Are you aware of any current health and fitness myths?
Interestingly, health and fitness myths can be hard to pick unless you have some direct connection to them. All good myths are based in just enough reality that they could be true, particularly if you're missing a little perspective.
After all, there's a reason so many stand the test of time.
However, thanks to the rise of the internet, sharing information has never been easier. Our understanding of the human body is improving which fosters strong myth-busting abilities.
So as a Physiotherapist who sees so much misinformation perpetuated on a daily basis, I'd like to give a fresh perspective to 13 well-known health and fitness myths and explain why it’s time to let them go.
You Must Have "Slept Funny"
This is one of a few myths I've covered in detail before. If you’ve ever woken up with a sore neck or back without knowing why it's easy to feel like you’ve 'slept funny'.
Interestingly, this myth has less to do with your night-time habits and everything to do with your postural habits during those waking hours.
Pay attention to your positioning on the couch, behind a desk, in the car, looking down at a phone or book, leaning over in the garden or at work, etc. Prioritize the positions you get in to most often and work back from there. They may not instantly stand out, but they are highly likely to be there.
Our best spinal shape is a straight one, so it’s important to get a sense of where you might need to improve to feel great again in the morning.
Cracking Your Joints Is Bad for You
The sound heard when cracking a joint is a release of pressure. This isn't necessarily a bad thing despite its negative connotations.
The real issue is why the pressure has built up in the first place.
A correctly loaded joint won’t need to crack, so the key to solving this mystery lies in understanding where poor loading takes place.
For most, this again looks like excessive slouching, looking down and leaning over when looking at the spine. It’s important to understand that respectfully cracking your joints is unlikely to be bad for you, but long-term exposure to the poor shapes and positions that give you the need to crack could be.
Squatting Below Parallel Is Bad for Your Hips
How often do you hear it’s bad for your hips to squat below parallel? Interestingly, the complete opposite is true - provided you still have reasonable hip mobility.
Sitting often defines the modern Western lifestyle, and as a consequence, we rarely bend our hips beyond 90 degrees anymore. So we lose what we don't routinely use.
Technically we need to squat below parallel more to help maintain normal hip health and function and combat our sedentary lifestyle. Do as our Eastern friends do, or your baby-self used to, and value the deep squat.
This often surprises many, but Growing Pains should also be considered a myth. Issues like Osgood Schlatter Disease (knee pain), Sever's Disease (heel pain), etc, are absolutely real, they're just not growing-related.
Like many of these myths, Growing Pains have more to do with how a child loads the area, not their growing status. It's true that growing creates vulnerable areas, but these should never become symptomatic if the child's mechanics are good enough to meet the demands of their activity.
After all, growing is normal, isn’t it?
You Need to Passively Hold a Stretch
We often passively hold our stretches to allow tight muscles time to give. And while this fitness myth isn’t technically incorrect, it’s not as effective as we make it out to be.
Tight muscles aren't a lifeless ball of elastic tightness. They're deliberately restricted at the request of our brain and nervous system. So any attempt at muscle stretching needs to respect this.
Instead of mindlessly tugging on a tight muscle, try to mobilize your tissues with a technique called Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF).
PNF stretching requires you to find a good stretch and then contract those tight muscles for a few seconds. This engages your brain and nervous system to reflexively relax and restore normal function to the tissue.
Related: What is the best way to stretch?
It’s an “Age Thing”
This is another popular health and function myth we've covered in-depth before. In short, many of the aches and pains we associate with age are not age-related.
This can be tricky because it certainly does feel true for a lot of people. Many of us do become more stiff and sore with age, but not because we age. Instead, time tends to expose our underlying bad habits and postures.
With this in mind, we should not always consider issues like arthritis and degeneration normal - despite how common they are. They should be viewed as the consequence of years of imperfect loading. They're often the legacy of how things function, not that they’ve been functioning for too long.
Interestingly, this isn’t to say that we can undo the ravages of time, but we may not have to if we smooth out these hidden deficiencies.
Hamstring Tightness at the Back of the Knee
It’s common to feel tightness at the back of the knee when stretching your Hamstrings. Interestingly, this isn't Hamstring tightness. It's actually a sign your Sciatic nerve is over-tensioned instead.
A true Hamstring stretch should most likely be felt higher up in the middle of your thigh. As it turns out there isn’t much in the way of musculature at the back of the knee. Whereas the Sciatic Nerve passes right through there on its way down the leg.
Be aware that tightness at the back of your knee is often a sign of lower back stiffness, so keep this in mind if your goal is to improve your overall hamstring flexibility. In this instance freeing up your lower back may be more important than stretching your Hamstrings.
Your Best Shoulder Posture Is Back and Down
When trying to re-claim a good shoulder posture, how often are you told to pull your shoulders back and down?
The idea here is our shoulder and neck muscles lift our shoulders up when tight. So to counter this we need to bring them down again.
Like the rest of these myths, this idea does make sense, but the reality is often the opposite.
In this case, it’s important to consider what comes first. If we slouch, gravity pulls our shoulders forward and down. This puts constant tension on the upper back, neck, and shoulders, asking these areas to adaptively tighten in response.
So if you are looking to prevent this entire process from the beginning, you actually need to pull your shoulders back and up to neutral.
Noisy Knees Are a Sign of Arthritis
It's common for those with creaky knees to worry about Arthritis, however, this is unlikely to be the case.
Now, this isn’t to say you don’t have arthritis, it's just that arthritis is unlikely to be the cause of your creakiness.
The idea behind this myth relates to wear and tear causing an orchestra of effects at the knee. Clinically, creaky knees are actually a sign that your overall knee (and leg) mechanics aren't perfect. Think tight quads, restricted soft-tissue around the knee cap, stiff ankles, tight calves, hip tightness, etc.
There's essentially a handbrake on somewhere.
This is a nice one to debunk as treating your relevant “handbrakes” should see these sounds regress over time, irrespective of how 'arthritic' your knee may be.
Your Back is “Out”
We often use the term “out” to describe a sore back. We feel that our spinal pain and dysfunction are the result of something being out of place - most commonly a joint or disc. And it's often associated with feeling stuck, jammed or blocked.
But thankfully it's highly unlikely something has shifted out of place.
The spine is a supremely robust and resilient structure. And it needs to be to protect our spinal cord and act as the centerpiece for all musculoskeletal function. It's reinforced and supported by a series of thick, strong ligaments, connective tissue, and bony connections.
In short - it's individual segments are unlikely to budge without horrific circumstances and disastrous long-term consequences.
Instead, the sensation of being "out" stems from irritated spinal joint restriction. If overloaded and mistreated, spinal joints will stiffen over time. Surrounding muscles will also tighten. The moment you feel your back or neck go out is the moment this already overloaded area becomes irritated and locked down.
Thankfully this one of those myths that's actually a positive. If your spine truly shifted out of place or alignment you’d most likely be faced with some permanent life-altering consequences, not just an afternoon on the couch.
Sit-Ups Promote Core Strength
This is another old-school myth that needs clarification. So many still turn to sit-ups in an attempt to improve core strength
However, sit-ups target our superficial trunk muscles rather than the deeper ones responsible for stabilization, decreased injury risk and improved performance.
And the best way to improve your core strength is to focus on exercises that challenge your ability to maintain a straight back. Planks, fit ball roll-outs, Pilates, etc, are all more effective and transferable for this reason.
Sit-ups are a reasonable abdominal exercise - there's nothing wrong with a six-pack after all, but the movement they train doesn't really transfer beyond other sit up-based movements. And because it doesn't challenge your ability to maintain a neutral spine, it's less effective as a core strength exercise.
You Have One Leg Shorter Than the Other
Many people feel they have one leg shorter than the other.
However, despite much evidence to the contrary, it's actually quite uncommon to have a true leg length discrepancy. And this is important if you've been told to add something to your shoes to make up the difference.
Clinically, most leg length discrepancies are not anatomical or structural, they're mechanical. As it turns out it's far more likely that one hip sits higher than the other thanks to any number of asymmetrical sitting postures, shapes and positions.
An easy way to test for this is to lie face down and have someone find your 'sit bones' with their thumbs. Once located, you may notice that one side is marginally higher than the other. It is very likely that this side correlates to your shorter leg.
No Pain, No Gain
One of the most recognizable slogans on Earth has been heavily misinterpreted over the years.
Originally intended as motivation to train hard and push boundaries, "No Pain, No Gain" has unintentionally skewed our perception of acceptable pain behavior.
Instead of deciphering between genuine pain and exercise-induced discomfort many now just forge on regardless.
By definition, legitimate pain should be a barrier to performance and activity. Its primal role is to protect us and our tissues from harm.
If you feel genuine pain, aggressive tightness or that something might be going on - you have to respect it. Your body is trying to tell you something important.
On the other hand, if you're working at your limits, you're fatiguing and it's mentally uncomfortable, by all means, keep pushing. Being able to out-suffer your competition is the sign of a good athlete.
With this in mind, perhaps No Pain, No Gain would be a little more accurate, albeit hugely less interesting, if it read "No Discomfort, No Gain". Even "No Suffer, No Success" would send a slightly different message.
How many of these myths were news to you? What other health and fitness myths need to be debunked? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.