More Fitness. More Knowledge. More Results.

The Cost of Gullibility, Skepticism, and How to Evaluate Claims

My thought process since graduation has changed dramatically. I’m often faced with questions that I don’t know the answer to; the difference between two years ago is that I have no problem saying that I don’t know the answer to a question. I would much rather tell someone I’m not sure than give them my opinion which may be wrong. I’ve digested far too much misinformation in my life so I would rather not contribute to the confusion by giving an uneducated opinion (not to say I don’t know anything, I’m quite the nerd).

Following the advice of Nick Tumminello after a phone call concerning my appropriate response to a rebuttal article on my posture piece on thePTDC I purchased the book ‘Think” by Guy P. Harrison. The book deals largely with skepticism. Guy states;

“Millions throw away money on garbage ideas and rip-off products. Millions sacrifice irretrievable hours, days, and years of their lives on hollow claims” (Harrison 27). I see this all the time in the fitness industry with people spending endless amounts of money, desperate for a quick fix to lose weight, decrease their pain, or get the body of their dreams. I see this happening to aspiring as well as veteran fitness professionals, spending money on seminars and products that really aren’t backed by science. We have to remember, belief comes after proof, not the other way around. These people should incorporate a little skepticism in their lives. While skeptics often are characterized as closed minded this couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Skepticism is just about having a healthy dose of doubt and using reason to figure out what is probably real from what is probably not real. It means not believing you know something before you can prove it or at least make a very good case for it. Skepticism is nothing more than thinking and withholding belief until enough evidence has been presented. It means keeping an open mind and being ready to change and able to change your mind when new and better evidence demands” (Harrison 26).

There are in infinite amount of bad ideas that sound good presented to laypeople that in turn spend their money on health fixes they don’t need for problems they don’t have. Here try this fat loss pill the results are astonishing!*

*results not supported by evidence

Unfortunately for people spending their money on fat burning supplements the majority of the research shows that any one ingredient has minor effects at best (if it’s legal). But this is everywhere and once your eyes are open to it, it’s really quite laughable and at the same time disheartening. I’ve heard claims that running makes you fat (in fact this one has reemerges it ugly head on Facebook about once every four to six months) or that you can prescribe diet based on where body fat is deposited. These one’s are easy to spot but what about when your trusted health professional (chiropractor, massage therapist, personal trainer) tells you that you’re likely to get an injury, but they know how to fix it (for ten sessions at $100 a pop). What happens when a trusted nutrition expert tells you that if you don’t take this supplement you won’t lose weight?

So how do you fight this seemingly unending barrage of misinformation with people supporting bad ideas with cult like allegiance?

English et. al. had a nice review called “What is “Evidence Based” Strength and Conditioning” in the Strength and Conditioning Journal. The ideas here can be applied to strength and conditioning professionals as well as the non fitness professional just looking to avoid spending any more of their money on useless fixes for boogeymen problems. English defines evidence based training for strength and conditioning professionals as, “a systematic approach to the training of athletes and clients based on the current best evidence from peer-reviewed and professional reasoning” (English et. al 19). He breaks down evidence based practice into a five step systematic process.

DEVELOP A QUESTION

The question should be precisely defined. One thing we go over in my personal training class when talking about movement assessments (specifically the FMS and if evidence supports it) is that you cannot apply data garnered from one specific population to another. Just because a study shows that the risk of injury for a bad FMS score predisposes a professional football player to an 11x greater injury risk doesn’t mean I can apply that data to your grandmother! The authors provide the acronym “PICOT” which stands for population, intervention, comparison, outcome, and time.” The question that you ask should have all of those components. For example, is a resistance training program (intervention) of pull ups or chin ups (comparison) a better biceps muscle builder in previously trained healthy college aged males (population) over the course of 12 weeks (time)?

FIND EVIDENCE

Evidence can be obtained through a variety of sources. Some of my personal favorites are through search engines like SPORTDiscus and through professional websites like the National Strength and Conditioning website where all of their journals are readily available online. I also like the Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association as I’ve found most of their pdf’s are free. Professional experience can also be counted as evidence although it’s not as good as a form of evidence as peer reviewed studies.

EVALUATE THE EVIDENCE

If presented with evidence the incorrect response would be to try to counter evidence with opinion. Sounds all too logical but I hear it all the time. I present a study with 600 participant’s that shows that pelvic tilt and lumbar lordosis has no correlation with low back pain. My evidence is countered with opinion or the quote of some other expert’s opinion (BUT SO AND SO SAYS SUCH AND SUCH!). The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery introduced a system for ranking levels of evidence which is particularly useful when conducting a debate. The lowest level of evidence is expert opinion. In order the following levels of evidence in order from lowest to highest are:

Case series(no control group) < Case-control study, retrospective cohort study, systematic review of level-III studies < prospective cohort study, poor quality randomized controlled trial, systematic review of level II studies or nonhomogeneous Level I studies < Randomized controlled trial and systematic review of level I randomized controlled trials.

INTEGREATE THE EVIDENCE INTO PRACTICE

If the evidence presented is strong then a training modality should be integrated into practice. For example it’s been proven that Olympic lifting improves explosive power. If a strength coach is working with an explosive athlete then they should consider, because of the evidence, integrating some Olympic weight lifting. If the evidence is weak or inconsistent than perhaps time would be better spent on other training practices (English).

REEVALUATE THE EVIDENCE

As I mentioned above, being a skeptic means It means keeping an open mind and being ready to change and able to change your mind when new and better evidence demands. For example, right now I don’t see the utility of the functional movement screen. Based on the current evidence I don’t believe I need to use it. However, if new evidence is presented that says the FMS can identify compensation patterns, that it is useful for injury prevention in the population that I work with, and that doing the corrective exercises that the FMS prescribes will improve movement quality than I will accept the use of the functional movement screen.

CONCLUSIONS

As a strength coach, or simply as a human being, it is easy to get lured into following bad ideas. You will undoubtedly be approached by someone or some company one day asking you to buy and distribute their fitness products.

“This fat loss pill will be a real game changer for your clients!”

“Buy my gluten free sausage links for your athletes!” (I swear to God I got an email from someone asking me to do this”

As a person that lives on the planet Earth, someone will approach you with promises of the perfect body if you follow their program (P90X and Insanity are examples of promises you’re bombarded with daily). Someone will predict an injury for you and will try to convince you to buy their services. So what do you do to avoid getting caught in these traps of gullibility? I’ll end with some questions to ask and things to look out for that I borrowed from the book Think.

  • Ask if the claims made have been published in a respect journal
  • Ask the person who is making the claims their credentials
  • Look out for the salesperson using anecdotal stories about people who have used their product

References

English, Kirk L., Amonette, W. E., Graham M., Spiering B. What is ‘evidence based’ strength and conditioning? Strength & Conditioning Journal. 34: 19-24,2012

Wright J. G., Swiontkowski M. F., Heckman J. D. Introducing levels of evidence to the journal. The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. 85: editorial1-3, 2003

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