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Ask the Expert: New Year’s resolutions and health myths

Jan 13, 2023

The beginning of a new year feels like a fresh start — a time to create healthy habits and improve one’s health. But efforts to improve your health can be complicated by health myths. 

Dr. Aaron Carroll is the chief health officer at Indiana University and a professor of pediatrics at the IU School of Medicine. He is the author of “The Bad Food Bible” and co-author of three additional medical myths books. IU Today asked him to update the advice he first gave in an interview with IU Foundation about some of the most prevalent health myths.

Dr. Aaron Carroll. Photo by Marina Waters Dr. Aaron Carroll. Photo by Marina Waters

Myth: Sitting too close to the TV ruins your eyesight.

Truth: Your eyes work by your muscles pulling and pushing your lens to keep everything in focus, and those muscles work incredibly hard. It’s something on the order of: If those muscles worked just as hard in your legs, you’d be walking 50 miles a day. So, there’s no question that the harder you make them work, the more tired they will get. But just as with walking, when your muscles get tired, you rest them, and then they are fine. 

There’s no evidence that sitting too close to the TV or any of the other things that might make your eyes work a bit harder (like reading in dim light) leads to long-term damage in their ability to function and that somehow that’s going to lead to wearing glasses or anything else.

Myth: Exercise is the key to weight loss.

Truth: Research shows that what we do in the kitchen matters so much more than what we do in the gym. It’s therefore always baffled me that people will spend huge amounts of time in the gym, but complain they have no time to cook.

Lots and lots of studies have shown that being active is not the key determinant to weight loss. Coupling physical activity with a healthier diet can work, but the diet matters much, much more.

That being said, I wrote the following in The New York Times in 2015, and it’s still true:

Exercise has a big upside for health beyond potential weight loss. Many studies and reviews detail how physical activity can improve outcomes in musculoskeletal disorders, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, pulmonary diseases, neurological diseases and depression. The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges declared it a “miracle cure” recently, and while I’m usually loath to use that term for anything in medicine, a fairly large evidence base corroborates that exercise improves outcomes in many domains.

Exercise is really important for good health; it’s just not the key to weight loss.

Myth: Post-workout protein improves muscle growth.

Truth: Many people, bodybuilding experts and trainers will focus on the idea that you must start pumping up the protein, primarily after you work out, to build muscle mass. There is no good evidence for that whatsoever.

Eating lots of protein will not trick your body into building muscle. Your body will either use that protein for energy, or else you’ll end up excreting it. There’s nothing to this idea that right after you work out is a time when your body is immediately going to build up muscle fiber and that you need to flood the system with protein.

It takes a relatively decent amount of time to eat food, break it down, move it out into the bloodstream and then get it into the body where it might be used. There is no magic window in a 24-hour-day cycle, or any cycle for that matter, when you need to consume that protein to have the body put it to use building muscle. 

If you’re strength training, you’ll see results with an average amount of protein. There’s no evidence that you need to do much more.

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