominal muscles that make the six-pack difficult to see, and crunches won’t remove that fat.

“Spot reduction doesn’t work,” says Fabio Comana, a California-based exercise physiologist and personal trainer. “If you need to lose belly weight, you have to involve the whole body.”

You also have to exercise against resistance to get definition. “You’ve got to get the muscle to grow a bit to create separation between the muscle and the tendons around it,” Comana says. So if you really want a six-pack, consider holding a medicine ball to your chest during your crunches. Increase the weight over a period of weeks to sculpt your abs.

2. No pain, no gain.

Fact: There’s a bit of truth to this one. To improve, athletes have to push themselves slightly beyond what’s comfortable, says Brooke White, a physical education teacher and cross-country, track, and swimming coach in Milwaukee.

“Once you feel comfortable running one mile, try running a mile and a half,” White says. “Or if you can run for five minutes, try six minutes.” Your muscles will feel sore, and you’ll probably breathe harder than normal, but that’s because your heart, lungs, and muscles are adapting to the increased activity.

Exercise should never be painful, though. If you feel sharp pain during a workout, stop. You could be injured. Chronic pain-or any kind of soreness that doesn’t go away after a few days-should be checked out by a doctor.

3. Lifting weights is only for weight lifters and bodybuilders.

bodybuildersFact: Strength training is for everyone! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that teens get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day and that at least three of those days include activities that strengthen muscles and bones.

Why? Properly exercising your muscles and bones can decrease your risk of injury during sports. Girls, especially, are vulnerable to knee injuries such as anterior cruciate ligament tears (experts aren’t completely sure yet why girls are more susceptible), but strengthening the muscles around the knees and ankles increases your chances of staying in the game, Comana says. Strength training now can also prevent the loss of bone and muscle tissue when you get older.

You don’t need weights or even weight machines to get the benefits of strength training. You can use exercise bands, kettlebells, or even your own body for resistance. Just check with your doctor before beginning any strength-training program.

4. You should stretch before you exercise.

Fact: Stretching before exercise can decrease your strength and power output. “Stretching actually turns off your nervous system,” Comana says. “If you think of your nervous system like a computer, your nervous system is the software; your muscles are the hardware. During exercise, I want both the software and the hardware turned on.”

Pre-exercise stretching doesn’t decrease the risk of injury either. You’re better off slowly getting active, gradually warming up the muscles you’re about to use. Save the stretching for after your workout; it will help reduce muscle soreness.

5. Runners (and some other athletes) can get high from exercise.

Fact: The good feeling that you sometimes get after a run (or another hard workout) is probably a combination of feel-good brain chemicals and pride.

Exercise releases endorphins and endocannabinoids into the bloodstream. Those body chemicals have effects that are similar to those of artificial sources: Endorphins produce effects like those of opiates, and endocannabinoids create effects similar to those of cannabis, or marijuana. While the body’s naturally produced substances induce good sensations, neither will cause a drug-like high–or the bad decisions and body damage related to drugs. And there’s no high that compares to the feeling of success after your team scores a big win or you finish a race in your best time!

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