Have you ever been hit by a wave of motivation to kickstart a healthy lifestyle? A pang of sudden guilt that urged you to throw away all the oily, high-carb food in your refrigerator and give into a hefty gym membership that you now regret because you rarely ever make it twice a week? Trust me. You’re not alone.
It’s crazy how the thought of fitness consumes many both physically and mentally.
For starters, there’s just so much information out there these days that you don’t know where to begin! I remember when I was in Grade 8, I felt the sudden need to tone down because I was overweight and didn’t feel at my prime. The only exposure to physical activity I had was my martial arts training. I had never entered a gym before and I still remember staring at the equipment the first time I did.
It is not uncommon to feel lost when starting a journey in fitness. We are overwhelmed by so many questions and spend hours surfing the net for clarity. How many times a week should I work out? What should my workout include? Upper body or lower body? Yoga or Pilates? Cardio or cross-training? Will weight training bulk me up? And the most common one – How do I lose belly fat and reduce my waistline ASAP!
Add to this kerfuffle the many myths surrounding women and fitness and you are most certainly going to make hasty choices that will nudge you into an unsustainable and futile schedule.
After years of trial and error and experimenting with various workout regimes, I have come to realize that there is no “one size fits all” fitness mantra. I, therefore, intend not to promote any specific workout routine but to explain the importance of a holistic approach to health and fitness. If you are a beginner who has never worked out before, this article may give you a firm basis to formulate a balanced routine. If you are a fitness enthusiast who has been confined to the walls of your home due to the pandemic and are looking to restart your workouts but have lost your way, this is for you. And if you are someone who is perpetually busy or doesn’t see the point in working out, this article will reveal the science about just how crucial it is to sustain a healthy body.
Debunk the following myths with me and trust me, you will start your next workout or walk into the gym with a smile on your face!
This is probably the most ubiquitous claim made when it comes to women and fitness. It is owing to this myth that many refrain from touching dumbbells or barbells and always stick to the treadmill or elliptical.
Let’s get this straight. Weight training DOES NOT BULK WOMEN UP! We just don’t have the same genetic make-up as men. Muscle growth requires testosterone levels that are not naturally produced in most women. Young women have around 10% of the testosterone of men. So don’t worry. Your biceps won’t turn into Captain America’s overnight if you did a couple of curls the previous day!
If you are looking to shed fat or tone up, neglecting weight training is in fact taking you further away from that goal. Including dumbbell or barbell exercises like bicep curls, shoulder presses, and bent-over rows can help generate lean muscle mass which will, in turn, ramp up your metabolism.
A kilogram of fat and kilogram of muscle differ in appearances and composition with the former being bulkier than the latter. Here is a comparison.
Not only does lean muscle make you appear leaner but it also burns more calories for sustenance than fatty tissue. Given this, including weight training is quintessential to ramping up your metabolic rate also known as BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate).
This brings us to our second myth.
You must have had your Body Mass Index (BMI) calculated many times as part of a physical education assessment in school or as part of a medical examination. BMI simply compares your height with your weight and categorizes you as either underweight, normal weight, overweight, moderately obese, severely obese, and so on. Here is a BMI chart for women.
While BMI does give you a fair idea of what your current level of fitness is, it isn’t fool-proof.
For instance, my BMI always teetered on the higher edge of the normal category while sometimes it went well into the overweight category. This is OKAY. BMI does not factor elements like bone density and the difference between muscle and fat weight. A female athlete and a working woman may both be 5’8 and weigh 150 pounds. While their BMI may be the same, their muscle mass and body fat percentage may drastically differ.
Knowing the difference between body fat and muscle mass as well as the limitations of BMI will help you better interpret your goals the next time you stand on a weighing scale. So even if you are in the lower end of the “normal” category it is advisable to get your body fat percentage checked. And if you are, like me, on the heavier side, don’t get too discouraged! It might just be your body frame and bone structure. Focus on replacing all your fatty kilos with lean muscle and you’re good to go!
Moving on to our third myth.
I’m pretty sure you must have been intimidated by a few guys deadlifting and bench pressing a hundred pounds in your gym. I know I was! Does that mean you can’t or shouldn’t do it? Absolutely not.
Deadlifts, squats, and bench presses are what are termed “compound exercises” in body-building parlance. It means that these exercises work multiple muscle groups engaging most of your body in the movement.
By experience, I believe every woman must include a deadlift, a squat, and a bench press in their weekly workout plan! I felt a substantial improvement in my posture and strength after starting these workouts. Here’s why you must try them out-
It is a compound exercise as it works your back muscles, glutes (that is your hip), as well as your core. If you get it right you will work both your upper and lower body like no other exercise.
Your posture depends on your back muscles. Deadlifts will help rectify any hunch or slouch that you might be witnessing while you walk or sit for long hours in front of your computer. Moreover – and this is a spillover effect of deadlifting that I find most beneficial and practical – you will know just the right technique to lift heavy grocery bags or suitcases in the future and will reduce the possibilities of ligament or muscle injuries in your back.
A word of caution- Deadlifts are probably one of the riskiest workouts if done incorrectly. So please ensure you have an experienced individual or trainer to guide you the first time. I personally started with lighter weights using dumbbells and then worked my way up to using barbells. It’s a slow progression but totally worth it! Here’s a link to an instructional video.
For those who find leg days boring, I would say just go for one exercise – the Squat! It is another compound movement that engages your core, quadriceps (your thigh muscles), and glutes. Squats will help strengthen your tendons, bones, and ligaments while also building lean muscle in your thighs and glutes. For women who are especially concerned about shedding fat in the lower body, this workout might just do the trick! I found significant improvement in strength while running after including squats in my workouts. For women, squatting will strengthen their pelvic muscles and may reduce injuries and pain during pregnancy. Squats will also improve flexibility, mobility, and digestion due to the engagement of abdominal muscles! Lastly, it is also one of the most favored workouts for achieving flawless buttocks (that we all secretly crave!) Again, there are many common mistakes made while squatting. Make sure to do it the right way!
This is an exercise that is often underrated among women. I have felt stronger and more empowered ever since I started bench pressing. If you are someone who is seeking upper body strength, you must consider the bench press. Another compound movement, the bench press strengthens and conditions your chest, shoulders, and triceps. It is a good starting point for getting your first push-up!
Many believe that the breast size decreases if you bench press. That’s a myth. Your breasts are made of fatty tissue with a layer of pectoral muscles underneath them. If anything, a bench press will stimulate your chest muscles and provide shape and support to your breasts. It’s a low-fat, low-calorie diet that might reduce the fatty tissue in your breast.
All in all, compound movements stimulate major muscle groups that in turn increase your caloric burn, aiding fat loss and lean muscle production in the process. Be sure to include them in your workout!
If this was a fact then I would have spiraled into a destructive and sedentary lifestyle as a couch potato during the months of lockdown.
You don’t need a smith machine, barbells, or even dumbbells to train! Your body is more than enough. Granted that if you are a gym shark you might find it exceptionally hard to switch to an all-home workout regime, but trust me if you are a true fitness fanatic you will find innovative ways to work out at home just like I did.
Calisthenics and body-weight resistance training have been my go-to options for a quick full-body workout at home. Calisthenics ages back to the Ancient Greek days of fitness and endurance and is also popular in military training to ensure overall strength, mobility, flexibility, and coordination. If you are looking to enhance your kinaesthetic intelligence (body-mind coordination), these exercises may even prove to be more effective than weight training in the gym.
After extensive research and planning, I have come up with a few body-weight exercise plans that seem to work for me. You can give it a shot if you want!
This is my at-home Calisthenics workout. You can look up the names and instructional videos of exercises unfamiliar to you!
If you are an outdoorsy marathon runner then you might be defensive here. But the fact is, there are other forms of exercises that are just as effective or even better than running for cardio. Cardio is any form of exercise that gets your heart pumping at a higher than normal rate.
Choose a sport you love and play it at a high intensity for an hour and you’ve got your cardio for the day! If you’re not a sports person like me then you just need a pair of shoes to step out for a jog or a walk. You don’t have to go Usain Bolt the first time. Take it easy. Increase your time and distance gradually. Indoor or outdoor, set realistic goals. I remember the first time I started running on the treadmill. I found it very monotonous. I then explored other fun options. For instance, I love spinning! It’s just fun trying to exercise to the beat of the music.
If you have a busy lifestyle and don’t have time to dedicate hours for a cardio session you could try High Interval Intensity Training (HIIT). HIIT workouts involve short intervals of intense exercises followed by periods of moderate workouts. Research suggests that, for women, HIIT workouts have proven to be significantly more effective for fat loss than steady-state cardio like long-distance running. HIIT stimulates your heart rate and metabolism such that, even after a 20-min workout your body gets channeled to burning calories throughout the day.
Here is a full-body 20-min HIIT workout that I squeeze into my busy work and university schedule. Again, all you need is your body!
Have you ever seen people doing endless sit-ups, crunches, and planks with the futile hope to get rid of their paunch?
Spot reduction is a common misconception. Repeatedly overdoing any particular exercise will not reduce fat in the intended area. If you want a flat stomach, your ab workouts alone won’t do the trick.
You need equal amounts of cardio and weight training. Cardio sessions along with weight training will help you burn calories which will, in turn, reduce fat if complemented with an equally clean and balanced diet.
Debunking these myths is just the first step towards adopting a healthy and reasonable approach to fitness. I wish I were aware of and evaded these fitness fallacies when I began working out. If you are a beginner, it is never too late to start! It’s definitely worth it. Fitness, should you embrace it, is a healthy addiction. Don’t give in to fallacies! Don’t hesitate to lift weights. Don’t fuss over belly fat or blindly follow illogical fitness hacks. Experiment with different routines and workouts. See what is most sustainable for you and your lifestyle. In the end, it’s all about balance and the discipline and willpower to embrace and weave that balance into your life. If I could do it, trust me, you can too!