How to Spot Bullshit Fitness Articles

How to Spot Bullshit Fitness Articles
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Fitness articles and videos make big promises. They’ll help you melt fat, torch calories, or tone your long lean muscles with this one exercise. Too bad those phrases are all empty promises, so let’s break down some of the worst offenders and talk about the truths they’re hiding.

“This one exercise”

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One exercise is not going to do anything. I don’t care which exercise it is. Even something that works your whole body, like a burpee, is only as good as the exercise program it is part of.

There’s no fitness goal that can be achieved with just one exercise, or even with a small selection of them. If you want to lose weight, you’ll need to pay attention to your diet; if you want to gain muscle or get stronger, you’ll need to make sure your exercises (plural) target the appropriate muscles and you’ll need to challenge yourself more and more as you get better; if you want to build endurance or flexibility or sculpt a certain body part — well, you get the idea. You need a whole plan. Not one exercise.

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“Melts fat”

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You’re not going to “melt” or “torch” fat away. Even if you follow a plan to eat appropriately and lose fat, the process will be annoyingly slow.

And you’re definitely not going to melt fat away with a specific exercise. Exercising your legs doesn’t mean you’ll get slimmer thighs, and working your arms doesn’t mean you’ll lose the fat on your triceps. Repeat after me: crunches do not give you a thinner waist.

You can build muscle in a specific spot, but you can’t target fat loss in the same way. Sorry.

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“Torches calories”

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The visual of “torching” or “burning” or “blasting” calories brings to mind that myth about sweaty, all-out exercise being the best kind.

But you don’t need to punish your body to get a good workout in, and the calorie burn of a workout isn’t the most important part. Supposed “calorie-torching” workouts are often ones with high intensity intervals. For all the extra calories you burn during the workout, you’re also spending plenty of time resting in between sets. And then after you “torch” all those calories in exercise class, you may just feel like lying on the couch for the rest of the day. Health is the sum of all your habits, not a thing you earn in the 20 minutes you’re sweating miserably.

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Illustration: Nick Crisuolo Illustration: Nick Crisuolo

If you want to look “toned,” you want to be able to see muscle definition. That means you want to lose fat and build muscle. Those are the tools you have. Neither is specific to a “toned” look.

Often people speak of “toning” when advising women to lift small weights for many repetitions. This type of exercise doesn’t produce a “toned” look, it just builds muscle inefficiently. You could lift heavy weights for the same effect in less time.

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“Long, lean muscles”

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Your muscles are the length they are. Where would your biceps go if they got longer? They wouldn’t function anymore. They would have to drip off your arms like spaghetti.

Like “toning,” this is not an effect of exercise, but a phrase people use when they’re talking about a certain body type. The ideal of “long, lean muscles” would be a slim yogi or ballet dancer, tall, willowy, with some muscle definition and not much fat. In other words, a person who is long and lean. I regret to inform you that there is no exercise that will turn an average person into a six-foot tall ballerina.

“Best” or “worst” exercises

Illustration: Sam Woolley Illustration: Sam Woolley

Nothing in fitness or health is absolute. Any exercise can have a place in your routine, just as any food can have a place in your diet. What matters is how everything fits together, not whether you include a certain component.

To be fair, we’ve used this phrasing on occasion, but with the goal of helping you understand why an exercise is popular and how you might go about adding it to your life. If you come across a quick video or article simply declaring that you need to do (or avoid) an exercise, there’s a good chance you can ignore that advice.

Are squats the best leg building exercise? They’re certainly a good one, but there are plenty of other ways to build muscle in your legs. Some people would rather do lunges or step-ups, and more power to them.

Are squats the worst leg building exercise? You could make that argument if you wanted — maybe you, personally, have a knee issue that makes squats uncomfortable. Some other leg exercise might be a better substitute for you.

The truth is, you shouldn’t be adding exercises to your routine just because somebody online is excited about them. Make sure any exercise you do makes sense for you.

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“Best” or “worst” diets or foods

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There is no “best” diet, only a range of options that each have their pros and cons. Yes, it’s appealing to believe that the reason you’ve had trouble losing weight in the past is because you didn’t have the one essential secret that this new diet promises — but, unfortunately, there is no such secret. All the diets out there work (when they do) by helping you eat fewer calories than you burn, and there are many ways to accomplish that.

The same goes for “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods. Is a chicken salad “healthier” than a burger? Well, that depends on what else you’re eating today, and whether the total picture adds up to support your goals.

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