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.

Be sure to follow updates to this and other Skeptifit blog posts by entering your email to the left, subscribing by RSS, or following me on Twitter, Facebook, or Fitocracy!
Advertisements

Second Life – Virtual Fitness Centres: What’s it all about?

If you’re more concerned about getting involved with this virtual gym as quickly as possible, and don’t really care about this science stuff, then skip down to the third heading.

A Quick Outline

My avatar pumping iron.

My avatar, Jaye Jeffries, pumping iron.

A relatively recent news article in the science media highlights some of the discoveries of a longitudinal study conducted in the virtual environment Second Life, with the goal of delivering a weight loss and exercise program and comparing the differences between a face-to-face approach with a virtual online approach. After looking at the paper it appears promising, though there are certainly some questions that should be addressed about the methodology. First we’ll look at the research, then we’ll delve into an actual virtual gym in Second Life which is freely and publicly available to all.

Study Design Details

The study split 20 participants, 17 of which were female, into two groups, the face-to-face (FTF) group and the virtual group, and was conducted over a 9 month period with the first 3 months focussing on shorter-term weight loss and the following 6 months focussing on weight maintenance. Results showed that the FTF group had a greater degree of weight loss overall, though the virtual group had a greater degree of weight maintenance. With weight maintenance being an essential factor for long-term weight loss, that probably makes the virtual approach a little more superior even though the FTF group showed slightly higher degrees of weight loss.

Let me be honest here, while the study talks about “statistical significance” and differences between the two groups in this regard, there is also the concept of “clinical significance”, meaning that, in the real world – is there really enough of a difference to make it noticable and worthy of use as an intervention? In this regard we might consider the two groups identical in a clinically significant manner, and that’s a good thing! Perhaps the only drawback for this study is that the exercise intervention itself isn’t elaborated on, so I’m left to conclude that it wasn’t very thorough, but taking into account that the research focusses more on nutrition than exercise this can be overlooked with the expectation that future research will focus more on that aspect.

There were other benefits too for the virtual group over the FTF group, including signficantly greater fruit and vegetable consumption and higher levels of exercise (walking) as measured with a pedometer. Finally, to finish with the authors conclusions with which I completely agree:

“An adequately powered, longer-duration trial, with adequate assessment of potential mediators and moderators, is warranted to further evaluate the potential of Second Life as a delivery system for successful weight management.”

In my view, virtual and online environments continue to hold an untapped potential for helping to decrease barriers to exercise, and this study is the tip of the iceberg in many studies to follow that will help to unveil this hidden potential.

What’s all this about a gym in SL that you can access?

The most interesting part is that you can access Second Life fitness centres yourself, for free, where you can discuss exercise technique with real life professionals, get advice on nutrition and exercise programming, or just socialise and meet new people who are going through a similar experience. What makes this different to a real gym? There’s no cost, it’s far more accessible, and it acts as an introduction for people who might be too nervous or self-conscious to step foot into gym or fitness centre. I stress that there is a real need for translation of this platform into real life, which is what the discussed study begins to explore – the exposure and delivery of weight management techniques and how they translate into real life.

There are a number of Second Life fitness centres available, but my favourite by far – and which is actually funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) based on the above research study out of Kansas University, is the Avatar Fitness Club, hosted and run by the eXtension team. While there aren’t any events planned as yet, though promised to come, be sure to check it out and if you run into Thynka Little, DFox Spitteler, or even myself (Jaye Jeffries), be sure to say hi!

If you need more convincing, check out their Facebook page for more info.

Contemplating the potential for virtual exercise prescription.

Jaye Jeffries contemplating the potential for virtual exercise prescription.

(I’m a Second Life nerd from way back, so you’ll have to excuse the excitement from this post. The possibilities of combining two of my passions is an almost overwhelming possibility)

Have you visited the Avatar Fitness Club in Secondlife, and if so, what did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Be sure to follow updates to this and other Skeptifit blog posts by entering your email to the left, subscribing by RSS, or following me on Twitter, Facebook, or Fitocracy!

ESSA, Michelle Bridges, and Why You Shouldn’t Say That Exercise is “Fun”.

English: Michelle Bridges at the film premiere...

Michelle Bridges (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Media Article

Back in August, Michelle Bridges, a personal trainer popularised by the Australian hit tv-series “The Biggest Loser“, came out with this article in the Sydney Morning Herald, on why personal trainers should stop calling fitness “fun”. Let me say straight up I’m inclined to agree with her, at least to an extent.

Her views are well balanced and seem to be in line with managing clients expectations about what exercise entails. While exercise certainly can be fun, particularly in the case of team sports and aerobics, activities such as high intensity training, sprinting, jogging, and weight lifting – all those that probably carry a majority of the benefits seen from exercise – probably aren’t best encapsulated with the noun “fun”.

My Thoughts

Challenging? Yes. Life altering? Yep. Healthy? Of course. Self-esteem building? You bet. But fun?
Ummm, no, no not really, not the first concept I would be using to introduce exercise to a newcomer. With that said I think it’s important to have an element of fun in all of the workouts we participate in, but to white-wash exercise in general as “fun” is definitely misleading for the average customer.

Now I’m neither a fan nor an opposition of Michelle Bridges, and I’ve probably seen a total of 10 accumulated minutes of The Biggest Loser over it’s entire duration, but I think it should be clear from her article that she’s targeting personal trainers who are using the “fun” concept as a way to draw in new customers, regardless of their expectations as to what exercise may actually entail. This could potentially destroy their motivation to exercise when they discover that it’s really not as fun as they were lead to believe.

The Plot Thickens with ESSA’s Response

Now to the crux of the matter. How did ESSA (Exercise & Sports Science Australia), the registration and organisational body for exercise physiologists and scientists respond to Michelle’s article via their Facebook page? Well yes, I’ll tell you because if you’ve read this far you’re probably keen to find out. The response was along the lines of:

“Dear Michelle, we here at ESSA believe that exercise is not only good for your health, but that it’s also fun!”

Isn’t that trite? A nice one sentence sound-byte for the masses.  And why did I say “along the lines of” instead of quoting them directly? Well they removed their quoted response from their FB page after I criticised their reaction, though I assume it was still sent in some public form as a Tweet, article response or message to Michelle Bridges (My Googling skills failed me on this instance, sorry I can’t provide the exact phrasing).

English: A senior citizen while practicing his...

A senior citizen while practicing his fitness exercise. Is this ‘exercise’, and is it ‘fun’?  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This response came from the registration body who we’d hope have a better and more complex understanding of the issues surrounding the psychological and physiological complexities of exercise compared to the average professional provider, but nope, Michelle’s article was passively denegrated without truly understanding her message.

Tensions Between Personal Trainers and Exercise Physiologists

Why? I have a theory. I’ve noticed a lot of tension between personal trainers and exercise physiologists – if you’re in the field, tell me why you think I’m wrong. I’ve noticed two primary characteristics of the tension that exists between PT’s and EP’s:

  1. Many PT’s believe they already possess the knowledge and expertise of an EP, while being unaware of the complexities involved in training chronically ill clients
  2. Many EP’s continually denegrate the role of PT’s, while being unaware of the valuable role that PT’s play in exercise delivery to healthy populations
  3. The fields overlap to some extent, and although EP’s are more highly qualified they may not possess as much hands-on experience (due to EP being a relatively new profession) as PT’s in the field, some of which may have 20+ years of experience.

These observations come from both my experience as a professional personal trainer and the views espoused by my lecturers and peers (eg ESSA) while studying exercise physiology. I won’t lie, I’ve denegrated personal trainers on countless occasions myself – the degree of appalling quality exercise delivery and outright commercialism for every fad exercise modality that comes to my attention is overwhelming, but there are certainly good PT’s out there who are experienced and know what they’re doing, they’re just hard to find.

I’m at a loss for a solution to this divide between the two professions, but I will say this – I was disappointed with ESSA’s trite response.

In Summary

Nobody’s perfect, but let’s be humble, and to the PT’s out there – let’s stop telling clients that “exercise is fun” and make more of an effort to manage their expectations. That doesn’t mean there can’t be fun aspects to exercise, nor does it mean we should torture clients in the way that Michelle Bridges does on TV, but let’s try to find a happy middle ground where benefits are seen while managing expectations and avoiding making exercise a chore.

Exercise should be for life, not for the term of the contract.

What are your thoughts? Should fitness be advertised as “fun”, or is the term overused?

Be sure to follow updates to this and other Skeptifit blog posts by entering your email to the left, subscribing by RSS, or following me on Twitter, Facebook, or Fitocracy!

Counterproductive Cliche’s of the ‘Big & Beautiful’

There’s a dangerous attitude out there, one which has been festering for a number of years and is probably a proponent of the Oprah Winfrey movement, I like to call it the “Big is Beautiful” syndrome. This particular group of people spout cliche after cliche, using faulty logic to support their denial that there is anything wrong with being overweight or obese and that people are spending far too much time on the topic of health, fitness and weight.

Obesity Campaign Poster

Obesity Campaign Poster (Photo credit: Pressbound)

Playing the Victim

These venomous types will twist and turn, claiming that they are discriminated against based on their size, that anorexic supermodels and superstars are providing negative role models for our youth (let’s do a reality check: are America and Australia full of overweight and obese, or have anorexics suddenly taken hold of the streets?), and that women should not be worried about their weight at any rate when, and I quote (from some random journo’s blog):

“Whining about weight is the ultimate shiny object that women continue to focus their attention on, instead of:
– fighting for social justice, at home and abroad
– running for political office and kicking ass when we win
– creating astonishing works of art
– waking up every single day grateful for their health and strength, the not-so-simple ability to walk and stand and reach for things without pain
– knowing that women all over the world are dying of starvation, malnutrition and in childbirth”

Etc etc ad nauseum, supposedly an extensive list of why you are misplacing your concerns, but in reality it’s an excuse list.

Did you get that? If there are problems in the world, or in politics, or with animal cruelty, or perhaps just your kitchen tap isn’t working properly, then you shouldn’t be “whining” or even thinking about your weight as there are more important things to worry about, and after all, you can only fix one problem at a time, right? RIGHT? (well…no, actually).

My Thoughts

I won’t lie, it irks me particularly when journo’s who have a good deal of exposure spout drivel continually, as they have a duty of care to do their best to dispense useful and accurate information, not catering to the fragile ego of a particular demographic who want to be coddled until they’re feeling the full glory of a  diabetes induced coma. Sure it feels good telling people what they want to hear, and everybody’s feeling-the-feels and congratulating each other on accepting themselves for ‘who they are’, but in the long-term there’s serious damage being done by this blatant disregard of reality (On the matter of journalists being scientifically illiterate and ignorant and dispensing horrendous advice is one which I plan to write about in the future).

house-built-on-sand

Bad health and excessive weight is a shaky foundation on which to build your emotional, intellectual and spiritual development.

The Moral

What’s the moral here? This isn’t just a whine about people who (ironically) tend to spend their time whining about people who are whining about their weight. The moral is this – do not let people like this, with their superficial facade of positivity and “oh honey you’re gawdjuss just the way you are!”, don’t let them tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t spend time improving yourself, your health, and your well-being, just because they have failed to do so themselves and need to surround themselves with other failures while propagating superficially positive but truly negative beliefs and attitudes. Don’t let them delude you into ignoring the consequences of being overweight or obese, nor how big these problems are in America and Australia and their impact on the healthcare system. If you find yourself tiring of conversations about health and weight, perhaps it’s time to do something about it.

Every person on this earth has the right and the obligation to take care of themselves and each other, but (and now it’s my turn for a cliche, so why not?) how can we take care of each other if we can’t or won’t take care of our own physical health? If we don’t create a very solid foundation, there is no chance of building a stable structure on top.

Don’t surround yourself with fake and dangerous, self-delusional positivity. Sometimes, a good hard smack in the face is good for us, and forces us to see what we’ve been ignoring for way to long. Let’s not delude ourselves or let others delude us, let’s stay true to our goals. Don’t ever let a random Joe tell you to “give it up”, because you can and will achieve greater health and well being if you just ignore those coddlers.

Is Big Really ‘Beautiful’?

Big is not “beautiful”, big is heart disease, obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, cancer, fatty liver disease and sleep apnoea, to name a few.

What are your thoughts? Is the “big is beautiful” attitude a problem that you often experience, and is it something that we should spend more time addressing?

Be sure to follow updates to this and other Skeptifit blog posts by entering your email to the left, subscribing by RSS, or following me on Twitter, Facebook, or Fitocracy!