Eveywhere you go on the internet these days you’ll find blogs, websites, and facebook celebrities dedicated to talking about the application of training and performance nutrition. Some are very entertaining, some are not. Some are based entirely on personal experience, some are based entirely on science. Unfortunately, a lot of them are based on rumors, misinterpretation of data, outright lies, and/or the belief that one only need be a smart-ass to prove anything.
Well, lets look at this a bit differently. Let’s say at the annual conference for the National Institute for Health you saw the following titles on the different talks to be given:
“How ignoring basic physics and principles of biochemistry helped me to prove that my nutrition supplement cures cancer.”
“Molecular biology is the only way to study anything and anyone who doesn’t believe that probably never did valid research in their lives.”
Better yet, what if the following credentials were listed under the researchers names:
“Once hung out and got drunk with Watson and Crick and sold them a lot of lab equipment. Did I mention how awesome I am?”
“Had a lot of really smart people work in my lab, but never influenced their research or published anything worth a damn myself. But that’s okay, I have a really hot lab assistant.”
“Threw the idea that science works out the window and now I just combine all the chemicals in my lab to make pretty colors and some smoke. The cause of death of my lab assistant after the last incident was determined inconclusive.”
Here’s the deal:
- Training is science. There’s no getting around it. Training and training effects center around the human body and its ability to adapt to maintain homeostasis under stress. That’s biology, ie science. Ignoring that and going with a line of BS based on the patchwork of popular training trends is akin to deciding that eating pine needles will make you smarter.
- The reason folks with a lot of experience and little formal education can have a lot of success training themselves and others is because they are very good at observation and making appropriate changes based on those observations. Guess what? Observation is the first step in the scientific method. If you don’t have that ability, it doesn’t matter whose program you use.
- Being sarcastic, opinionated, and edgy may be entertaining, but it does not make someone an expert. Therefore, I should not be regarded as an expert based solely on this rant.
Okay, rant over. Now let me explain what made me write this in the first place.
I’m a scientist with a master’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology. I spent 10 years as a medical researcher in both the university and private sector. In the scientific community, we have a system of peer review. We come up with ideas, perform experiments to investigate those ideas, try to draw conclusions from those experiments, and eventually publish our results. Our results may differ from those of our colleagues; they may actually support another lab’s findings. There is lively debate and discourse and a few experts may take the lead in their field of specialty, but rarely does anyone’s research stand alone.
The fitness industry is different. There are a lot of good ideas and there are a lot of bad ideas and unfortunately, they are all mixed together. The driving force behind ideas in the fitness industry tends to be money. Unfortunately, the ideas that sell are not always the best for the overall health and long-term wellness of the consumer. The even more unfortunate part of this equation is that when an idea becomes popular, even well-meaning, conscientious folks can get caught up in trying to explore or incorporate these ideas themselves. The system of scientific peer review has a tendency to catch these sorts of trends and throw them out. However, in the fitness industry, peer review is replaced by marketing. The popularity of a particular method or diet has more influence on the consumer than its actual effectiveness or safety and unfortunately its easy to get caught up in these trends and have a hard time seeing beyond the limitations. To bring this back to medical research, this is one of the problems with advertising medications. Patients now tell their doctors what they want to be prescribed. On one hand, educating the consumer is good. On the other hand, a company that stands to make a large profit may not be the best entity to be giving advice on medical care.
When listening to the cacophony of opinions out there, try to verify that the people you are listening to have the education and/or experience to back up what they say. Be very wary of the nonscientific method of proving one’s point of view:
- Citing individual journal articles to back up one’s claims (There should be several, review articles are better).
- Explaining broad training or nutrition theories as scientific fact without any human studies to back up their claims. (Animal studies are interesting, but not human).
- Claiming anecdotal evidence as fact. Its not fact. Its a story with a lot of contributing factors. If its not embellished, it is indeed valuable, but tread lightly. Some folks are successful trainers/coaches because they pick and choose who they train and/or they don’t talk about the ones they broke.
So, in conclusion, fitness is a science and in a true scientific setting, there is no “one true path”. Its a continuous journey and although every once in a while, something groundbreaking happens, we should never stop trying to learn more.