Fitness and the Media

I wonder if this is how the media does it's research...

I wonder if this is how the media does it’s research…
Image: Stuart Miles and

I enjoy reading the Health and Wellness section of the NY Times – well-written discussions and summaries of recent trends and research…with references to boot!  Certainly better than much of what is put out there on the Google-verse (honestly, who says I’m going to search the Internet anymore?).  It also raises awareness of the need to be active, which is an essential message in sedentary modern age.

However even the best journalism sometimes omits details that count, in my humble opinion.  This concern was recently highlighted as the result of sending some emails back to clients after they asked me whether certain Times articles shed a revolutionary light on the way we should approach training (short answer: no).

Unfortunately, not everyone has a fitness professional to run these questions by.  So some of these articles may lead readers to draw speculative, or unrealistic conclusions for themselves, resulting in unnecessary confusion, reduced self-confidence or even increased risk of injury. I realize that no accomplished writer is aiming for these results, but this can be where science-based journalists can take their pieces from good to great.

I generally find two issues occur at this higher level of writing related to fitness and the media:

1. Stories Posing as Fact

Fitness anecdotes and stories, while compelling and motivating, fail to identify their one weakness in the realm of research.  They are a study of 1 (or as us geeks call it, an n of 1).  Therefore, what may work for that person, won’t necessarily work for everyone, or you.  It’s never the author’s way or the highway – think critically about what is presented and if it’s really sound advice for you and your unique situation.  Only one person knows your body best – and that’s you.  Don’t ever forget that.

Story Under Discussion:  Fitness Crazed

Response to My Client:

“I just looked it up online and read it – and the author makes good points.  As in most aspects of life, simpler is better.  Consistency breeds results – the key is doing the movements properly and avoiding injury as you continue to add weight or intensity.  I’ve seen or heard about too many people injure their backs, knees, shoulders, etc. with loss of form.  Or consider what happened when you went faster a couple of weeks ago on the treadmill – we were able to work together to adjust your form so you used your abs and hips instead of lower back.

And despite the author’s preference for barbell training (or another person’s preference for marathon training), many people have gotten fit from other variations, like p90X, because they liked it and did it consistently.  It’s really whatever floats someone’s boat and keeps them motivated to stay active.

Trainers can fill many roles beyond dictating what to do (though that is an important role) – for some it’s motivation, accountability or paying attention to good form.  But yes, making things needlessly confusing and complex is useless.  My goal is to teach someone to fish, but if they want to keep coming back for fishing lessons, I’m not opposed because I know that even the best athletes in the world have knowledgeable trainers and coaches looking out for them.”

2. Inflated Implications or Unproven Conclusions

When taken to the extreme, this situation can become the equivalent of a promoter or agent hyping a new fighter – they’ve got the “next best thing.”  You’ve never seen anything like him before.  He’ll be the best, no doubt about it.  Then all the fans turn up for a first round knock out by the defending champ. At least the promoter (and maybe the fighter) got paid.

In the case of health or fitness research, the fighter is a new study that indicates a potential new correlation between two variables (i.e. egg intake vs. cholesterol levels, or exercise intensity in mice and an increase in a particular hormone related to fitness or health). If you actually read the studies, they are long, wordy and often…boring.  Unless you have a working knowledge of research design and basic statistics, you’re probably staring at the equivalent of a foreign language.

Journalists know this, and so rather than crossing their “t” and dotting their “i” by mentioning the statistical limitations and possible confounding factors of a research article, they only go for the sexy stuff – the breakthrough “conclusion.”  Unfortunately, the headline conclusion that everyone reads and acts upon can greatly misrepresent what actually occurred in the study – either by making the result seem more important than it really is, leaving out important limitations, or by jumping to a conclusion that is not supported by the study (correlation does not make causation).

Granted journalists need a hook, but once the reader is hooked, I hope journalists will do the reader justice by giving a fair and accurate representation of what truly occurred – the facts and just the facts.  No hype.  The bedrock of good journalism.  And if the journalist does not know how to interpret the studies, they should reach out to people who do.

Story Under Discussion:  For Fitness, Push Yourself

Response to My Client:

“Interesting study. A few facts to note:

1. It was a mice based study, not humans.

2. The mice that displayed supernatural results (103% I believe?) were in fact, supernatural. They were bred to over exhibit a particular metabolic protein (CRTC2) which amplified the results. It’s like saying taking steroids will make you gain muscle faster.  The normal mice gained 9%

3. Just because something improves results in the short run doesn’t necessarily lead to long term safety (I’d want to follow up on the heart health of those rats in a few years). See the steroid argument above as well.

4. All that being said, yes it’s probably better to work a bit harder if you can in Good Form. If you push yourself at the expense of your joint health you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.

A few good sayings to train by:

1. Push yourself mentally, listen to yourself physically
2. Feel the effort in muscles, not in the joints
3. The harder you train, the harder you need to recover (low stress lifestyle, sleep, good nutrition)”

In the Mind of a Nutritionist

Mmm, water.

Mmm, water.  At Basic, in Jersey City.

I originally wrote this post for the Hospital for Special Surgery blog, which you can find here.  The HSS On the Move blog has a great series of rehab, fitness and nutrition blog posts, please do check it out!

From the HSS On the Move Blog, “In the Mind of a Nutritionist” (me!) –

“I eat chocolate. And I eat salads. I don’t count calories, but I pay attention to my portions (i.e. I know when I’ve eaten too much). I try to eat slower, a constant battle considering my genetics. I drink diet soda a couple times a week, but I drink a lot of water every day. I drink a glass of wine or beer on occasion. I drink a green smoothie most mornings (thanks to meeting my wife). I exercise a fair number of days per week, but I’d always like to do more. And I’ve maintained my 30+ pound weight loss for the past eight years – which got me into this whole fitness and nutrition field to begin with (I used to be an engineer). These are my habits, and they allow me to achieve what I want in my life.

Will things change in the future?  Sure they can. And then I’ll tackle those goals when they come. If I wanted to train for a marathon, I’d have to change some habits. If I wanted six pack abs, I’d have to restrict a lot more. In fact, I went for them back when I was losing my weight in 2005 and when I got to single digit body fat percentage and a good outline of 4-pack abs, I felt like food was becoming my enemy – not a good feeling. I guess that’s why most bodybuilders are miserable right before competition.  So I’m ok not being ripped.  I can still deadlift 300 pounds. And I can run. And I can spend time with my family. And most importantly, I’m happy with all of those results because no one is the judge but me.

This is why the glut of fad diets and misrepresented nutrition research infuriates me. People stop listening to the most important part of the healthy eating and living equation – themselves. Yes, I have the background in nutrition and exercise science that can help someone run faster, jump higher, drop inches or recover from training better. But in the end it’s not about me. It’s about you. I can’t force someone to be motivated and accountable (a.k.a. the dream client, or a fair number of athletes). I can merely explore the hopes and dreams a person has and figure out how eating and exercise can best complement them in that pursuit.

When I meet with clients, I always remember there are two experts in the room: I may be an “expert” in nutrition and exercise. But my client is the expert in their own life, preferences, routine and habits. And to get long-lasting change, we need a partnership. I promote people, not plans.”

TELL ME: What’s your dream?

The Seven Questions: A Journey to Sustainable Fitness, Part 2

Taking Action - Fast or Slow

Taking Action – When the Rubber Hits the Road
Image: Microsoft Images

The first two questions, which can be found in Part 1, focused on the “why” – whether you’re ready to change your habits, and if so, what your motivations for change are.  There’s a saying: With a strong enough “why,” the “what” and “how” make themselves clear.  These next three questions will focus on exactly that: the what and how to achieve sustainable fitness.

Questions 3 & 4: The Past Leaves Clues

Question #3: Which of your habits do you think have contributed to your current condition?

Review where you’ve been to look for ways to improve going forward.  Think about a time in your life when you were in better physical condition or health, even if it was a few decades ago.  What were your habits then?  Did you eat better?  Were you more active?  Did you sit less?

I’m not implying that you need to become the person you were many years ago.  But tracking your life from that point will reveal the progression of habit changes that led you to your current circumstances.

Of the less-than-ideal habits that have become your routine over the years, which are modifiable? For example, you can always eat more fruits and veggies again, but if you have osteoarthritis, certain physical activities may be off the table (but not all of them!).  To figure out the causes of habit changes, you can draw a timeline of your health or weight and make inflection points where your body changed significantly – was it when you started a new job?  Graduated from college?  Got into a new relationship?  Then think about how your habits changed as a result of that inflection point.  Write down all of the factors you can think of. The more ideas you have, the more opportunities you have to make improvements…and get results.  Questions #4 and #5 will build off this list.

Question #4: Have you successfully changed your non-ideal habits in the past? If so, how? 

The list you created from Question #3 is full of insights into the challenges you’re facing when trying to make positive changes to your eating or physical activity habits.  Now, how can you best tackle those challenges?

Previous successes are a great place to look for ways to improve your current situation. If you’ve been successful with working through challenges in the past, walk yourself through how you did it – even if those challenges weren’t related to nutrition or exercise.  Are you a planner? Do you make it a point to avoid temptations?  Do you take it one small step at a time? Do you reach out to experts for guidance?

If you’ve been successful with a diet or fitness plan before, think about what aspects of the plan were not only successful, but also felt sustainable.  What strategies did you create to stick to the plan, even if only for a few weeks or months?  Which of those ideas and techniques can you use this time around?

Remember also which aspects of previous plans were not sustainable. Those are strategies you may want to avoid in the future. Are there any extremes you now know to avoid, or any “happy mediums” that you can pull from your experiences?  For example, did a previous diet require eating no grains, ever?  So you went from eating four servings of grain a day to eating zero…and then eventually realized that maybe you’d like to eat a piece of bread or pasta again at some point in your life? A happy medium could be two servings per day – not none at all, but not too much.  That’s an improvement on your current habit, but it’s more sustainable than your previous attempts. List any and all ideas that come to mind.  We’ll sort out the ideas with Question #5.

 Question 5: Putting It All Together

With the previous two questions, you’ve assessed what factors brought you to your current health or fitness situation, as well as what personal strengths and previous experiences you can use to overcome them.  Now it’s time to take your potential solutions and hold them up against your current comfort zone. This is where the tires hit the pavement and progress begins.

Question #5: Considering your current circumstances, what is one action you can take to get closer to your goal? What steps will you take to make that action possible?

Human behavior research shows that we’re really only good at changing one major habit at a time.  Maybe two if you have a lot of time, motivation and accountability.  But as you increase the number of changes you make, the odds of any of them sticking shrink very close to zero.  And that’s why lots of the good ideas you had during previous diets or fitness plans didn’t stay around…they were probably linked with a lot of other extreme or restrictive requirements.  So rather than ditching just the unrealistic stuff, you may have ditched all of it.  The baby and the bath water.

So instead of throwing a bunch of stuff against a wall and seeing what sticks, take a look at your current habits, preferences and lifestyle to figure out what is most likely to stick –  and go for one educated throw at a time.  Each throw represents a particular action that’s an improvement in your eating or physical activity habits, such as exercising one more day per week, eating four more servings of veggies per week, drinking one more glass of water every day, walking an extra 1,000 steps per day, etc.  If it works, great!  If not, then you have lots of other ideas to try from all of your brainstorming these past few days…try one or two at a time until you find the ones that work for you.

For more ideas on getting started, check out the Resources page or pick up a copy of Death of the Diet. It focuses on the eight most common habit changes that have been shown to get results and provides pages of tips for taking action on each one.

If you’re ever not sure about whether a particular habit change will work for you, imagine yourself performing it – actually picture it in your mind.  Then ask yourself: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how sustainable does this change feel to me; how likely is it that I can make that part of my regular routine?”  If it’s not a 9 or 10, what would have to happen for you to get closer to a 9 or 10?  If you can’t raise that feeling up to at least a 7, then consider a different action.

Once you’ve chosen a habit to change, write down all of the practical steps you’ll have to take to support the change.  For example, if you’re going to go running one more day per week, how will you make sure that happens?  What day will it be?  When will it be, morning before work or evening?  Will you have to go to bed earlier the night before so you feel rested?  Will you have to move the alarm away from your bed to make sure you get up?  Will you go to bed wearing your running clothes so all you have to do is wake up and put on your sneakers?  Do you need to leave work earlier – and will that mean getting certain tasks done earlier in the workday?  Do you need to bring your sneakers and running clothes with you to work?   The more you plan ahead and write down the exact details of what you’ll do to make your new action possible, the easier and more likely it’ll be that action will happen. Death of the Diet also has a hefty section on creating effective plans to take consistent action.

So after brainstorming on today’s questions, you’ll have a particular habit you’re going to change to get you closer to your goals, and a set of steps to describe how you’ll take action on a regular basis.  Part 3 will explore ways you can make sustainable fitness changes even easier…and what to do if you run into bumps along the way.

Measuring Fitness Results Beyond the Scale


Weight: Only One Marker of Fitness Results
Image Courtesy of Microsoft Images

The one instrument that most people use to measure health and fitness progress – the scale – is the one that we have the least amount of control over.  Lots of other things influence weight (i.e. time of day, recent meals, what you’re wearing, the scale you use, the time of the month, maybe you’ve gained muscle, etc.), and it’s usually the last to respond to the progress we make compared to many other markers such as better energy levels, less stress and even a slimmer waistline! You may lose inches before pounds if you’re gaining muscle and lean mass while losing fat.

So while body weight is one way of measuring fitness results, by no means should it be the only one.  I like to “triangulate” results with my clients.  In other words, if someone does want to track weight, I try to have them choose at least a couple of other indicators of meaningful results, such as:

  • Pants, dress or waist size
  • Ability to perform a sport or daily activity better
  • Energy levels
  • Stress levels
  • Hunger levels
  • Self-confidence levels (in your body/physique)
  • Non-Scale Victories (NSV’s)

I came across the idea of NSV’s in a book called Coach Yourself Thin, written by Michael Scholtz and Greg Hottinger.  An NSV is any success you’ve had in the past day, week, or month related to eating better or being physically active that is not related to your weight, but is still meaningful for you.  Something as simple as saying “no” to a free cookie and choosing a piece of fruit instead is a non-scale victory.  Here’s a link with more examples:

Ultimately, weight is really just a means to an end, whether it’s looking sexier, performing better or feeling more energized.  Connect with the real reasons why you want to lose weight and track those too.  Then when looking at results in 4, 6 or 8 weeks from now, review progress on all counts and consider the majority: if your waist is slimmer, you feel better, and you have a list of 10 NSV’s staring you in the face, odds are the improvements you made to your eating and exercise habits have had a positive result, even if the scale only shows a couple pounds of weight loss.

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