Inventing the Couch Potato: An Exercise Myth That Needs to Go Away

Posted on 11 May 2011 16:32

I've talked about the athlete fallacy many times. This fallacy is a notion advanced by some fitness trainers and strength coaches, who say that everyone should train like an athlete. This fallacy is related to exercise guilt and the feeling that if you are not "going all the way" you are doing something wrong, wasting your time, may as well not bother, etc. and so on.

Also related to this idea, intrinsic to it really, is the idea that you must regularly go to the gym and engage in an exercise program or training plan in order to derive any health benefits from exercise. So, in other words, it takes a few weeks to a month to see any true benefit because that benefit is always from the cumulative results of regular exercise.

This is at least partly true. Of course, exercise benefit is cumulative and more benefit, over time, will be seen from regular exercise that is based on some kind of progressive overload (to some extent).

Travis Saunders, who blogs regularly for the PLOS blog Obesity Panacea recently posted an article called 7 Myths About Physical Activity. Now, these were not your typical recycled-from-the-webernet-misinformation-mill myths but some surprising ones..some of which should be seen as quite liberating:

One of the most amazing things about exercise is that the benefits of a single workout are seen within hours of the workout itself, and last up to 3 days after the workout is completed! For example, a single session of aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce important risk factors for diabetes and heart disease such as triglyceride levels, blood pressure, and insulin resistance, while also increasing HDL-cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol). Of course the benefits of exercise increase over time, but even a single workout can produce measurable improvements in important risk factors.

— Saunders1

Saunders suggests reading this review by Paul Thompson, et al. What this review discusses is acute versus chronic response to exercise. Different responses, such as lower blood pressure and triglycerides/cholesterol may require different exposure times to different intensities of exercise and not everything is known about how much exercise is needed to produce these beneficial effects. It should also be clear, which is pointed out in the paper, that regular exercise over time results in greater exercise capacity and thus a greater acute effect. In other words, the more you work out, the harder and longer you will be able to work out and thus the more benefit you will get from it.

Although this may seem obvious, most people do not think of exercise as something beneficial that gets more beneficial over time. They think of it as requiring a long-term commitment before any benefit can be expected to be derived. This is simply not the case. For example, obese people are often told that they must focus on diet and lose weight before they even bother to exercise. They are essentially told they are "too unhealthy" to exercise. It should be clear that exercise will have immediate benefits for everyone, especially the obese, and that these benefits will simply become greater over time.

There are so many conflicting messages in exercise land. "Doing something is better than doing nothing," is perhaps the message that needs to be heard more often. Doing something regularly would be better. Doing something regularly and with a (loose) plan would be best.

Many of the messages concerning regular activity and exercise concern fat loss. To lose weight "move more and eat less," we are told. It is rarely mentioned that "moving more" does not need to result in weight loss to positively impact our health. When it is mentioned this benefit is of the far-off kind. The message is that unless you sit down and analyze everything, consult a professional, make a complicated plan with a long-term goal, you will not be accomplishing anything. The mere process becomes so daunting and life-changing that many are discouraged and fearful. When they do begin, this discouragement and fear cause them to do too much too soon, resulting in fast burn out. The perpetual couch potato is, in large part, created by fear of failure which is due to being healthy seeming as hard to do as quantum physics!

The fitness and nutrition industries feed this failure. In large part, this is due to the industry being bent on creating customers rather than performing a service. That is, the fitness and nutrition industry is not as "service oriented" as it could be. As Jamie Hale recently said:

The overwhelming majority of people working in the fitness industry are not concerned with your health. They have other interests- making money and helping you look better.

— Hale2

I'd like to be as blunt as possible: Very few people need a long-term relationship with a trainer or any kind of fitness pro. Some, perhaps, need a temporary one, some need a consultation or two, and most have no real need at all. The fitness industry must create a demand for its own services. Many fitness pros talk about "getting their message to more people" through marketing. This is a new-age self-deluding way of saying "creating demand for my services."

Too often do people suffer heart attacks or stroke and then start going out for walks or other moderate activity. It seems that nobody needs to be told that "something is better than nothing" after they have already seen the results of their ill health. Yet, making a difference can happen from something as simple as deciding to walk down to the store instead of drive to it, or to take the stairs instead of the elevator.

The same things are true of resistance exercise and strength training. You do not need to be daunted and overwhelmed by the complexity of strength training to get some immediate and tangible benefits from it. You do not need a complicated long-term plan to get started. As a matter of fact, picking a handful of exercises, let's say bodyweight exercises, and simply playing around with them, getting a feel and deriving a baseline, can and will be of immediate benefit. Yet, many a trainee, if they were to tell a strength coach they were going to do this, would be admonished for it and told they didn't know what they were doing. You must pick a program and stick to it! I've complained about this before:

"Get off your butt and pick a program" is probably the worst thing I could say to someone who is daunted and intimidated by the overwhelming task of changing their sedentary lifestyle. Now a lot of the trainers and coaches out there may disagree with me. "Overwhelming?", they will say. "You just have to do it. You just have to stop being lazy and do it." These attitudes themselves are a big pet peeve of mine because most terse statements like these require all sorts of qualification to be useful.

— Troy 3

Don't let the loud mouth blow-hards scare you out of exercising and back onto the couch. For everybody that enters a marathon for the sole purpose of breaking out of their sedentary habits, there are many more who would find this approach to be disastrous. So what is the message here? It is okay to "just" exercise. At least at first. Pick something you are interested in and like to do and start doing it. Just a little at first. Add to it if you like. As you begin to feel better you will most likely find making a more comprehensive plan of attack easier. You will also have more information to go on. Exercise has health benefits…period.

However, if you want to be able to stick to it, there must be some reward. I do not mean an intangible and hard to imagine award to be patiently cultivated for years to come. I mean some immediate reward. This is the reason that such a strategy can backfire. So, knowing that exercise of any kind can have immediate benefits does not mean we can make exercise a habit and make a lasting change in our life. Acute benefits are, of course, temporary!

As I have always recommended in the past, instead of making your goal something vague like get moving, start exercising, get in shape, etc. try to think of something you would like to be better at. Set a performance-related goal. It can be any number of things. Now, don't set unrealistic goals! Such as "win a marathon, or even "run a marathon!" Set easily achieved and personal goals like being able to run a mile, perform 5 pull-ups in a row, or do a set of 10 pushups. Maybe you'd like to be a better swimmer? Hey, perhaps you'd just like to see if you can improve your back pain (yes, quite random movement can often improve back pain a lot). You catch my drift. Even though you may start by the seat of your pants once you start to see some results your motivation to both organize your exercise and keep doing it will grow.

The message here is that you do not have to sign over your first-born to the training Gods to see benefit from exercise. It is okay to "just do something". The trick is coming at it with an attitude that works.

1. Saunders, Travis. "7 Myths About Physical Activity" Obesity Panacea: PLoS Blogs Network. Web. 11 May 2011. <>.
2. Hale, Jamie. "What the Fitness Industry Doesn't Want You to Know?" Max Condition Training and Fitness: News. Web. 11 May 2011. <>.
3. Troy, Eric. "So Many Good Programs…" Ground Up Strength. Web. 11 May 2011. <>.

This page created 11 May 2011 16:32
Last updated 20 Mar 2018 20:53

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