Fitness and the Media
Updated: Dec 24, 2020
I enjoy reading the Health and Wellness section of the NY Times – well-written discussions and summaries of recent trends and research…with references to boot! Certainly better than much of what is put out there on the Google-verse (honestly, who says I’m going to search the Internet anymore?). It also raises awareness of the need to be active, which is an essential message in sedentary modern age.
However even the best journalism sometimes omits details that count, in my humble opinion. This concern was recently highlighted as the result of sending some emails back to clients after they asked me whether certain Times articles shed a revolutionary light on the way we should approach training (short answer: no).
Unfortunately, not everyone has a fitness professional to run these questions by. So some of these articles may lead readers to draw speculative, or unrealistic conclusions for themselves, resulting in unnecessary confusion, reduced self-confidence or even increased risk of injury. I realize that no accomplished writer is aiming for these results, but this can be where science-based journalists can take their pieces from good to great.
I generally find two issues occur at this higher level of writing related to fitness and the media:
1. Stories Posing as Fact
Fitness anecdotes and stories, while compelling and motivating, fail to identify their one weakness in the realm of research. They are a study of 1 (or as us geeks call it, an n of 1). Therefore, what may work for that person, won’t necessarily work for everyone, or you. It’s never the author’s way or the highway – think critically about what is presented and if it’s really sound advice for you and your unique situation. Only one person knows your body best – and that’s you. Don’t ever forget that.
Story Under Discussion: Fitness Crazed
Response to My Client:
“I just looked it up online and read it – and the author makes good points. As in most aspects of life, simpler is better. Consistency breeds results – the key is doing the movements properly and avoiding injury as you continue to add weight or intensity. I’ve seen or heard about too many people injure their backs, knees, shoulders, etc. with loss of form. Or consider what happened when you went faster a couple of weeks ago on the treadmill – we were able to work together to adjust your form so you used your abs and hips instead of lower back.
And despite the author’s preference for barbell training (or another person’s preference for marathon training), many people have gotten fit from other variations, like p90X, because they liked it and did it consistently. It’s really whatever floats someone’s boat and keeps them motivated to stay active.
Trainers can fill many roles beyond dictating what to do (though that is an important role) – for some it’s motivation, accountability or paying attention to good form. But yes, making things needlessly confusing and complex is useless. My goal is to teach someone to fish, but if they want to keep coming back for fishing lessons, I’m not opposed because I know that even the best athletes in the world have knowledgeable trainers and coaches looking out for them.”
2. Inflated Implications or Unproven Conclusions
When taken to the extreme, this situation can become the equivalent of a promoter or agent hyping a new fighter – they’ve got the “next best thing.” You’ve never seen anything like him before. He’ll be the best, no doubt about it. Then all the fans turn up for a first round knock out by the defending champ. At least the promoter (and maybe the fighter) got paid.
In the case of health or fitness research, the fighter is a new study that indicates a potential new correlation between two variables (i.e. egg intake vs. cholesterol levels, or exercise intensity in mice and an increase in a particular hormone related to fitness or health). If you actually read the studies, they are long, wordy and often…boring. Unless you have a working knowledge of research design and basic statistics, you’re probably staring at the equivalent of a foreign language.
Journalists know this, and so rather than crossing their “t” and dotting their “i” by mentioning the statistical limitations and possible confounding factors of a research article, they only go for the sexy stuff – the breakthrough “conclusion.” Unfortunately, the headline conclusion that everyone reads and acts upon can greatly misrepresent what actually occurred in the study – either by making the result seem more important than it really is, leaving out important limitations, or by jumping to a conclusion that is not supported by the study (correlation does not make causation).
Granted journalists need a hook, but once the reader is hooked, I hope journalists will do the reader justice by giving a fair and accurate representation of what truly occurred – the facts and just the facts. No hype. The bedrock of good journalism. And if the journalist does not know how to interpret the studies, they should reach out to people who do.
Story Under Discussion: For Fitness, Push Yourself
Response to My Client:
“Interesting study. A few facts to note:
1. It was a mice based study, not humans.
2. The mice that displayed supernatural results (103% I believe?) were in fact, supernatural. They were bred to over exhibit a particular metabolic protein (CRTC2) which amplified the results. It’s like saying taking steroids will make you gain muscle faster. The normal mice gained 9%
3. Just because something improves results in the short run doesn’t necessarily lead to long term safety (I’d want to follow up on the heart health of those rats in a few years). See the steroid argument above as well.
4. All that being said, yes it’s probably better to work a bit harder if you can in Good Form. If you push yourself at the expense of your joint health you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.
A few good sayings to train by:
1. Push yourself mentally, listen to yourself physically 2. Feel the effort in muscles, not in the joints 3. The harder you train, the harder you need to recover (low stress lifestyle, sleep, good nutrition)”
Image: Stuart Miles and FreeDigitalPhotos.net