3 common misconceptions surrounding physical activity and exercise
Woman in a gym with a barbell

This article is part of a series in collaboration with ParticipACTION. Discover how "Everything gets better when you get active!"


You need to walk 10,000 steps a day to be healthy, exercise is key to weight loss, and if you’re not pushing yourself to exhaustion during a workout, then you aren’t really getting the benefits of exercise – these are just three of the most popular misconceptions around physical activity and exercise that may be holding you back.

It’s not always easy to separate the helpful health advice from the hype. So, here’s the scoop on what’s true and what’s not when it comes to three popular health and fitness ideas.

Misconception #1: You need to take 10,000 steps every day to be healthy 

You might be surprised to learn that the 10,000 steps a day advice didn’t come from public health experts. It reportedly originated as a way to sell pedometers back in the early 1960s. But there is some science behind the clever marketing. Evidence suggests that people who move more throughout the day and reduce their sedentary time enjoy better overall well-being and longevity. That’s because the more steps you take each day, the more physical activity you get, which is good for you — period. But you don’t need to get precisely 10,000 steps a day to enjoy the benefits of being more active. The ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Adults recommends people get 7,500 steps a day to enjoy the associated health benefits of physical activity overall.

Counting steps can be motivating, but it’s not necessary. Instead of tracking your steps, you can track your daily active time. The Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines suggest that people think about physical activity as a spectrum of active behaviours that take place over a 24-hour period. As such, it recommends that adults:

1.     Get at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each week (think activities that raise your heart rate and make you breathe heavier, such as brisk walking, wheeling or cycling)

2.     Reduce sedentary time to under eight hours a day

3.     Perform several hours a day of light physical activity (think strolling, housework or chores)

4.     Perform two sessions of strength training each week

Misconception #2: Losing weight is 50% nutrition, 50% exercise

That 50-50 claim is exaggerated. Exercise can be a motivator and a means of helping you maintain healthier habits and weight loss, but it won’t account for a drop in weight, as it only provides modest benefits if your main goal is to lose weight. The reality is that losing weight is more about nutrition than exercise, and it’s just as important to note that weight status isn’t the only marker of good health either.

But there is a silver lining to busting the exercise-to-lose-weight myth: exercise, which is a structured form of physical activity, is associated with many wonderful rewards, such as improving blood pressure, preventing cancer and cardiovascular disease, and boosting mood, attention levels and immunity. Don’t think of exercise as the way to lose weight — think about it as one means of becoming more active and therefore happier and healthier overall.

Misconception #3: Exercise needs to be intense to count

“No pain, no gain” is a popular idea when it comes to working out, but the truth is you don’t need to exhaust yourself to enjoy the benefits of exercise. You can, however, get different benefits from different intensity levels. Knowing this can help you get what you want from exercise.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is an approach to exercise that focuses on working your body at greater intensity for a shorter duration. A popular HIIT workout can follow a format known as Tabata, which consists of eight one-minute rounds broken down into 20 seconds of all-out effort followed by 10 seconds of rest.  

With HIIT, you can get many of the rewards that come with exercise in a shorter amount of time. You can also enjoy some additional perks. There is some evidence to suggest HIIT training benefits the brain by increasing blood flow to this vital organ. Other research suggests it provides a greater sense of satisfaction and self-confidence, too. However, HIIT can be harder on the body and require more recovery time than traditional approaches.

By contrast, low-intensity steady state (LISS) training is a more conventional approach to exercise. It’s done at a moderate or moderate-to-vigorous pace (think a brisk walk or jog) for a longer amount of time (think 20-40 minutes). Steady state training increases aerobic efficiency, strengthening the heart and lungs, and can help the body burn fat more easily. It’s also linked to improved mood and a reduced risk of many diseases.

HIIT and LISS may be different, but that doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate features of both in your activity or that one is better than the other. It’s a good idea to challenge your intensity levels when you’re exercising if possible, and it’s helpful to understand what one type of activity offers. But it’s a better idea to acknowledge that all movement matters. The exercise that really counts is the one you do consistently and joyfully.


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