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Top ten exercise mistakes women make (guest post).

Thu, Jan 28, 2010

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Top Exercise Mistakes in Women

1)   Too much cardio: This can trigger the release of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone that in the long term seems to increase a person’s visceral fat- that is, the fat surrounding major organs that is particularly dangerous for our health.

2)  No weight training or not enough intense weight training: Women sometimes fear that weight lifting will make them more bulky. The truth is, a good, relatively intense program is actually beneficial in developing more lean muscle and decreasing subcutaneous (under the skin) and visceral fat.

3) Spot reduction of fat: Spot training to reducing fat in a certain place has no scientific basis.  When the body needs calories for exercise, it first takes it from muscle creatinine, then glycogen, the storage form of glucose in muscles, then fat from the whole body.

4)  Exercise is not a priority: Many women have many responsibilities and sadly, when push comes to shove, exercise is dropped first. But given the health and well-being benefits, exercise really should be a priority. And consider:  exercise can give us the energy and focus to get through our to-do lists faster.  Scheduling each day to be most efficient will make room for a block of exercise time, and there’s always a way to incorporate exercise into our daily routine.

5)  Total caloric intake is too high: Many patients come in with no sign of weight loss despite regular exercise.  Much of the time, the culprit is a diet too high in calories, specifically saturated fat and refined carbohydrates. Many of these women say they “never eat,” or they only eat one meal a day. This is a critical mistake.

Ideally, you want to graze on small, healthy, less calorie-dense snacks throughout the day as our ancestors did in hunter-gatherer societies.  This will maintain the sensation of feeling full, reduce impulse eating of high calorie foods, and prevent insulin and other hormonal spikes that make you eat more. Studies show that despite eating more frequently, the total daily caloric intake is actually lower!

6)  Poor nutritional support: Exercise is critically important for bone health in women. Weight bearing exercise like walking or weight lifting stimulates bone development and maintains or improves bone density. However, exercise is one half of the equation.

The other half is nutritional support. The osteoblasts (cells that stimulate bone growth) need calcium and vitamin D to do their jobs. All women should get at least 1500mg of dietary calcium and 400 IU of Vitamin D daily. Protein requirements work out to 0.8-1.0 mg/kg/day. Sufficient calories are also needed for optimal health, including reproductive health in women.

For example, a moderately active woman who is 140 pounds needs 2100 calories/day; 160 pounds needs 2200; and 180 pounds needs 2300 calories per day. See this link to estimate how much you need.

7) Doing the same exercise every day: Women love the elliptical and walking on the treadmill. I see women less on stationary bicycles, rowing machines, or stair steppers.  Muscle confusion is a key concept in getting and maintaining fitness. Switch it up as much as possible so your body doesn’t get too efficient at doing one exercise.

8) Cardio at too low an intensity for weight loss: Many popular magazines perpetuate the myth that low intensity cardio at 50-70 percent is better for burning fat and losing weight. They are only partially correct. Yes, fat is primarily burned at this intensity but weight loss and weight maintenance is more dependent on burning calories, not fat. Higher intensity workouts at 70-85 percent are much better calorie burners and thus better for weight loss.

9) Too much, too soon: It’s great to be motivated to start an exercise program but some women ramp up too quickly, get sore, or injured, get discouraged and stop exercising. Start slowly, especially if you have never exercised regularly before, and ramp up a tiny amount weekly. This is much safer and more sustainable.

10) No professional input: Most people don’t have all the health information needed to safely start or improve an exercise regimen. A sports medicine physician can clear you medically first and to develop a program that fits your goals and ability.  Personal trainers are also very helpful in this process.

About Dr. Rowan Paul

Dr. Paul, a sports medicine and family physician in San Francisco, is also a staff physician and blogger for RightHealth.com, the Guide to Health on the Web.

He is an active triathlete, marathon runner, martial artist and outdoorsman who loves animals, good food, mechanics, car design and engineering and thinking about potential ways to fix our world.

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67 Responses to “Top ten exercise mistakes women make (guest post).”

  1. BK says:

    ^5. U have a winner here! Great post

  2. moonduster (Becky) says:

    Great post.

    All advice I already know, but don’t always heed. I’m working on it though.

  3. MizFit says:

    ok. my apologies to Dr Paul as wordpress is acting so oddly and for SOME REASON the smiley face will not show up as a number EIGHT in the post even though in draft it DOES.


    is it a sign from an angry cardio G-d?

    who can say.

  4. Jessica says:

    Along with 5 and 6, I’d add that many women don’t make eating a priority, just like they don’t make exercise one. I was always amazed that so many young women could go all day without eating, and not die of hunger! On the other hand, they would look at me like I had 3 heads when I needed to eat every 4-5 hours or else face horrible hunger pangs. The common denominator between most of these women was that they were all so “busy” that they “didn’t have time to eat,” and wondered why they were overweight.

  5. WaistingTime says:

    It took me years to develop a good exercise habit… but I still “make mistakes.” Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Joanna Sutter says:

    I’m giving Dr. Paul a standing ovation! Pass the collection plate….I BELIEVE!

  7. Michelle@Eatingjourney says:

    I really appreciate this post. As I am embarking on my getting fit journey it’s a good reminder that it’s about intensity, variety and fuel.

    I would rather throttle myself for 25 minutes then lolly gag for 45 minutes.

    Is there anyway that the Dr. could give a typical workout and then make it better?

    i.e. 45 min on treadmill walking-how that could be improved but maintain what he’s talking about.

    I’d really value from that.

  8. Jessica says:

    LOVE the ‘too much cardio.’ I tell my clients that and they just give me a blank stare. Is it not that important!!!

  9. Miz says:


    no comment yet that this is applicable to WOMEN and MEN?

  10. Pat Steer (Gaelen) says:

    ‘Cause you beat me to it, Miz. ;) Seriously, all good suggestions - except maybe the old saw that saturated fats are part of the road to hell. Virgin unrefined coconut oil is beneficial for women (and men) on many levels and contributes to cardiac-protective improved lipid profiles. Usually the first thing women cut when they are looking at dietary calories is fat (from whatever source) when what they should be cutting to the bone are carbs.

  11. Lauren @ Eater Not a Runner says:

    Great tips, I need to focus more on weight training myself!

  12. Shelley says:

    Wow. I had no idea about #1. It makes sense for extreme exerholics, though. Just never thought about it before.

    Great post!

  13. Christieo says:

    Absolutely, I’m not a doctor but I agree with everything he he says!! And I didn’t know about #1 either! That’s great to know!

  14. Jody - Fit at 52 says:

    Great stuff. I will add that every body is different & many people think I do too much yet it works for me. I have fought this battle for many years & changed things thru the yeas & even now. I do a lot of cardio & it works for me & in fact I think my body needs it to stay the way I want to look. I also do more weight training than most but I can build muscle when others lose doing the same thing.

    In general, all good advice & yes I love mixing & shaking it up. But as always, it is not always the case for everybody.

  15. Sagan says:

    While I do agree that these are exercise mistakes that people (men and women both, as Miz pointed out ;) ) make, I would argue that low intensity cardio is still an excellent form of exercise. Even if the person IS trying to lose weight, they’ll still absolutely benefit from something such as walking. No, it may not be AS EFFECTIVE as something high intensity, BUT if they don’t like exercising, walking might be the better choice. Also, lower intensity exercising such as walking is less likely to make a person hungry, making it easier to control amounts of calories if the person has difficulty doing that.

    And of course, if you’re NOT trying to lose weight, then low intensity cardio is definitely beneficial.

    …that’s my $0.02, anyway :)

    (I’m the unofficial spokesperson for walking. FYI. Hehe).

  16. Helen says:

    I still believe if you only have time to get in one form of exercise, it should be the one you love. Because you’ll keep doing it. For me, that’s cardio. I HATE WEIGHT TRAINING. HATE IT. HATE IT. HATE IT.

    Every time I have tried to get “professional help” in the form of a personal trainer, they try to get me to eliminate my running and switch to weight lifting. What is it about the sentence, “I hate weight training and I’m not willing to give up my running” that they don’t understand? And then they wonder why I quit with them as soon as my paid sessions are over.

    Last year, because I KNOW I need to do something other than cardio, I started taking Muay Thai Boxing. Yes, there is a small cardio element to that but it is more strength training as I do, for example, 200 pushups, 200 situps, 100 squats, 100 jumpsquats, 100 lunges during the course of a 45 minute class. Plus kicking and punching the bag.

    And WHY is this same info. not applicable to men?

  17. Andrea@WellnessNotes says:

    Great list! And I have been guilty of almost all of them at one point or another!

    Carla, I tried super slow lifting after reading your post on Tuesday. I can totally see why a trainer would be helpful… But you got me REALLY interested. I will give this more thought and planning. I’ll let you know how it goes…

  18. the Bag Lady says:

    Great post!

    And it came along at exactly the right time for me.


  19. Geosomin says:

    “some women ramp up too quickly, get sore, or injured, get discouraged ”
    Yup…that’s me right now.
    I was on a great roll…then stopped due to “stuff” for 3 weeks. When I hopped back in, things went all pear shaped.
    Here’s hoping my knee is back in shape soon…*sigh*

  20. debby says:

    This is really good information. The kind I am always looking for, and in a nice concise format. Thanks!

  21. Cindie says:

    Great list. Thanks again for reinforcing the things I already know and don’t always follow!

  22. Type (little) a says:

    Regarding #10, Most people don’t have all the health information needed to safely start or improve an exercise regimen.

    I think it’s our responsibility to educate ourselves, even just a little bit, because I have met “professionals” who don’t know what they are talking about. At my last gym, I was but through a RIGOROUS workout as my “initial trial” so intense that I pulled the muscles in my FOREARMS, all so that I would realize how “badly out of shape” I am and how much I “needed” their $75 monthly services.

    Not saying all personal trainers are like this, but, don’t just trust a blue polo shirt in your gym is all I’m saying. Know at least some of the facts, so that your bullshit meter is in full working order.

  23. Nikki says:

    Thanks so much for all that great info!

  24. Certifiably Fit says:

    Great Information!

    #2 is something I hear all the time from women who approach me for advice about working out. Makes me sad cause it would help them greatly but most of the time they would rather believe the myth even though I’m a walking testimonial to the fact it is a myth.

  25. Hangry Pants says:

    Very interesting. In terms of too much cardio I wonder what is too much and if it’s dependent on the second things listed or something else.

  26. Kelly says:

    I would love to know what qualifies as “too much” cardio? I would much rather be doing strength training than cardio, but I still feel obligated to get some in every day. I wonder at what point am I hurting my results with my treadmill time?

  27. Miz says:

    my two cents is that the cardio thing is really personal. What’s too much for me may NOT be for someone else.

    For me any amount of cardio (on a machine or running etc.not active play with child which I caint avoid ;) ) DAILY is too much.

    Id overtrain and experience diminishing returns.

  28. Luann Abrams says:

    Good advice! I am curious as to what studies support the statement in item 1 about too much cardio increasing cortisol levels. I have not heard that before, and I don’t like to tell my clients info that I haven’t seen backed by studies. Can you point me in the right direction Dr. Paul or MizFit?
    Thanks! Luann

  29. Cynthia (It All Changes) says:

    Thanks for the reminder. I have call a trainer on my calendar so that I can get back into weights.

  30. Cammy@TippyToeDiet says:

    Oh. I thought the winky-smiley was directed at me, as I am *possibly* guilty of that one still and will probably benefit from this gentle nudge.

    this is an awesome post that I should probably post as a checklist for occasional review! Thanks, Dr. Paul.

  31. Diane Fit to the Finish says:

    Thank you so much for letting him post all this great information. I think I’m going to link to this later next week! Awesome info!

  32. disha says:

    This is interesting, and mostly true. In some cases though the same advice doesnt apply to men and women. Guys are less into cardio because they are raring to lift most of the time.
    One thing I found interesting and thought I should point out, is that even though Dr Paul talks about too much caloric intake, most of the intake calculations available are for people of “average” height, which confuses the not so average ones. Because I am sure a 5′ 0″, 140 pound person DOES NOT need 2000 calories. (they exist, I’m one).
    And truly when it comes down to it, weight loss is about calories.

  33. messymimi says:

    Number two is where I tend to fall down. I know better than to neglect strength training, I just don’t make it enough of a priority when so many other things are screaming to be done.

  34. Tracey @ I'm Not Superhuman says:

    Another reason strength training should be a priority: to strengthen bones and prevent osteoporosis. Women are more likely to get it than men!

  35. Gingersnapper says:

    This post is very informative, but I’d like to reframe it as “Some things you could try that might improve your workout and/or diet.” I don’t mean to sound argumentative, but I don’t like articles that say “You are wrong if you are doing it this way,” or “This is the ONLY way to do it.” And being told I’m making a MISTAKE related to my being a WOMAN is not the best way to get me to listen to you.

    People have different circumstances and different needs, as well as different tastes and personalities. The workout you actually DO is the best workout. For me that’s strength training, for others it’s running. The meal plan you STICK WITH is the best diet. For instance, I find that eating many small meals - “grazing” - keeps me constantly hungry and I end up eating more than if I have three normal-sized meals. We’re all different.

    And I have to ask, are we talking about diet or exercise? And are we talking about weight loss, fitness, or health? Those are all different things.

  36. Ryan Sullivan says:

    I know I’m not a woman (last time I checked anyway) but what I like about this post is that it’s science. It’s the stuff that’s been proven and done over and over and over again. Nice information.

  37. Pamela Hernandez says:

    #2 is so true! Women cannot be afraid to pick up weights, especially heavy ones. As we age we lose muscle mass which slows down our metabolism. The only way to fight it is to weight train on a regular basis.
    By the way, I share your love of Ellen. She is amazing and I am crossing my fingers that your campaign works!

  38. POD says:

    Thanks for the information. Now, to do, not to try.

  39. Anna says:

    Loooooooved your site, how can I put your cute link “unapologetically Myself” on my sidebar? It’s really cool.

  40. Gemfit says:

    I have to say that I agree with Gingersnapper. While I know these are good tips, they are just that, tips. There is not right and wrong way IMO and it really depends on your aim. If you’re aiming to be a marathon runner, you’ll need more running in your regime. If you’re just aiming for health and doing something rather than nothing, that’s great too.

    Something about this post made me snarl and I think it’s the “this is the only way” attitude I picked up.

    And why is this only directed at women? Surely health and fitness applies to men AND women? Everyone needs certain vitamins and minerals and to eat correctly. These are all valid points but should be direct at everyone with a slightly less patronising tone IMO.

  41. Heather says:

    Great post.

  42. Gemfit says:

    Just to add to my rant above, I dedicated a whole blog post to it:


    Yes, I can rant along with the best of them (who “they” are, I’m not sure)

  43. deb roby says:

    Interesting post. I have problems with it.

    There isn’t any indication of where some of these “conclusions” have come from. They seem like generalizations written to make women feel bad about they are doing.

    Aren’t these mistakes that EVERYONE makes at one time or another? Not just “poor, l’il ignorant women…” - my own sarcasm added there?

    I believe that most PEOPLE looking to lose fat have a number of problems:

    they focus on weight instead of fat as if they are the same.

    they believe that cardio is king.

    they try to eat the same way they did in getting overweight- but look for shortcuts, or simply reducing quantities- as the answer. (non-fat cheese anyone?)

    they rely on weight machines to do a workout.

    I could go on… but that’s would be a whole ‘nother post.

  44. Heather McD (Heather Eats Almond Butter) says:

    Why is everyone getting their panties in a wad? These are common mistakes I’ve seen many women make, myself included. Personally, I think it’s a good list. That doesn’t mean all women make these mistakes, but I think it’s a good starting point for someone new to exercise and or weight loss.

  45. Jill says:

    I agree that this is a good list/post. Thanks Dr. Paul! :)

  46. Janice @ The Fitness Cheerleader says:

    Ya know these would be all very valid points if the title wasn’t so offensive. He’s right - on all of them.

  47. Gemfit says:

    @Heather - yes these are common mistakes but I think it’s more the way in which it’s been phrased that’s riling me up. If he had prefaced it with “commong mistakes EVERYONE makes at some point” instead of making it a general generic piece of advice for every woman, it would be read better. There’s nothing in there to indicate that the women he’s talking about are new to exercise or trying to lose weight/get healthy/start running whatever.

  48. Jamie says:

    My favorite? #2. So very true.

    And as an addition to #10, not doing enough research on their own. The fact that spot reduction (“I just wanna lose my belly and my arms”) and fear of heavy weight training (“But I don’t want to get all big and bulky”) are still common misconceptions tells me that women aren’t doing their homework. Not the women here, obviously. But women in general. It’s a problem. If we can just get The Miz on Ellen, I’m sure we can help to rectify this situation.

  49. marita says:

    Any sort of formula for “too much cardio?” How much is just enough for someone with a sedentary job who strength trains 60-90 min. 3x a week? I keep reading that I shouldn’t do too much cardio, but that’s like giving me a good excuse to sit on the couch :|

  50. Kara from MamaSweat says:

    Naturally I concur with my fellow triathlete. I might add one more: if you DON’T workout every day the earth will not stop. Often people adopt an all-or-nothing attitude when it comes to exercise and suddenly one missed workout turns into dropping the whole regimen. Fact of the matter is sometimes life really does trump a workout. It happens. And if you can’t schedule around it we have to deal with it. SO, either have scheduled days off and/or have a plan for those situations when you can’t do your regularly scheduled workout (i.e. be at peace and start over again tomorrow or, perhaps 20 push ups before you go to bed). Living a fit lifestyle ebbs and flows! So go with the flow!

  51. All Women Stalker says:

    I can totally relate with the “too much, too soon” bit. I don’t have a regular exercise routine and I tend to pile them all up when I do get around to doing it. And I agree about switching things up- it’s always good to have a wide variety of exercise routines so our muscles won’t get too used to things.

  52. Brenda Espy says:

    I am still stuck on how much cardio is too much?? I would love to hear Dr. Paul’s answer. In fact I wish he had said the answer in his point. It was kind of a teaser…leaving me thinking about this dilemma for 2 days now. Also I have to say I am guilty of loving my elliptical and nothing else. I hope to work on this in February and as the warmer weather comes this spring.

  53. miz says:

    I have asked him to swing by and respond. Nothing yet…

  54. Pubsgal says:

    The title bothered me a bit, too. These are mistakes anyone can make, especially those new to fitness, and I’ve seen people of both genders making them. (Self included, *cough*too-intense-workout-Monday-that-still-has-me-sore*cough*.)

    My questions:
    - What’s the proper balance between “too much cardio” and “too little intensity”? It seems to me that high-intensity cardio might also stress the body. (In fact, sometimes the stress of a hard workout raises blood glucose levels instead of lowers them in people with diabetes.)
    - Are these “mistakes” related more to the goal of losing body fat vs. training for athletic events? It would be good to understand the context of these remarks. For example, if one is a triathlete, can one’s body ever be *too* efficient at running, biking, and swimming?

  55. Boomerman997 says:

    I agree, fitness has to be a daily goal. If the President has time to get in a workout, so can you. I see many people that work out every day but still don’t lose weight. Bottom line, you have to write down your caloric intake every day and if you are not losing weight then lower the calories. Its really simple but hard to do when you feel like you are starving. But, that IS the secret.

    I wrote a recent blog on consistency http://bit.ly/ayjA2c

  56. Denise says:

    Thanks for the article. I used to be the cardio queen, but now I’ve ventured into the weight room. I love doing both cardio and weights. I feel strong after lifting weights and it feels so dang good!

  57. Laura Jane says:

    I especially agree with exercise has to be a priority. It really does, and it really makes a difference in your overall life and well-being. Not so sure about #1 - for me, personally, the more cardio, the better. (Within reason, of course.) I go for about an hour, about 5 days a week.

  58. Alena says:

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.




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