How Do We Know Things (In Health and Fitness)
When it comes to fitness one thing we have in abundance is information. Believe it or not, this isn’t a recent trend, even 30 years ago we were bombarded with advice. Family and friends touted the ‘cure that worked for them’. Books and magazines held the promise of the Ultimate Workout Routine, and VHS tapes that guaranteed washboard abs in 8 minutes.
Fast forward a decade and the internet held the promise of more information. The answers to all your questions are just a click away! Unfortunately more isn’t necessarily better and we find ourselves looking for the needle of quality information in the haystack of uninformed opinions.
When it comes to the question ‘who do you trust for accurate health information?’ The common answer is scientific studies, but this also requires a bit of scrutiny. Not all studies are created equal. I once had a client tell me there’s a study that shows the health benefits of tequila, hoping that I would give her the green light for a weekend bender (Arriba!!). After explaining that even with published studies we have to look at the sample size, demographic, variables controlled for, (not to mention misinterpretations when getting the information second hand) I simply told her that a night of drinking would sabotage her gains.
If we can’t trust Aunt Judy’s tummy tea, Fitness Celebrity’s new book, internet guru Swolebruh3000’s anecdotal evidence, or even the latest university study, how can we ever find out what is true regarding our health and fitness? To answer that, we’ll look at a more fundamental question:
How Do We Know Things?
That’s the question I pose to students on day one of the personal training course that I teach. The discussion plays out something like this:
Me: How can we declare something is true? How do we know things?
Student 1: We know things that we feel.
Me: Can you always trust your feelings?
Student 1: Yes.
Me: Have you ever been really angry over something trivial and later realized that you overreacted because you were hungry? Not to mention the numerous people who go to the hospital each year thinking they’re having heart attacks only to find out that it’s a panic attack. Perhaps we shouldn’t trust our feelings all the time.
Student 2: We don’t know anything!
Me, holding up my oh-so-fragile coffee mug: What would happen if I dropped this on the hardwood floor?
Student 2: It will shatter.
Me: How do you know that?
Student 2: I’ve seen it happen before.
Me: You’ve seen me drop this particular mug on the floor before?
Student 2: No but I’ve seen people drop mugs and glasses and all kinds of things on the floor and I know what happens.
Me: So you’re saying you’ve observed objects falling toward the earth before, and you draw a conclusion based on…
Students (after some head scratching): Cause and effect!
Me: Ok great! We have a starting point, observing cause and effect. Now that begs the question, what type of things are we good at knowing?
This usually elicits some confusion.
Me: Let’s say you give a 7 year old child the following items: a rock, a bamboo plant, and a human baby. You tell them to take good care of each object all by themselves without any help. If you come back one year later to check in, how will the rock be doing?
Me: How about the plant?
Students: Probably ok.
Me: How about the baby?
Students: Probably dead.
Me: Why is it so easy to take care of the rock, relatively easy to take care of the plant, and difficult to keep a baby healthy?
Students: The first two are much simpler, less complex.
So we’re good at knowing simple things because they are predictable. Let’s look at a simplicity/predictably scale:
Atoms Molecules Plants Animals Humans Groups of humans
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More Predictable Less Predictable
The study of atoms is physics.
The study of molecules is physics + chemistry
The study of plants is physics + chemistry + botany
The study of animals is physics + chemistry + biology + behavior
The study of humans is physics + chemistry + biology + psychology
The study of human groups is physics + chemistry + biology + psychology + sociology
In our search for truth the question we must ask is ‘Will this consistently yield the same result?’ This is relatively simple when it comes to physics, but with each subsequent layer of complexity we become less sure of behavior. If you drop or throw a rock, it’s pretty easy to predict where it’s going. If you offer a dog her favorite treat, you can bet a hefty sum that she will gobble it up without a second thought. But offer your coworker, Bob his favorite cupcake and the outcome is not so predictable. Perhaps he’s on a diet, or he doesn’t want to look glutinous, or he is spiteful to the person offering said cupcake, etc, etc. This is why the field of health, wellness and fitness is so damn confusing, because…
Humans Are Complicated!
Science vs. Anecdote: The Good and the Bad
A scientific study aims to answer our question,‘Will this consistently yield the same result?’ At its best, a well structured study can give us a piece of the puzzle, even if it falls short of the entire truth of reality. Meta analyses go a step further by examining data from a number of independent studies of the same subject to determine overall trends. The more well vetted data we can look at, the more accuracy we can have in our health claims.
At its worst, poor studies can make claims that can’t be reproduced. Along with that, a study that’s interpreted poorly can be misleading. The evening news seems to excel at this, making outlandish claims used as scare tactics to keep viewers hooked. Many popular health books take this approach, presenting cherry picked or misleading information to create a gimmick that will sell.
Bad Anecdotal Evidence
You likely hear bad anecdotes on a daily basis. A friend tells you how they lost 20lbs on ‘new diet trend’. A yoga instructor tells you the practice will give you ‘long lean muscles’. The old timer at the gym gives you the ‘Back in my day’ advice. While well intentioned, the advice often yields inconsistent results or does more harm than good.
Quality Anecdotal Evidence
In the high stakes world of professional and collegiate athletics, motivation is high to find out what methods yield results that lead to olympic medals, league championships, and million dollar contracts. Coaches can often create a lab-like environment. Working with a large number of athletes/clients over a period of years, an astute coach can pick up on trends seeing what works on the field of play and what doesn’t. They stick with what works regardless of whether it’s backed by published research or not.
Think of it this way, if you put 100 people on an island with ample food and gym equipment and told them that they get $1 million for each pound of muscle gained over the next 5 years, chances are they would figure out some efficient methods to accomplish that muscle building goal!
This is surprisingly similar to the early days of bodybuilding. Back in the 60’s early bodybuilding enthusiasts would try different techniques and methods and share their training and nutrition methods with their muscle-bound brethren. There was no million dollar prize but there were substantial bragging rights.
The former Soviet Union epitomized this essentially running a 30 year experiment with their athletes from the 70’s through the 90’s. The medal count speaks to the practicality of careful observation of informal experimentation.
When vetting a coaches method we can ask: has this coach attained consistent results with lots of clients over a long time. If the answer is yes, they may have figured out some truths.
The Best of Both Worlds
To get to the truth of health and fitness we would be best served by using 2 sets of eyes, our Coaches Eye and our Researchers Eye. We can look at the best published research as well as what has yielded results on the field of play. At the highest levels, these 2 heavily influence one another. Researchers can base a study off of what has worked for successful coaches. On the flip side successful coaches use published research to implement and refine new training methods. Successful coaches can figure out what works, and researchers can explain how and why these methods work.
In our search what’s true in health and fitness let’s not take any claim at face value. Let’s seek out and cross reference multiple sources of information both from the lab and field of play. A synthesis of the best available information will certainly put us on the right track to getting optimal results for our clients as we course correct our methodology in the never ending pursuit of fitness truth!
…For The Nerdiest of Nerds
Above, we saw one direction for the predictability scale as things get bigger and more complex, but what happens when we go the other way down this scale? Oddly enough, as things get smaller and smaller we also see less predictability.
Light Subatomic Particles Atoms Molecules
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Less Predictable More Predictable
So the full scale of things we study would look like this:
Light Subatomic particles Atoms Molecules Cells Plants Animals Humans Groups
< – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – — – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – ->
Unpredictable Predictable Unpredictable
We do a pretty good job at knowing about the ‘medium size’ things in the middle. The smaller things get and the larger things get, the less we know. On the bright side, there’s always more for us to learn and discover!