Infographs or Misinfographs?

Infograph or misinfograph, how to tell the difference? I was inspired to look at the exercise related infographs out there after making my own. Those I analyse below were the first to come up in a Google Images search (terms: “exercise infograph”). We’ll take into account that some of these may have been targeted to a specific audience or intent rather than for general consumption, and yet they’re still easily accessible and distributable to the consumer as the top Google Images results, so I believe that critical thinking and referencing rules still apply.

Topics I cover: High intensity interval training, anaerobic vs aerobic, monitoring difficulty, referencing, stretching, and bollocks.

 


 

Infograph 1:

Accurate & digestible but no references or source.

(source: http://theleap.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/image.jpg)

While the information is accurate and the content very easily digestible there is no way to tell who created the infograph and no references to back up any of the information.

 


 

Infograph 2:

Verifiable and sourced but inaccurate and misleading

(source: http://www.killerinfographics.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/ExerciseMyth.jpg)

This infograph is easily digestible, the website and organisation are displayed, and there’s a reference list – but the references all refer to other blogs or non-journal websites! This is essentially no better than a circle-jerk of cherry-picked information that supports existing beliefs. Let’s examine it a little more closely.

While most of the myths on this infograph are correctly identified and addressed, the following carry dubious premises and conclusions:

“Myth #2 – (heart rate) Monitors can falter depending on what kind of exercise you’re doing. Your own body is better at telling you how hard you’re working”

There are essentially two main methods utilised by clinicians for monitoring the difficulty of exertion during exercise, excluding more expensive equipment like VO2max ergometers and Wingate software:

  1. Heart rate monitors, of various types
  2. Perceived exertion scales, with the level of difficulty rated out of 10 or 20 points between ‘very easy’ to ‘maximal exertion’

While heart rate monitors can indeed experience technical malfunction and accuracy is dependent on the type of monitor used, with chest strap monitors considered more accurate than wrist watch or hand grip monitors, they are still a more precise and accurate measurement tool and are generally utilised in preference of RPE scales in the absence of heart rate abnormalities (such as those that might be caused by heart medications such as beta blockers).

RPE scales have their uses and are a quick and easy tool, but to claim that they’re “Better at telling you how hard you’re working” is not only questionable, but simply wrong. Heart rate monitors give objective data which can be used to calculate training intensity based on percentage of maximal heart rate while RPE scales give subjective data which, while useful, is limited in application.

Myth #8 “cardio is not the best way to burn fat”

Quite simply wrong. High intensity interval training (HIIT) was the biggest craze in 2013, and there’s a good reason why – because it works, and it works better at burning calories/energy/fat than any other method. This has been supported by one paper after the next. Some of the original research into HIIT was actually performed at my very own university, not that this makes me an authority, but allow me my moment of pride. This research has shown that HIIT is the most efficient method for losing the most weight in the shortest period of time.

To be fair, this ‘myth buster’ uses the words “best way to burn fat”, so depending on your definition of “best” it could legitimately be argued that long-term sustainability of weight-loss has yet to be demonstrated with high intensity interval training. Further, resistance training has multiple benefits that can’t be gained from aerobic training.

‘Aerobic’ vs ‘Cardiovascular’

That brings me to my final point on this particular myth – ‘aerobic’ does not equal ‘cardiovascular’. This is a common mistake made by both the lay and professional fitness community (but rarely from the health sector).

  • Cardiovascular = the CV system including heart, arteries and veins.
  • Aerobic = exercise that does not induce an anaerobic response, typically referring to the point at which lactic acid is no longer cleared by the liver beyond sustainable levels and begins to accumulate in the blood.

With these points in mind, resistance training and running/jogging/swimming are always ‘cardiovascular’, but may or may not be ‘aerobic’ or ‘anaerobic’ depending on the intensity. Unfortunately, resistance training has become equated with anaerobic, and running/jogging/swimming with aerobic, but this isn’t necessarily always the case.
Case in point being high intensity interval training, which utilises both aerobic and anaerobic training and so may be considered cardiovascular, aerobic and anaerobic, but not ‘resistance’.

Misinfographic myth-busting, busted.

 


 

Infograph 3: 

Easily digestible, sourced and referenced but inaccurate and misleading


(source: http://motivade.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/infographic-the-right-way-to-exercise.png)

Easily digestible, website and organisation are referenced, and yet some of the information is still wrong!

Stretching has been shown to be potentially damaging and even increase risk of injury if performed before exercise. It can have negative effects on performance, power and strength.

All back injuries do not have the same cause. Some are diagnosed and treated as generic ‘chronic lower back pain’, or CLBP , while others may be a result of arthritis, osteoporosis or acute injury. To mass-prescribe a single stretch or exercise to an entire population is simply neglectful and dangerous. While one stretch/exercise might be beneficial for CLBP, the same exercise could be detrimental and even crippling for somebody with osteoporotic back pain. For example, loaded spinal flexion is always contraindicated in osteoporotic patients, while loaded spinal extension is often recommended.

 


 

Infograph 4: 

The Absolute Worst Piece of Bollocks Ever

(source: http://media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/44/24/6b/44246b09275c1b2f1e39deaf085e0761.jpg)

And if you subscribe to this quality of misinfograph then I don’t even know what you’re doing on my blog. Perhaps go back to watching Sesame Street and refresh on the basics – it’s fun to exercise!

(It’s always good to finish a blog post by insulting your readership! 😉 )

What’s your take on the above infographs? Have you come across any particularly good or bad, exercise related infographs or misinfographs?

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The Science of Broscience in Fitness Forums

Earlier this year, Dr Bryan Chung of Evidence Based Fitness wrote this blog post on scientific abstracts and those who share them, along with their opinions, without actually having read the full research articles.
For those of you who aren’t ‘sciency’ minded, an abstract is essentially a very short summary of 2-3 paragraphs length, of a research paper which can sometimes be up to 20 pages long. Full papers usually include background information, methodological procedures, results & statistical analysis, final conclusions, study design floors and suggestions for future research directions. For a relevant example, see this abstract on protein consumption.

An intimidating figure?

An intimidating figure? Full research articles really can be this scary.  (Photo credit: andreasandrews)

It really is as intimidating as you imagine – particularly the ‘results’ section which, from my experience, most science-medical students don’t even pretend to have read when citing journal articles for their assignments. In fact it’s a bit of an in-joke amongst us, and I say that tongue-in-cheek knowing it’s a bad thing! It wouldn’t surprise me to find the same attitude amongst scientific and medically qualified professionals.

After some to-and-fro with Dr Chung (see the comments at the end of his blog post) I found myself agreeing with the essence of his post but in some ways not the method of delivery. Add to this the fact that some important issues ought to be addressed, such as the repercussions of a lack of critical thinking and skepticism in the fitness community and what our role, as fitness professionals, ought to be in all of this.

It’s taken me quite a while to separate out the issues in this topic and to arrive at what I think is essentially complete agreeance with this anti-abstract, “abstracts are entertainment only” viewpoint that is put forward.

Central Arguments

Do you even science? Do you? (Photo credit: Me! Parody of Pubmed.com home page).

Do you even science? Do you? (Image credit: Me! Satire of Pubmed.com home page).

The central argument is this: that people, fitness enthusiasts in particular, are linking to and discussing abstracts in isolation from the context of the full paper. While he doesn’t provide any links to give his audience context (I’m going to hazard a guess it’s at bodybuilding.com where broscience runs rampant), I still believe he makes several good points.

For the most part, if you don’t have access to anything more than the abstract for a piece of scientific research then you’re probably not able to frame the conclusion of a study in it’s proper context. In addition, enthusiasts who have no science background or science education probably don’t possess the cognitive tools to adequately assess the research papers, even if they do have full access to said papers. And by “cognitive tools” I’m not calling anybody stupid, simply referring to the critical thinking and the depth/breadth of knowledge acquired from studying at minimum 3-4 years in a medical or science degree.

That’s not to say that all tertiary science educated fitness professionals are well equipped to interpret the scientific literature – hell, even some pHD qualified Professors at my university probably don’t possess the cognitive capacity to assess the literature with any significant competency, but at the very least they meet minimum requirements.

It really is a matter of appreciating how little we know about topics in which we’re not qualified, experienced, practicing and professional specialists, and being humble about it, and deferring our opinions to those who quite obviously are better equipped and more knowledgable on the subject. I think this, in essence, is the crux of the issue – that many “bro’s”, personal trainers and even fitness enthusiasts in the fitness industry view themselves as experts, and that really is quite problematic.
Just because you can apply fitness protocols to yourself and others, and even see short term results, doesn’t mean that you’re doing it well, that chronic injuries won’t follow, nor does it mean that what you’re doing is methodologically sound. This harkens to the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Repercussions

Are scientific abstracts comparable to movie previews? (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Are scientific abstracts comparable to movie previews? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I appreciate the metaphor of comparing an abstract to a movie preview, while the full research paper is comparable to seeing the actual movie. Let’s build on this by saying that instead of paying $20 for the movie you’re actually paying *$200, and instead of being in English the movie is in a foreign language. Additionally, your understanding of the movie is dependent on your abilities to interpret it, and each person who watches this foreign film has a slightly different interpretation.

Now ask yourself this: how many movies would you see if each of them cost $200, regardless how good the movie is supposed to be? If all your friends were talking about it as though they had seen it, wouldn’t you want to join in the conversation too? Might you pretend to have seen the movie, even though you hadn’t, and just extrapolate from the previews?

Yeah that would be bad, dishonest in fact, but that’s kinda what happens with the online fitness community.

In Summary

Perhaps it’s best to leave it to well qualified professionals to interpret the literature, with full access to scientific research being one of the minimum requirements for interpretation and education. Without making an appeal to authority, I think it’s also a safe bet to say that qualifications in science or medicine are also a minimum requirement, and if you’re listening to a **fitness enthusiast discuss the latest scientific research they found on Pubmed.bro you should probably not only take it with a grain of salt, but the entire salt shaker too.

How does this differ from something you read in the media? Well that’s the point, it kinda doesn’t, and arguably falls on the same rung of the hierarchy of evidence as does a well written, science media article. It’s entertainment, informative, perhaps even useful, but not for redistribution in an educational manner.

Where to Now?

(Image credit: Alan Aragon)

Subscribe. You won’t regret it. (Image credit: Alan Aragon)

So you consider yourself a science and fitness enthusiast? That’s not a bad thing, nor should it be discouraged, and I leave you with a final recommendation: Alan Aragon’s Research Review. He fits the bill as a well qualified, experienced, knowledgable (and well known) exercise physiologist who releases a monthly review/newsletter of the most interesting and relevant fitness, exercise and nutrition based research.
So forget Pubmed abstracts, delete your Pubmed bookmark, and subscribe instead to an exercise physiologist who’s predigested the food for you! It’s not free, but from my experience as a (former, now lapsed) paying member it’s well worth it.

What are Your Thoughts?

What are your thoughts on the topic of abstracts as nothing more than a form of entertainment, similar to that of media articles? Have you experienced bro-science in fitness, or been frustrated by the lack of critical thinking and skepticism? Feel free to comment below and share your experiences!

*1 year subscriptions to scientific journals can cost anywhere between $100 and $600. This metaphor treats a single movie as a 1 year subscription, with the understanding that a ‘movie’ is actually a successive number of research trials and metareviews which require consumption together in order to get a complete picture. Actual individual articles can be acquired for around $35.

**Yes, “fitness enthusiast” includes those who deadlift 300lb’s, are members of their local barbell society, and hang out in well known fitness forums. In fact, it probably encompasses this demographic above and beyond most others – excluding those who are qualified.

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Say What? Why?

If a fitness professional, medical professional, doctor, lecturer, your mother, friend, or brother make a claim, it needs to be supported by evidence. Of course there are different standards of evidence applied to different situations depending on how we gauge their importance, but when analysing medical science or health based claims (e.g. fitness industry related), then peer-reviewed, scientific research is the best available method for acquiring reality-based evidence. Abstracts are even freely available to the public over at Pubmed, and statistics can be accessed at ABS.

Criteria for Providing Evidence

Providing supporting research for a claim or opinion is one thing, but it should meet several criteria (Here I have listed only a few):

  1. Peer reviewed: so that the research has been scrutinised by other qualified professionals in the field, and found to meet a high standard.
  2. Actually support the claim: Why provide “supporting” evidence that doesn’t support a claim? It either means that the conclusions of the research haven’t been interpreted properly, or that the references were thrown in to lend an air of legitimacy to the claims in the hopes that nobody would check them.
  3. Not be superceded by more recent research: studies conducted in 1930 just don’t cut it if there’s more modern research available which is both valid and reliable.
  4. Be valid: does the design actually test the hypothesis and are the results applicable to the real world situation?
  5. Be reliable: If others were to repeat the experiment, would it give the same or similar results?
  6. Be balanced: It’s easy to cherry-pick data – providing references to scientific research in a bias manner in order to support preconceived points of view. It’s much harder, but more honest and rewarding, to review available research and adjust our opinions accordingly.

Be sceptical, be a critical thinker. Demand evidence, and try to avoid believing things for emotional or intuitive reasons, or simply because the local newspaper reported it as such. When this process fails the result is something along the lines of Crossfit, detox diets, acacia berry madness, homeopathy, “organic” food, and acupuncture.

Don’t take my word for it, go out there and gather some evidence.

What are your thoughts on critical thinking in fitness? Feel free to comment below!

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