Every day, it seems that I run into one article or another coaxing women into exercise.
Titles like these make it seem like we’d be morons if we DIDN’T jump on a spin bike or start pumping iron:
“8 Reasons Why You Should Lift Heavy Weights” – Shape Magazine
“Lift Heavier Weights to Lose the Weight” – Fitsugar
“Get Long, Lean muscles and Achieve a Sculpted Physique” – Physique 57
“Losing Weight on the Cycling Bike” – Women’s Health Magazine
“Exercise for Healthy Skin” – WebMD
“Exercise Helps Fight Anxiety, Depression” – USA Today
Too bad they’re all telling white lies.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have absolutely nothing against exercising to obtain or maintain the body of your dreams. However, I truly believe that there is one basic truth that needs to be accepted before undertaking any diet or exercise plan: exercising may not change your body in the way you think it will.
I recently wrote a post about learning to accept my body where I touched on this issue a bit. The point of that post was that, at the end of the day, your body is your body. We all have our problem areas — those that always seem to be our Achilles heel, and other areas that we can flaunt a bit more because they require less work to maintain.
I get upset when I see an almost endless amount of tweets on my Twitter feed with links to articles like the ones I mentioned above. Because, in my opinion, getting a body like the ones they advertise in exercise videos, magazines, and websites takes an extreme amount of dedication, hard work, and good genes. Does that mean you give up? Absolutely not — just understand that you could be putting in hours of work and not seeing the results promised to you by even the most trusted source.
I have come up with a list of what I like to call the White Lies of Diet and Exercise. Now, this is a list that I’ve compiled from personal experience, so they might not be true for you. That’s fine. My hope is that others will read this and realize that they aren’t alone!
1) Exercise curbs your appetite
I find this is true, but only up to a point. When I do intense cardiovascular exercise, my stomach growls almost immediately after finishing it. Therefore, what I usually do is combine my cardio with strength training. If I do that, my hunger will subside, but again, only to a point. I might be satisfied with my double protein-powder shake that I have after leaving the gym, and I might not even feel hungry again until hours later. However, when that time comes, I feel like I could eat like a Sumo Wrestler. It hits me out of nowhere! I have always been this way. I honestly have no idea how people say that exercising makes them not want to eat. I could never get it quite right — hardcore exercise combined with dieting. I think that there’s a reason for this — it’s hard to build muscle and lose weight simultaneously. You need food to build muscle, and you need food to give you the energy to work out. There were days when I tried working out for 2 hours and not eating, and I felt like I was going to pass out. That’s not healthy. What I try to do now is eat a little less on the days I’m not working out, and eat a decent amount on the days that I do.
2) Spinning will give you a lean figure
I read an article in Prevention magazine that mentioned women complaining that their legs were getting larger from spinning. They assured us that “If your jeans are initially tighter after a few weeks of cycling, don’t freak out,” she says. “Your quads might bulk up a bit at first, but the overall amount of cardio will balance it out.” I have found that this is simply not true. Now, I hold almost all of my excess body weight in the upper part of my body. I’ve never had bulky legs before. Then, I started spinning. Suddenly, my legs had a shape! I didn’t dislike it, but I could definitely feel a difference. And yes, the intense cardiovascular workout of a spin class will help you lose weight, but I’m not sure if the phrase “balancing it out” is appropriate. If you lose body fat but your leg muscles still grow, your legs will still feel big and you won’t fit into your skinny jeans. And not for nothing, but have you ever looked at a female cyclist’s legs? Absolutely no flab, but definitely not chicken legs — they have some serious muscle mass.
I also remember reading cycling forums where people stated, rather boldly, that the myth of bulking up from cycling was absurd – why else would professional riders like Lance Armstrong have such slim, yet muscled figures? Well, besides the obvious factor of genetics, and the fact that men and women build muscle differently (women can often perform more squats than men, while men generally leave us in the dirt with their upper body performance – this leads me to think that women are more likely to bulk up in the lower part of their body, and men in the upper), there is also the fact that people are drawn to different types of physical activity based on those same genetics. You wouldn’t have a linebacker suddenly become a cyclist, and you wouldn’t expect Lance Armstrong to be able to bench press 325+ lbs. I truly believe that athletes like Michael Phelps, Lance Armstrong, or even Tim Tebow must be genetically predisposed to perform those types of sports.
3) Lifting heavy weights will not bulk you up
If I see one more Pinterest picture of a girl with the body of Bar Refaeli pumping iron, I am going to scream. I know that everyone claims that women don’t have the testosterone to “bulk up” in the gym the way that men do, but I’m here to tell you that we can, in fact, bulk up. Now, I certainly don’t lift as much as the guys I see in the gym. The heaviest weights I use is are a 60lb long dumbbell bar to do deadlifts, a 50 lb bar for benchpressing, and 25 lb dumbells for seated overhead presses. Really not that big a deal. But, I compared recent pictures of myself to ones taken just five years ago, and wow – what a difference. My shoulders, arms, and back are significantly larger. I mean, I’m also a little bit heavier now, but I find that lifting changed my overall silhouette. I tried on a button-down shirt and the sleeves wouldn’t fit over my arms. I tried on a dress that I wore to a wedding a few years ago, and the back wouldn’t zip. Now, I’ll bet if I exercised and also restricted my diet to the point where I was only consuming what I needed to live, I wouldn’t be as bulky. My mom, the health guru who is my inspiration for healthy living, even mentioned, gently, that I should think about laying off the heavy weights. When I was sick over the summer and I didn’t lift for a few weeks, she told me I looked better, more feminine and delicate. But the thing is, I like muscle. I feel strong and powerful when I’m at work. I like the fact that when I carry groceries, you can see my arm muscles (sort of).
4) Barre exercises result in long, lean muscle
God, I am so sick of hearing Tanya Becker’s voice – that brassy, slightly masculine tone – screaming things at me while I’m doing squats and feeling like I’m going to pass out:
“These are your calorie-burning muscles – one of the largest muscle groups in your body! You want your legs to take up less room in your skinny jeans! You want a long, lean line – sexy like a dancer!”
Now, don’t get me wrong. Tanya Becker knows how to work.my.shit. As a trained dancer and choreographer, she knows her way around the pole, I mean, barre. Anyone who thinks that dancers aren’t athletes need to spend an hour doing these types of exercises, which are a combination of barre, pilates, and strength training. You work muscles that you never even knew you had, like the ones above your knees. And if you’ve never done leg lifts, thigh dancing, or squats, consider yourself lucky.
Still, I’ve been doing the Physique 57 DVDs for a few years now, and I have to tell you, the only dance troupe I look like I could join is the Harlem Globetrotters. I actually had to stop doing these DVDs on a regular basis because my legs were turning into tree trunks. They were definitely toned, but they did not take up less space in my jeans. This isn’t to knock the Physique 57 method, because I think that it’s an amazing workout, but it’s all about finding the right balance for your body. For me, alternating spin and barre was blowing up the seams in my jeans. However, I have friends who have a slighter build than I do, and they look absolutely fantastic from this workout. Genetics, lifestyle, all these things matter when you’re building an exercise routine.
5) Exercising cures Acne
As a lifelong acne sufferer, I have to tell you that when I exercise, my skin glows. It looks healthier, and I have a natural flush that can’t be replicated with makeup. However, exercising also causes your skin to purge, and if you are acne-prone, as I am, this may actually cause you to breakout more. When I don’t exercise, all the junk in my pores stays far below the surface. As soon as I hit the gym again, my skin immediately flares up. Now, there are some lucky people who have skin that goes through an initial purging phase and then clears up beautifully. My skin happens to be so thick that it never really completely clears out, so I tend to always have minor blemishes. Not enough to stop me from exercising, but a little bit of a buzzkill, considering all the hard work! Dab on a little oil-free concealer and call it a day (and yes, male readers, I’m talking to you, too!)
6) Exercising cures depression and anxiety
Oh, this is a heavy topic. It seems whenever you mention that you have anxiety and/or depression, the first thing the doc prescribes is exercise, especially people like Dr. Amen (aka Skinny A – how much more weight is that guy planning to lose?) First, let me say that I’m not a doctor, so what I offer is merely based on my personal experience. I think that exercising absolutely helps with anxiety and depression. When I was sick over the summer, I was so edgy and preoccupied because I couldn’t work out. I missed the adrenaline rush and the feeling of building strength. There’s just something about a hard workout — in which you’re so focused on being in the moment and getting through the next song, repetition, set, whatever — that makes you step outside yourself. It’s like being engrossed in an amazing movie or song, but with the added benefit of cardiovascular exercise.
You don’t need me to list all the great things exercise does for us. However, I will tell you that what is even more important than exercising in general is finding the right type of exercise for you. I find that when I exercise every day, my anxiety actually increases. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true. I am, by nature, a more sedentary person. Being extremely active is going against every atom in my body, and so when I exercise, I’m really very much out of my comfort zone. If I do that every single day, I become so over-stimulated that I start to get anxious. Being revved up after exercise is very similar to the feeling of anxiety, believe it or not. Sometimes you can wind yourself up and then have trouble calming back down. I also reach the point of burn-out very quickly because it isn’t something that I can maintain. If I exercise maybe 4 times a week, I also find that I look forward to my next workout, and therefore I put more energy into it. Sure, mind over matter well, matters. But you also have to take care of yourself. If you feel like you’re pushing too hard, you’re defeating what should be a pleasurable experience.
There’s also the awful feeling of gym anxiety that can overwhelm us introverts. Going into a busy gym, especially if you are new to fitness, is extremely daunting. You don’t know where everything is, you don’t know anyone, you don’t want to get in anyone’s way — it’s scary! Plus, I find that now that I know a few people at my gym, trainers especially, I can sometimes get bogged down by performance anxiety, even in a group exercise class. When this happens, I have to really take a few minutes to tell myself that this isn’t a show, it’s a group effort to be healthy.
So there you have it.
I think the larger theme here is that you have to know yourself, know your body — we are all unique, and a single diet or exercise plan is not going to fit us all. Do what you can, enjoy it, and keep doing it.