Might some exercise myths be discouraging us from exercising – and so damaging our health? Here’s our verdict on five health myths.

Myth: You have to exercise hard every day to get health benefits

The NHS recommends brisk exercise (like cycling or fast walking) for at least 2½ hours per week.  That’s around 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. They also recommend muscle strengthening activities for at least two days a week.

This is good advice. However, if we can’t manage this amount of exercise in a week is that an excuse to give up on exercising? Not at all, according to the research:

  • Macmillan Cancer report that walking just a mile a day can save lives. 
  • A large study in Taiwan, reported in The Lancet  found that exercising for just 15 minutes a day could improve your life expectancy.
  • A recent study in Scotland found 12 pensioners benefitted from short bursts of exercise even though they had never exercised before.

So aim to achieve the NHS target – but if you can’t, even smaller amounts of exercise are good for your health.

Myth: I’m too old to start exercising!

You’re usually never too old to start exercising. Exercise in older life can extend years of active independent living, reduce disability and improve your quality of life.   

NHS exercise guidelines for elderly people outline how important it is to engage in physical activity as you get older. 

That’s because there is strong scientific evidence that people who are active have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, dementia and even depression

Myth: You need to go to the gym to get fit

There are actually plenty of ways to stay fit - including:

  • Walking
  • Cycling
  • Dancing
  • Equipment at home e.g. a skipping rope, stationary bike or small weights
  • Home exercise DVDs
  • Swimming
  • Jogging

If you join a walking or running group an additional benefit could include social interaction which will also aid motivation.

Myth: People with lower back pain should not exercise

There remains some uncertainty about the best treatment approach for chronic lower back pain. However, exercise therapy is a commonly used strategy to treat the condition. It is one of several interventions that evidence suggests is moderately effective.  

Experts now think bedrest should be kept to a minimum, with everyday activity like getting out of bed, dressing and moving (as much as pain allows) actually speeding recovery. 

Myth: No pain, no gain

The Mayo Clinic advises that when it comes to exercise, the "No pain, no gain" mantra is bad advice ie Exercise shouldn't hurt. At most, you may feel a little muscle soreness when you do a new workout or activity. If you feel pain during exercise (or dizziness, nausea or shortness of breath), the Clinic advises that you stop. You may be pushing yourself too hard.

As we have seen above exercises like cycling, dancing, swimming or brisk walking have proven health benefits but shouldn’t be painful.

There are also a number of forms of gentle exercise which appear to have health benefits. For example Tai Chi reduces the risk of falls (important because I in 3 adults over 65 currently fall each year). It also helps improve psychological health.

Myth: Weight training is only good for men and building muscles

In factweight training (sometimes known as resistance training) can help women control their weight.

It seems that resistance training can even help prevent and treat a number of chronic illnesses

There may also be mental health benefits, like reduced anxiety symptoms, reduced symptoms of depression and improved self esteem.

And there appear to be health benefits for older adults too. These include reducing the risk of osteoporosis (when bones become more brittle and likely to fracture, especially among post menopausal women) and also reducing the signs and symptoms of heart disease, arthritis and type 2 Diabetes.

Myth: Overweight people should focus on diet rather than exercise

Obesity is associated with numerous health risks. These include an increased risk of diabetes, heart failure and depression. Diet is clearly important when it comes to losing weight. However, research suggests that people who use a combination of a low-calorie diet and physical activity lose greater fat mass and conserve more lean tissue (mainly muscle mass) than people who use diet alone.


  • 30 minutes of brisk exercise, 5 days a week, is a good target – but any exercise is better than no exercise.
  • It is usually never too late to start exercising.
  • Weight training/resistance training is helpful too – even for women.
  • Going to a gym is one option but there are plenty of low cost alternatives – including walking, cycling, swimming, dancing and home exercise equipment and DVDs.
  • Exercise shouldn’t be painful – pain suggests you’re overdoing it.
  • Exercise can help you control your weight and has a range of health benefits, including improving your life expectancy.

Published 27/07/2012. Reviewed and updated by Karen Rollins, 13 September 14. Next Review date August 2017.