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14 May 2021

Four fitness mistakes to avoid - and what to do instead

We look at some of the myths, mistakes and misapprehensions that could make it harder to meet your fitness goals
Man running outside

If you're looking to kickstart a new fitness regime - or just to shake things up by trying something new - then you might be overwhelmed by the amount of information telling you what to eat, what to buy, how to exercise, and more.

Our first piece of advice: don't make perfect the enemy of good. If you're eating better, moving more and listening to your body, then you're living a healthier life on the whole.

But there are still exercise pitfalls that many fall into, as well as persistent myths that just won't go away.

Whether you're kickstarting a cardio routine or you want to start weightlifting in the gym, we've covered some of the most common mistakes people make, to help you stay on the right path.

Need some new kit to get you off to a good start? Read our advice on the best outdoor and sports equipment shops to find out which received top marks.

Mistake 1: Buying poor-quality exercise equipment

In 2020, we surveyed thousands of people* to find out which exercise equipment brands they rated highly and which ones disappointed.

We asked owners of exercise bikes, treadmills, weights and more to rate their equipment for value for money, ease of use, build quality and overall satisfaction; some were distinctly dissatisfied with what they got for their cash.

  • Nine exercise bike brands got only two stars for ease of use.
  • Three rowing machine brands were rated just two stars for the build quality of their products.
  • Two treadmill brands received a measly two stars out of five for value for money.

Exercise is exhausting enough without having to deal with poorly designed products that will hold you back from achieving your goals. A bad investment is a surefire way to kill your enthusiasm and derail your plans.

Do this instead

Man using his laptop

Choosing new gym equipment with care could mean the difference between gear you use every day and an eyesore that gathers dust in the corner.

Our guide on how to set up a home gym reveals brand-satisfaction scores for exercise bikes, treadmills, rowing machines, cross trainers, weights and weight benches.

Fortunately, we've found you don't need to spend a fortune to get great kit - our survey reveals the budget brands that keep customers just as happy as those who've invested in premium equipment.

Once you've narrowed down your choice of brands, check out individual product reviews on manufacturer and retailer sites - but take these with a pinch of salt, as our investigations have found that the internet's awash with reviews that are incentivised or outright fabricated.

Our advice on how to spot fake reviews can help you work out what's real and what's a con.

Mistake 2: Attempting 'spot reduction' of fat

Eager to lose fat from around your midriff or thighs? Don't be persuaded by the promise of so-called spot reduction.

Spot reduction is a claim that you can lose weight in a specific part of your body by only working that area. Some trainers and health businesses have preyed on this desire in the past, and the internet has amplified the myth more recently. For example, you might come across advice that you only exercise your abdominal muscles to reduce fat around your midsection.

Sadly, this is a long-standing fitness myth that misconstrues how the human body works.

It's easy to understand the appeal of being able pick and choose exactly where you gain and lose weight. But while it's true that you can work specific muscle groups to build and strengthen those muscles in isolation, you can't target fat loss in the same way; stomach crunches won't shift abdominal fat any more precisely than a run will.

Do this instead

Body-fat distribution varies naturally for different people, and there's a large genetic component to this; for example, some people are more likely to store it around their waist, while others might carry it on their hips.

When you lose fat through reducing calorie intake or sustained cardiovascular effort, you'll lose it over your entire body. Running, cycling, swimming, rowing or even regular brisk walks will all help you to do this.

And although your body might burn fat faster in certain areas, this is something you have little say over; going for a run is as likely to result in a trimmer waist as slimmer legs.

That said, if you want to tone your muscles and increase muscle mass, concentrating on muscle groups is advisable. Improved muscle tone can be as important for achieving the physique you want as losing fat, so don't skip leg day.

Just be aware that honing muscle and losing fat are very different processes for your body.

Discover the best running armbands and phone holders to pick up for your cardio routine.

Mistake 3: Neglecting your diet

It's all too common to focus on physical activity at the expense of maintaining a good diet.

The truth is that a lifestyle change begins in the kitchen more often than the gym.

A good diet has to come first, and it has to support your fitness goals - whether that means lowering your calorie intake or changing what you eat to have a more balanced diet. In some cases, it could even mean eating more (of the right things) if your goal is to build muscle.

Do this instead

Woman shopping for fresh produce

Diet is about far more than calorie counting, it's also about being properly nourished. This could mean:

  • reducing hunger pangs by eating more proteins, satiating fats and high fibre foods - these will help you to feel full for longer than moreish (but ultimately less satisfying) sugar-heavy foods
  • eating more calorie-dense foods with healthy fats and oils if you need to up your caloric intake, with enough protein to sustain muscle growth.

Whatever your approach, don't overdo it: you're unlikely to stick with a diet that you resent, and quick-fix 'fad' diets rarely work in the long term - find out why in our expert assessment of popular diet plans.

Make sure that dietary changes are proportionate and that they're something you'll be able to continue with even when life gets tough. The odd vice here and there can give you something to look forward to.

Looking to make more sustainable food choices? Find out how to make your diet more planet friendly.

Mistake 4: Overexerting yourself

When you're starting a new fitness regime, it can be tempting to throw yourself in all guns blazing. But, believe it or not, there is such a thing as too much exercise, especially if you're starting from scratch.

Not only could overdoing it risk early burnout, but rest is as important as activity when it comes to fitness. They're two sides of the same coin, so it's important to treat downtime as an instrumental part of your regime. Rest gives your body time to repair tissue damage and reduces the risk of injury.

Ultimately, long-term consistency and routine is the key to a fitter life.

Do this instead

Woman resting at home

There are three things you should always do:

  • Plan rest days in your schedule and stick to them. For example, you might want to split the week 50/50 between exercise days and rest days.
  • Take a break from exercisingif you feel pain - listen to your body.
  • Warm up before a workout and stretch afterwards to increase the range of motion in your joints and reduce tension.

A fitness plan will help. You can also use fitness apps or fitness trackers to monitor your exercise and give you incremental targets, so your regime gets progressively harder.

NHS-endorsed programmes such as Couch to 5K have also been designed to push beginners at a healthy pace.

Fitness trackers and smartwatches can help you to track progress and boost your motivation. Read our guide: should I buy a fitness tracker or a smartwatch?

Can body fat turn into muscle, and vice versa?

One of the most pervasive fitness myths of all time is that fat can be transformed into muscle and muscle can be transformed into fat.

Some ask optimistically how long it will take to turn body fat into muscle, while others ask with some trepidation if their muscle will turn into body fat if they stop exercising.

Although a Google search will provide ample cases of this myth being debunked, forums and fitness communities still see a steady stream of beginners posing this question.

Why is this belief wrong?

Body fat, also known as adipose tissue, is not the same as muscle tissue. And one can't convert into the other.

Of course, you can lose adipose tissue while growing muscle tissue, but it's simply not the case that losing one will cause a growth of the other in equal amounts. And muscles that aren't used over a long period of time go through a process called atrophy and they simply shrink, rather than turning into fat.

If you ever read a source that conflates these two things, or implies that you can turn body fat into muscle, then it's a sign to head elsewhere for your research.

Looking to hone or build your muscles from home? Take a look at our weight and weight bench buying guide.

* In October 2020, we carried out an online survey of 3,548 members of the public.