|The Brofessor Dom Mazzetti|
Are we going a little too far with "exercise science?"
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
"Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint."
— Mark Twain
Whoever you read or train with, fitness is based a lot on speculation and good faith. We believe things without proof. Actually most of your fitness beliefs; I know you read it somewhere or someone told you, but were you ever told the proof? The proof is typically based on the bodies of the people who initially give the advice, "oh since the first person who told me about calorie counting was really in shape, they must be right."
|Skinny woman doing yoga pose plus inspirational quote is all the proof some need.|
That's a logic fallacy called the halo effect. Meaning since someone is in shape, we assume that also means they're an expert on the matter. The better their shape, the better their expertise (good thing we don't apply this same reasoning to geneticists.) Appeal to false authority is when this person makes claims as if they are an expert even though they're not. If you think about it, someone's shape says nothing about their expertise on a scientific matter. An authority on diabetes may be overweight but their weight plays no factor in their expertise. Their expertise, their knowledge, and their content is what matters. Even still we tend to want to believe the celebrity who happens to be in shape over the doctor or scientist, assuming if the doctor knew what they were talking about, they would be in shape. This fallacy of logic is called an ad hominem. Not being able to follow through with your own knowledge does not mean you lack knowledge; though it may signify a lack of willpower. Cognitive dissonance, when we hold two opposing beliefs and need to decide which one to believe. We tend to choose to believe the more pleasant idea from the more pleasant looking person.
When we see an expensive fitness class in an expensive part of town and see all the thin people, we may assume the class made them thin. In reality it might be that affluent people tend to be thinner. Their shape says nothing about the effectiveness of the class, it may say more about the socioeconomic standing of the people who attend. The appearance of the instructor or the students says nothing about its science. In sales and marketing, they understand the relationship of appearance and belief and use it to their advantage. It's not hard to convince people, people want to believe, because they're aspirational. We ask thin people what they eat as if somehow they stumbled upon the magic diet. Some may be able to remain thin on junk food, some may have a diet that may be adverse to other people. We don't care. We want to believe. They're our living proof that it can be done, a demi-god.
On the left is Dr. Thomas Dayspring, leading health researcher and award winning lipidologist who believes it's not about calories or eating too much fat but rather weight loss is a sugar problem. On the right is Jillian Michaels a famous TV personality (notice how we even use the term personality yet we follow them like authorities) known for her work on weight loss shows. Michaels believes we should count every calorie and weight loss is about avoiding fat, eating less calories, and burning more calories. If you follow the TV personality's ideology, you also then tend to believe if you're fat it's because you eat like a pig (you can't control your calories) and because you're lazy (you can't get yourself to burn enough) which is a very destructive way to think and does not set one up for long term health management, nor is this accurate. It's highly inflammatory, allowing for as much sugar as you want causes inflammation and excessive workouts also causes inflammation and increased desire for more sugar.
Who will people believe? As much as the message about calories has made people fatter and miserable in the past we'll continue to believe it because people who look like Jillian Michaels keep spouting it. If Youtube comments are any indicator, Dr. Thomas Dayspring is an idiot "because he's fat," and Jillian is a genius because "she's skinny." We want to look like Michaels not Dayspring.
|Greg Jackson was never a fighter yet his camp houses the most champions.|
We need to know what we don't know
Health has too many variables. It's only calories in and out if all other variables remain static and all calories behave the same, which will never happen. The energy balance explanation doesn't explain anything. We hear so often how it's so simple, it's about calories. Science is about understanding the complexity of even the simplest things. You simplify everything and all you have are atoms, what's more complicated than that?
A little of something can be good, for example medicine, but too much of it can kill you. Health is not linear, meaning double the input does not double the output like it would in other hard sciences. Instead of it being linear it's a bell curve. Then it's hard to figure out exact amount for maximal quality, especially when we factor bio-individuality.
Health will always have flaws. As flawed as medicine is, strength and exercise "science" is even more flawed. There's less money (when I say less, I mean a lot lot less), less people studying it, the best minds in science do not go into exercise science (sorry to disappoint you but the Einsteins and the Hawkings want to understand the universe not the bicep), and all the conclusions are drawn from observation not math which is how hard science is proven and why it works 100% of the time. If it doesn't they call it theoretical. Softer sciences (their facts are less concrete, less hard, more squishy) don't have that kind of stringent guideline for proof. It's all educated (and sometimes not so educated) speculation. Someone's word or intuition becomes as good as proof (we trust Freud on his intuition not his meta-data), which is why there's so much controversy now about the behavior of researchers in this field who's egos tend to create bias problems. Because funding is difficult the bias can also come from the people who pay for the studies. Often people want to find the data that proves their ideas, this has happened often in diet. This is called confirmation bias -- I think this certain diet is the best way to eat, let me go out and prove it. Sometimes all you need to do a dietary link to cancer study is one doctor, one nurse, a George Foreman grill, and 6 participants...
“A lot of physiologists come into the discipline because they fundamentally like exercise,” Martin Gibala, an exercise physiologist at McMaster University in Ontario, told me. “But you learn very quickly that there’s not a lot of research money out there to fund applied studies.” -- Even if the funding were there, Mr. Gibala says, “That’s not state-of-the-art research that you’re going to publish in the best journals and advance your career.” -- Of course, Mr. Gibala and his peers are not the problem. The problem is that everybody in the fitness industry grabs onto this basic science — plus the occasional underfunded applied study with a handful of student subjects — and then twists the results to come up with something that sounds like a science-backed recommendation for whatever they’re selling."
(Source: NY Times)
Governments would find it hard to convince people why they should fund exercise studies. Gatorade, a supplement company, or the Vitamin D council might. Early Eastern Bloc countries, Russia, and China did fund studies, and we still rely on this old research to this day. A lot of movement therapy was invented by guys who tried things on themselves, it seemed to do something to them, and they wrote it down in a manual. Look up some of their origins. Imagine if we tried to build a computer by putting things together and saying, okay so that seems to do that, or I want to believe that it does that. You'll end up with a box that does nothing. A lot of "research" was not done by trained researchers. Some even by physical therapists and personal trainers. To defend them though, if they didn't, there wouldn't be a lot of research.
Now with the quantified movement and self hacking, people are doing self experiments on themselves, and with wearable trackers, they can collect their own data (hopefully this can be used to create big data in the future).
This is where trial and error comes in but trial and error takes a long time and people are drawing conclusions before there's enough data sets. The other issue is problems and situations are constantly changing. And no one likes going back and admitting they were wrong.
Health is really complex, which is why it should be in the hands of people like The Big Bang Theory guys. I kid but that shift is beginning to happen. Slowly.
Years from now science and medicine when fmri imaging, scans, microbiome, big data, machine learning, classification, genes, and blood tests advance along with our understanding of it, people will look back in disbelief that we used to diagnose/draw conclusions with just observations, opinions, asking a few questions, and with small sample groups. Why? Because it's ripe for error. In other fields facts are facts, in many health fields since there are few facts, opinions are as good as facts, which also creates an environment for ego and bias. The bias of compliance - people who adhere do better, even if it's placebo. So does this treatment really work? Or is it because people who are more disciplined tend to live longer? Demand characteristics of the subject, meaning they'll try to give the results that most pleases the researchers. There's biases in hard sciences as well but molecules, laws of physics, chemicals don't have these types of biases. This is why huge shifts in scientific understanding happens so seldom, and often it's to expand ideas or validate existing theories. For example the Earth is flat, now it's round. That shift took thousands of years and it wasn't just one person, many along the way had this theory and collected lots of data -- from Pythagoras to Columbus until the facts became irrefutable and data sets too large. Shifts in softer sciences happen much quicker, like every day.
This sounds funny coming from me, someone who is supposedly an "authority" on the matter. Though to many people I am not an authority until I post more pictures of what I look like. Go figure.
This doesn't mean we can't do things effectively, it does mean in this world of exercise speculation, there are little absolutes (other than dropping a weight on your foot being bad), and no one will ever know everything.
The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.
Our knowledge is limited, things are complicated, and it's really hard to decipher anything. Which is why health can be so stressful. I feel like I do a good job and when confronted with newer better data, I change my beliefs. Many don't. Many don't know enough to know what they don't know. They get dogmatic and rely on themselves as proof. If they're their own proof, there's a lot of bias. Meaning why would they prove themselves wrong?
The conclusions people draw are sometimes ridiculous. The "science" they rely on isn't as concrete as they make sound. I love mobility and strength and movement is good in general. What each thing means, what each thing leads to, this stretch opens up the heart, this will do that for your hamstrings, drinking this will do that, can become a whole lot of bro and hippy science. People can do long health seminars based on very little evidence. The evidence may take five minutes to go over, though the seminar may last three days. Now if there are certifications, manuals, Youtube videos, and other "experts" saying how great it is, it's as good as truth. One strength and mobility expert tells you not to go to any doctor that doesn't deadlift... I should counter that by saying never go to a strength and mobility expert who knows how to lift but doesn't know how to fight... but I won't because it wouldn't make sense. Don't pretend like listening to someone only because they're strong or "swole" is more serious business than someone else listening to someone only because they're thin. It's the same thing. I get it though, no one likes reading research. It's not sexy. A hot girl or a 1,000lb deadlift, that's sexy. Don't even get me started on the people who start their evidence by saying this is what the "ancients" did...
People will post and share articles kind of as a "see I told you so" saying a new article proves what they were saying was right. Then other people post new things saying, "see you were wrong." No one was right or wrong, the evidence was never concrete to begin with. It's just observations, people never really knew if they were right to begin with, and the nay sayers never really will know if they were wrong.
Example: Barefoot running is bad! Look how many people are getting hurt! But people were getting hurt running prior to the invention of barefoot running shoes, the people who had injuries prior to their invention or the ones who never used barefoot runners, what about them? Maybe it's the way people run, maybe it's people never being trained to run and running too much, maybe its hard pavement and no one was meant to run on those (sidewalks weren't invented with running in mind), maybe it's the obsession with burning calories and they're running after a 2 hour spin class followed by a hot yoga class? Maybe it's because people don't stretch? Maybe people are just becoming more feeble over time? We don't know and we may never know. We're looking for just one cause when there are an infinite amount of causes.
How can we find causation when there's always too much to consider? Then everything is correlation and there is no direct causation.
Example: Dr. Gabe Mirkin got all of sports medicine and the medical community to begin icing injuries. Then in March of 2014, there was new evidence to prove ice wasn't as beneficial as we once thought. This later claim was also made by none other than Dr. Gabe Mirkin. Reasoning? We know more now than we did back then. Things change. He said trying to convince his peers of this new information is nearly impossible. They're set in their ways, even though he's the one who set their ways. Ideas become comfortable.
Common "exercise science" logic
Fitness is a making a lot more claims than it has evidence to back it up. Fitness and money make strange bedfellows. Before we go any further, let's back up and not go overboard bro or sacred moonchild (whatever fitness cult you belong to).
There are no truths in fitness (other than the dropping the weight on your foot thing), just guesses. But some guesses are better than others.
I am reminded of a scene from a Star Trek movie. Captain Kirk asked Spock to make a guess about a situation. Captain Kirk was amazed at Spock's response. Spock was confused.
McCoy: No, Spock. He means that he feels safer about your guesses than most other people's facts.
– From Star Trek: The Voyage Home
It's all guesses but not everyone is Spock.
Sam Yang from an early age has been obsessed with connecting the dots between martial arts and efficiency, health, mindset, business, science, and habits to improve optimal well-being. For more info, join his newsletter. You can also connect to All Out Effort on Facebook and Twitter.