Science, Mythology, and the Real World

By Michael Krueger

There has never been a dearth of mythology floating around the world of training: miracle workout programs, diet “secrets,” and specialized exercises that are guaranteed to get you strong as an ox or totally ripped. Of course, Gym Rats are more than happy to share rumors of the latest and greatest supplement that supplants the latest and greatest of last month.

Science really hasn’t been any better. If you look back on what the research has recommended over the years on any subject, you will find that the advice changes with time. Because one study will completely contradict another, the researchers will fall back on the same old saw, “As we learn more, we sometimes find we don’t know all that much … but listen to us this time … this time we’ve got it down.” Even the same team of researchers may find that the results from five years ago are no longer valid.

So, that leaves us with the real world … whatever that means.


Information Overload

I used to read a lot more scholarly research than I do now. I’ve also read a lot of the mass media publications dedicated to strength, muscles, and fitness. I’ve  got this part of me I refer to as Cynical Mike, and Cynical Mike says that both groups are in it for the cash and need to pump out new stuff on a regular basis to keep the grants coming, the advertisers happy, and the customers buying. I like Cynical Mike; he makes some sense, but I prefer to let my intellect rule so he doesn’t (usually) get to drive the bus.

I think a more reasonable approach to all the conflicting data is take it all with a grain of salt and see how it applies to your situation. I know, on the surface that seems easy enough, but in practice not so much. With so much info and so many diverse opinions, it’s impossible to assess them all with anything approaching due diligence. If you also have limited knowledge or experience, it’s hard to tell the good from the bad.

A new twist that has come forward in the recent past is that we as a culture seem to feel that we must give all opinions, no matter their there source, equal consideration. I’ll let Cynical Mike reply to this one: “No, you don’t. There are studies and articles and ideas that are just ridiculous. If it sounds stupid, it probably is. If you read something and in the same publication you read the exact opposite, you can figure that they are in it for the cash and their editorial standards are lacking. Don’t waste your time with them.” Thanks, Cynical Mike, for handling that one.

Recently I was reading a “muscle magazine” that had an article discussing the issues of using unregulated supplements. It also had an article extoling the virtues of using these same supplements. Of course, on top of that, it also had 24 pages of advertising telling you to buy the very same supplements, sandwiched with articles saying that it is your commitment and discipline that will lead to success, not supplements. I don’t use, nor do I recommend, supplements. I prefer and recommend food; but that’s just me talking (with an assist from Cynical Mike).

The popular press obviously caters to what is popular. They need to sell advertising and they need to sell magazines. I guess I will include infomercials and “fitness” reality shows in the popular press grouping, because they rely on ratings to survive so they are equally mercenary. I don’t fault these people for making a living … but wait, Cynical Mike says he does fault them “for messing up the heads and bodies of so many people who are desperately looking for help and inspiration to become fit, strong, and healthy and all these people give them are false hopes and unrealistic expectations.” Good ol’ Cynical Mike.


Finding Your Way

Cynical Mike can be hard to get along with. He’s been in this fitness game long enough to know that truly successful people are few and far between. That doesn’t mean that people who go to the gym a few times a week or work to be sure they get in their 10,000 steps aren’t successful. If their goal was to do what they realistically could to be healthy and fit and they are doing that, then they are by definition successful.

I‘ve been told I have a catch phrase of sorts I use with clients. Apparently I say, “Given the amount of time and effort you have put into your training, your results are good.” I’ve also been told that it isn’t a particularly inspiring statement. Honestly, though, I (and Cynical Mike) disagree.

I think that if you are getting a good return on your effort, you should be pleased. To expect more than you put in is unreasonable and ultimately sets you up for failure. Understand that so long as you are in the game, you’ve got a chance to attain your goals. By keeping at it, you are likely to improve, and accepting your results as the true fruits of your labors is the best gift you can give yourself. This message isn’t going to sell magazines, and it’s never going to be picked up for a reality show, but it’s true nonetheless.

I believe that honesty is important in the client/trainer relationship, and that’s what I give you as well. I would like to see all of my clients get extraordinary results, and I’m sure they feel the same way. Unfortunately, because they miss workouts, eat poorly, don’t get enough sleep, or are overwhelmed with work or family stress, they don’t; and until they can manage these issues, they won’t. The results they do get are commensurate with the effort they exert and the time they can commit, and that’s all one can expect.

This is why setting reasonable and attainable goals is such an important part of any exercise program. For many people, just setting and maintaining a consistent schedule are major struggles. I know people who are thrilled if, during the course of a week, they get in one resistance workout, get out for a walk three times, eat a healthy meal or two, and average six hours of sleep per night. These seemingly minor accomplishments are major victories for them. Of course, their quantifiable results will reflect this less-than-optimal level of training; it’s not enough work to show great progress (if any), but they are still training, and the results they see are exactly what they should expect.

There’s another result though that needs to be considered. It’s harder to quantifiably measure, but for success in the long term it’s very important: the intangible emotional and psychological benefits gained by doing the best you can, given your circumstances. The effort it takes to get in even a minimal amount of training will show at the end of the week in your attitude and your logbook if not on your scale. The positive results you get from finding the time for self-care, from doing the workout, making a healthful meal, getting enough sleep, and then scheduling the next week may not show on the scale at the end of the first or even the second week, but over time it will make a difference in every aspect of your life.

It takes a lot of planning and commitment to train regularly and maintain a healthy lifestyle amid all the demands on your time and energy. Because you may not be model thin or Mr. Universe ripped, some people (not people you should be hanging out with) will pooh-pooh what you have accomplished. You’re going to feel better about yourself and have a more positive attitude about everything than you did before you took control of your life and started taking better care of yourself. Now that you’ve had some success, you will really believe that you can set more goals and accomplish them.

Springing from this simple beginning, your commitment to a healthier lifestyle begins to grow little by little. Eventually, you will be ready to add more workouts, break into a run during your walks, eat good nutritious meals as a regular occurrence, and plan to get eight hours of sleep most nights.


Effort and Success

This is where Cynical Mike softens up ….

I know that you can accomplish great things if you make the effort to find the way that works for you. Success doesn’t come on a DVD (though the guidance might), it doesn’t come from an infomercial that promises a five-pound weight loss in the first week (but following a good diet will), and it doesn’t come from comparing yourself to the biggest guy or the hottest girl in the gym.

Success comes from defining your dream, applying a plan, and going for it. If you fail the first time, adjust and go again. Keep doing this, and soon you will find the success you are looking for

… and then perhaps Cynical Mike can take a vacation.


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.

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