By Michael Krueger
The other day I had the morning news on and I heard those fateful words, “A new health and fitness study says …,” and I involuntarily winced. There’s nothing inherently wrong with new research; it’s just that the media reports it as if it is the final word on whatever subject they are talking about and then seemingly everyone from doctors to trainers to the general public misinterprets, misapplies, and distorts it to their own ends.
What we end up with is confusion, frustration, mistrust, and eventually apathy.
Part One of the Problem
There are a lot of people, businesses, and institutions that rely on doing research to survive. They may get government money, industry money, or entrepreneurial money, but money is the lifeblood of research. This means that they need to crank out new data on a regular basis or the money spigot will run dry. It also means that occasionally the data/conclusions/applications are corrupted by that same need for funding.
Most of the time, the damage done by this “on demand pop research” is non-existent or minimal at worst. I think that the food industry suffers the most (although a lot of their problems are self-inflicted) from the swings in popular health info. People who are more health conscious are the ones who will re-examine their diets in response to new studies, and that means changes in the spending of food dollars, and that is important to the food industry. A few years back, fat was the problem; then it was decided that not all fats, just some fats. Then eggs were bad until they weren’t, and then they were again. Now carbs are the issue, but just refined carbs, unless you are talking the Paleo Diet or Atkins, then most carbs.
The fitness industry is always cranking out new products in response to research-driven consumer demand; if they can get a celebrity to endorse their product, so much the better. If they can claim they are on the cutting edge of new research and then quote a study or two, that’s great as well. Through research, we have in fact learned valuable new things about how the body works and responds to exercise, but none of it has anything to do with a new product you can buy for just three easy payments of $29.95.
If you give me an issue in health or fitness, I can probably find you a study that will support or debunk any position you may have. This is not to say that most researchers on either side of an issue aren’t honest, intelligent people doing the best job that they can; but they can’t all be right. In a perfect world, and given enough time, these scientists would reconcile their differences and would more than likely come up with something truly useful. Unfortunately, once even preliminary results get out into the general populous, they lose control over them and then confusion and distortion result (Google eight glasses of water a day).
The big problems are created by the next tier of people who manipulate the data for personal gain. These are the ones who can take something as simple and unexciting as dietary fiber and turn it into a huge ad campaign and multimillion-dollar industry. Health and fitness claims by these folks often leave out information that doesn’t conform to their market strategy, or they accentuate the positive to the exclusion of reality.
Part Two of the Problem
The second part is us, the consumers. More money is spent on advertising than on research and development, and that is because we love to be told exactly we want to hear. We don’t want to be informed; we want to be “persuaded” to do what we wanted to do to begin with, and they are more than happy to do that for us–for a price.
Go into any bookstore and look at all the books related to weight loss. They all claim to be based on scientific discoveries and are certain to change your life. Go into a fitness store and you’ll see equipment, clothes, and more books and magazines all touting research that insists that their program or product is state of the art and the best of the best. The problem is that it’s not, but we buy it anyway.
We are so sure that the newest research/product will finally save us from ourselves and with minimal effort on our part as well. We hear about foods that make us thin, that we can lose fat by taking a pill, that we can build muscle on three minutes of exercise a day, and any number of other claims that are “backed up” by misapplied and distorted research. Once again, we buy it and buy it and buy it.
We hear about a new study that says a particular mode of exercise is the best thing ever. They show you columns of numbers, talk of means and modes and control groups. They show before and after photos of the study participants, and it all seems so scientific; maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but that isn’t the point. The point is that we buy it.
Even well-intentioned researchers may have a bias (unintentional or not) or are influenced by the point of view of those who are funding their research. Then, of course, there are the innate compliance and ethical problems that accompany research involving human beings. Researchers can’t intentionally harm subjects, and subjects are often are less than truthful regarding exercise and eating habits, thereby skewing data even further.
This is only a small sampling of the issues involved in applying new studies to the general population. The solution is actually fairly easy if not particularly scientific: Simply decide how these studies may or may not apply to you.
Does It Work for You?
If you are the type who pays attention to new research, then you must become a good consumer. You will need to sift and winnow the data to see if it applies to you, your situation, your needs, and your goals.
Dietary recommendations change over time and sometimes change back again. Maintaining a balanced diet high in fiber and unprocessed grains, low in animal fats, and high in fruits and vegetables is a good starting point for a healthy diet. This being said, you are an individual and may find that some variations on this theme work best for you. You may have some sensitivity to a particular food and will need to avoid that. You may find that you feel better when you eat or don’t eat a particular item. There may not be a medically definable reason for this last point, but it’s true: Some foods just don’t agree with you, while others seem to make you feel great.
Avoiding severe dietary restrictions is generally a good idea. Relying on supplements and pills rather than wholesome foods is usually a bad course to take. Of course, we all know someone who has the most horrendous diet and is still healthy or buys into every new diet and takes every new supplement and seems to be fine. If that’s you, imagine what you may be able to accomplish eating a good, healthy, balanced diet that is free of junk and chemical supplementation; just saying.
Exercise programs are just as hyped as nutritional research. Infomercials tout everything from expensive useless products to inexpensive useless products to useful products and even dangerous products. There are no rules or regulation when it comes to the efficacy of fitness equipment, so “Buyer beware.”
Fortunately, it is easy enough to tell if fitness equipment works for you. Just look and see if you are improving. There is nothing wrong with trying new stuff, be it a program or a piece of equipment. The problem arises if you buy into the belief that something other than your own efforts is going to make you fit and strong. There is no magic, even if “the research” claims differently.
Your Personal Research Project
Once again, I’m going to preach about record keeping. If you maintain exercise and nutrition logs, you will be able to look at the data, crunch the numbers, and figure out for yourself what your “research” shows. You may be surprised because your results might fly in the face of conventional wisdom. By mining this data, you will find what works best for you, what does and doesn’t make you feel better, and what is sustainable over time.
Once you possess this hard-won wisdom, you will have a healthy skepticism toward “A new study says …” and be advertising resistant as well. When you have quantifiable justification for what you eat and how you exercise, you won’t be swayed by the “the latest research” or “the greatest workout.”
Finally, you can just smile quietly to yourself and get back to your workout, to your nutrition, and to living your life–and what a great life it is.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.com.