The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times do what they do well, which is report the news on a range of political, economic, international, and social topics. But most newspapers fail consistently to accurately report about fitness. The New York Times–my go-to news source–does a particularly poor job of informing without confusing when it comes to fitness because of its reliance upon academic studies to drive so much of its reporting. My guess is that most people turn to the Times not because they’re interested in the latest science, but because they’re trying to get fit. So we ought to judge the paper’s reporting on the efficacy of the advice offered.
On the face of it, randomized control trials are the lifeblood of learning. Some people consider RCT’s the gold standard of clinical research because their design allows for a control group against which to study a hypothesis. But fitness isn’t something that’s studied to the same degree as say, cancer, so it make sense to view the most recent studies as one tiny blip on a long continuum of developing knowledge.
I’d go so far as to argue that strength coaches working with athletes usually figure things out in the field first before academia confirms a finding. The former governor of California, also known as Arnold Schwarzenegger, is widely considered the greatest bodybuilder ever to walk the planet. He developed his training methods in the late-60s and early 70s, well before exercise science had developed into the sophisticated academic discipline it is today. But researchers have found evidence that his methods, once derided as “bro science,” had a basis in real science whether he knew it at that time or not. All Schwarzenegger knew is that his methods worked in his own lab. The gym. I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge here that some of his success came from real labs. He’s an admitted steroid user. The fact remains that Arnold’s methods for building muscle worked and have been confirmed by modern fitness experts.
Think about it this way. There are thousands of coaches and trainers out there who’ve been actually helping people get fit for many years. While they aren’t academics, the best coaches and trainers are in business to get results either for their sports team or their individual clients. The real world is their laboratory and wins, losses, injury rates, and body composition outcomes are their results.
What the New York Times and other mainstream news outlets typically do is cite a very recent study to proclaim one thing or another that may or may not prove to be true over the course of several years. To take but one recent example, the Times Wellblog suggested in a post just before Thanksgiving that a study supported the idea of counting every single bite of food one takes as a mechanism for losing weight. Here’s the lede:
“Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season are famously ruinous to waistlines. But a new study suggests that we might be able to fend off weight gain and even drop a few pounds in the coming weeks by taking note of every time we put teeth to food or drink.”
The blog does point out that this strategy worked as a weight loss strategy only for those who were able to stick with it, but that’s a bit like saying that only the only people who get stronger lifting weights are those who stick with it. It’s just not very helpful advice. The point with fitness writing ought to be to not only point out what works, but also what is sustainable, realistic, and practical.
Imagine if the Times took the same approach to reporting foreign policy that it does to writing about fitness. Its reporters, rather than developing sources among policymakers and on the ground in dangerous places like Syria would simply dial up academics and talk to them about the Assad regime. Understand what I’m saying here—there’s a place for this sort of thing. There are some really fantastic international relations and security experts in academia who by definition have the time and the resources to do excellent deep dives into complex topics. But for following events on the ground, a well-written and useful story compiles sources from a number of different disciplines, perspectives, and experiences.
Health and fitness are far from the frivolous topics one might think they are given the news coverage surrounding them. My advice to fitness bloggers at mainstream news sites is to get out of the newsroom and visit some well-regarded gyms and strength coaches. For those of you reading who aren’t journalists? Go directly to the source to get your information: find good people with proven track records and read what they write. You’ll save yourself some wasted time reading about the latest randomized control trial.
If you’re thinking that 2016 is your year to get fit, think about investigating some of the following resources. These are all people who’ve had to prove their results with clients, competitors, and athletes.
Resources for General Strength:
Resources for Competitive Strength:
Local Gyms for Competitive and General Strength:
Dayton Strength and Conditioning (Disclosure: I’m a member there and team up with DSC coaches on occasional projects.)
Resources for Nutrition:
Precision Nutrition (Disclosure: I received my nutrition coaching certification from PN but don’t receive any sort of remuneration from them. I just happen to really love their approach to nutrition coaching.)