When you have precious few resources to dedicate to your health routine, you want to make sure everything you do, counts. What a bummer to find out you've been following a routine that's a waste of time or spending your hard earned cash on a practice that will never work.
Here, we give you the low down on seven diet and fitness practices you may think are beneficial but alas -- they aren't.
Pick it Up
The first electronic cardio machines that appeared in gyms in the 1970s featured low intensity, long duration "fat burning" programs. Many still do today, even though Neal Pire, a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, says this slow-and-steady approach to working out can be a real time waster.
"You do burn a higher percentage of fat during a long, slow workout but you burn more fat and calories overall when you push the intensity," he says. Pire recommends doing interval training where you alternate periods of hard and easy cardio. According to Pire, this helps ratchet up the calorie burn while helping you avoid injury and burnout.
Stretching, the Truth
For many exercisers, the pre-workout toe touch is still a ritual -- but Pire says this one is a real no-no.
"Numerous studies show that stretching a cold muscle decreases its endurance and power and makes you feel like you're working harder," Pire cautions. "More importantly, it ups your risk of injury."
Instead, he advises saving your stretching for the end of your workout when your muscles are at their most supple. "The average person only needs about five minutes of stretching. All it takes is one move for each major muscle and hold each stretch for about 30 seconds."
Long is Wrong
Developing "long, lean" muscles or "strength without bulk" are promises you'll often see advertised by studios and trainers who teach yoga, Pilates and dance -- even though Pire says it's impossible to change the length of your muscles.
"You are born with a certain body type, and no matter how much or what kind of exercise you do, your muscles will develop into their natural length and shape," he says.
Pire thinks this myth got started (and is still perpetuated) by instructors in the Pilates and yoga world who are naturally predisposed to willowy physiques. "They may have the mistaken impression that this is the result of their training but don't realize it won't translate for many of their clients."
Burn to Earn
Who doesn't think that succumbing to the temptations of a KFC Double Down -- 540 calories, if you were curious -- can be fixed by taking a kickboxing class?
Katy Bowman, director of the Restorative Exercise Institute in Ventura, Calif. refers to this as the "burn to earn" mentality and speculates that it's one of the reasons so many of us no longer fit into our jeans. "When you believe that a bout of exercise grants you "permission" to eat an extra portion of food, the extra caloric intake is less about hunger and more about the mind's desire to eat."
You do need to exercise for long-term weight maintenance, but it's nearly impossible to burn off a full day's worth of eating -- especially if you overindulge. Bowman advices keeping an exercise and diet log so you can't escape the fact that one extra doughnut is equivalent to an hour's jog.
Down the Drain
Heeding the advice to be more active is wise but doesn't require a special drink.
In fact, Felicia Stoler, a registered dietitian and author of "Living Skinny in Fat Genes," warns that guzzling sports drinks may pack on the pounds.
"They're not for someone who is doing a light 15-20 minute workout or no workout at all and they really aren't any better for you than the soft drinks they're meant to replace," she says.
Not only that, studies show that sports drinks may soften tooth enamel even more than sodas, leading to cavities and tooth decay. Stoler's recommendation? Limit all sweet drinks including sports drinks and fruit juices. Stick to plain water instead.
Sustaining a Myth
Organic has become synonymous with healthy -- yet that's not always the case, especially when you stray from the produce section.
Take the Organic Classics line of frozen foods made by Fairfield Farm Kitchens. According to Center for Science in the Public Interest, only three of the nine entrees are low in artery-clogging saturated fat or sodium. Many non-organic choices are healthier -- and cheaper.
Slapping on organic label to junk food doesn't make it virtuous either. Sugar -- whether derived from organic cane juice, agave syrup, table sugar or high fructose corn syrup -- still delivers 16-20 calories per teaspoon and is virtually devoid of nutrition.
Downsize Your Meals
Eating six small meals a day is a standard aspect of many diet plans. However, some experts now say this tactic can backfire.
Jonny Bowden, author of "The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth," believes Americans suffer from "portion distortion."
"For many, a small meal is 500 calories, so at the end of the day they've eaten over 2500 calories -- certainly not enough to lose weight and, often, enough for them to gain," he says.
Recent studies, he says, also show that some people who eat constantly will experience continuously elevated insulin levels; this may promote fat storage further exacerbating their weight issues. "They'd be better off waiting longer between meals to give their insulin production a break."