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the fitness skeptic is a blog that takes a critical look at the health and fitness industry.

in it I'll examine the claims, products, practises and commonly held beliefs and SCRUTINISE the evidence.

My aim is to separate what is true from what is not and encourage fitness consumers and fitness professionals to become skeptics. 

I’ll take no prisoners when it comes to criticising the scam artist or highlightling the bogus but I’ll also give credit where credit is due.

Welcome to the fitness skeptic

The Problem with Bro-Science: Fitness in the age of social media.

Bro-Science

Noun

A derogatory term for misconceptions and ideas of questionable scientific credibility, passed around among laymen by word-of-mouth as if factually true.
Most examples of bro-science pertain to biology, fitness and sports where it most often circulates in the fitness, athletic and bodybuilding arenas. Here, many people want to know how to most effectively train but are either ignorant of or do not fully understand the actual science. (RationalWiki.org)

The best personal trainers, coaches and strength & conditioning specialists use science and experience as the backbone of their profession.  The lions share of their training programmes will be designed around evidence based ideas that have been shown to be effective in the lab and/or over the course of time through the success of multiple clients, athletes or teams. It's no coincidence that the best sports men and women in the world have a crack sports science team along with the most experienced coaches backing them up.

However in the real world where most people have no access to high quality fitness professionals or coaches, information is passed around via word of mouth and the pumped up dude down at the gym or the YouTube fitness celebrity is given as much credence as the best coach or trainer.

It's a world of fitness that has existed for many years but it has grown significantly over the last couple of decades with the rise of the health club and gym, the popularisation of fitness magazines and latterly with the rise of social media sites like Instagram, Facebook and YouTube whose fitness channels/pages are used to exploit our obsession with body image. 

In this world, biceps, six packs and gains (increases/changes in muscle size/shape) are obsessed about by men, toned thighs and flat stomachs by women and weight loss by everyone.

Quality of Body over Quantity of Qualification

Unfortunately for everyone the information available from those that use this new media to present fitness content is rarely of high quality and one of the reasons for this is that there're no checks and balances to ensure that those uploading content are actually qualified to do so. In fact the most important qualification to ensure success in the social media fitness game seems to be a desirable physique to show off in pictures or on video. Slim and toned for women, muscular and lean for men. Unfortunately for all, this is no guarantee of a persons experience and/or knowledge. 

When the knowledge requirement for expertise is dumbed down in this way it's inevitable you'll end up with 'experts' that have little or no depth in the understanding they have about their subject. This simply wouldn't be acceptable in any other profession but in fitness (particularly on social media) it's pervasive. 

I regard fitness as a science based subject where expertise comes with a deep and broad understanding of exercise and training and the anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, nutrition and psychology that underlies it.  If you don't know about these things you are not an expert no matter what you look like on camera! Would you let someone wearing a white coat and a stethoscope around their neck treat you if you had no guarantee they were a doctor? I know I wouldn't.  

This lack of expertise leads to problems when it comes to the person evaluating information, rationalising whether that information is appropriate and disseminating that information to other people. This is why bro-science is endemic in fitness. The non-experts lack of an understanding in real science means they don't know what counts as good evidence for anything and those consuming the information are usually none the wiser. 

What counts as real evidence?

Evidence is, broadly speaking, anything that is put forward to support an assertion. So if I assert that a specific training regime will for example, increase your muscle mass I might present evidence to support this. Whether this evidence is acceptable or not should relate to its validity and here is where we start to get into difficulty when it comes to the bulk of the social media fitness community.  They simply don't know or don't care what counts as good evidence. 

It is not acceptable to take someone's personal testimony as evidence for the efficacy of something even though at first glance this might seem perfectly logical.  This sort of evidence is fraught with problems. (see anecdotal evidence) We shouldn't totally discount it, but we need to be very cautious before accepting it.

If on the other hand the evidence presented is backed up by data collected from scientific studies or is from a respected coach or trainer with many years experience with many different athletes/clients you can be much more confident about the truth of what's being passed on. This being the case I don't expect anyone to be able to instantly refer to specific examples when asked but if pressed this type of evidence should be accessible for all to see.  In an ideal world any information presented should be referenced but in the world of social media, this is probably asking too much as the quality of the information is secondary to the amount of clicks the content gets. 

Surely you can't argue with results?

Yes you can and don't call me Shirley ;-)

The "you cant argue with results" mantra is a mainstay of bro-science and again one which at first glance would seem to make sense. After all if someone is telling you that this supplement has worked wonders for their 'gains' and they're built like a brick shit house, then what they're saying must be correct? Or what about if someone tells you that doing these exercises will give you a six pack and they have wash board abs themselves then whose going to argue? Well I am for one.....

It's all in the Genes?

What a person looks like in terms of muscle size and leanness has so many determining factors that it's nigh on impossible to say that this or that has a particular consequence. Genetics for one is a huge factor when talking about physique and this is a factor that, (at least in 2017) is impossible to change but is often ignored by those pushing their ideas on social media. If you have 'the right' genes looking like a Greek god is so much easier than if you don't and unfortunately the majority of us don't have the right genes.

Ask yourself this; how much is the physique presented by this guy or girl down to their training or diet and how much is down to genetics? You might at first glance think that considering they train in a particular way and eat in a particular way then the way they look must be a consequence. These things obviously play a role but the question is how much?

Consider this; are basketball players tall because they play basketball or do they play basketball because they are tall? In this case it's obvious that the latter is true. You don't become tall by playing basketball, you're 'born' that way. A persons propensity to be tall predisposes them to play basketball and their propensity to be tall is genetically pre-determined. The same can be said to a greater or lesser extent about aspects of all sports. Some genetic factor predetermines the likelihood of success. 

What I'm trying to say here in a rather convoluted way is that what a person looks like (their 'results') should not be used as evidence for the efficacy of their training as most of it is down to their genes but this is what most in the social media fitness arena do or at least appear to do. They show off their bodies as evidence for the success of their training and this is the main reason most of their videos and pictures are done with their tops off. Obviously training has a significant impact on how a person looks but it far from tells the whole story. 

The whole story involves genetics, diet, training and supplements with the biggest contributing factor being genetics. Oh, and let's not forget the drugs which often play a significant role in the god like physiques of those that present them. How much influence each specific factor has on the end results is impossible to tell and when all are in play it would be foolish to suggest that one or the other has major impact by itself, apart of course as I've mentioned, genetics.

But for those using bro-science as a method to establish what is effective and their subsequent promotion of this, it doesn't really matter. 

I was watching a Netflix documentary recently about men's physique competitors (a type of low steroid dose bodybuilding ;-) At one point they were sat around discussing what works best to get them into competition shape. None of them could agree on what training, diet or supplement regime was optimal but each was adamant that the way they did it was the best. Strange that! 

Sponsorship

A lot of fitness content promotes or is supported by particular brands the most common being types of dietary supplement. You'll often be told at some point whilst watching a YouTube video for example that you should use this brand of protein powder, this particular pre-workout drink or this post workout shake.  If it's not that blatant you'll often see the specific brand of supplement on presenters shirts or on drinks bottles. You should be suspicious of this and take any recommendation with a pinch of salt. 

One thing that reduces the validity of evidence even in a scientific study is sponsorship. It will almost always lead to conflicts of interest and reduction in research objectivity. So for example if Lucozade funded a study on the efficacy of sports drinks (which they have on many occasions, but that's a topic for another post) you should be cautious about the validity of the outcome, which more often than not favours the sponsors product.  

In the bro-science arena its even worse. Chuck some sponsorship the way of your average social media fitness guru and they'll tell you a product is the best thing since sliced bread. Obviously there's no way of telling whether it actually is, or if it is of any value at all but it makes no difference to the non-expert promoting it or the non-expert who might eventually buy it. 

Managing expectations

One of the things that any good fitness professional or coach does a lot of is manage the expectations of their clients or the people they are coaching. This is because exercise/training adherence is so important for success. If someone has unrealistic expectations about what they can achieve they are highly likely, when those expectation aren't met, to become demotivated and this puts them at high risk of dropping out of whatever programme they may be following which is obviously not the goal.

This is perhaps the biggest failure of social media fitness as those that put out content rarely allude to the fact that those watching are unlikely to achieve the results that they have themselves and when you think about it, why would they. Those that subscribe, aspire to be like the hosts of the channels they like and if these people told their subscribers that this is not likely to be the case even if they were to train exactly like them, eat like them and take the same drugs....sorry I mean supplements ;-) they wouldn't bother watching/subscribing.  

The end result of this (ie. never managing expectations) is I suspect a high drop out rate from training, although I have no data to back this up. However anyone who has read the ACSMs Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription will be familiar with why this is likely. 

People need to have realistic and achievable goals to enhance exercise adherence and I'm afraid this is rarely provided by social media fitness gurus who want to hold on to their subscribers no matter what. 

A problem that wont go away any time soon

Unfortunately as YouTube, Instagram and Facebook continue to grow it's unlikely that the bro-science brigade will disappear from fitness any time soon which is a shame as what appears on social media permeates into the general culture. This means that people interested in fitness (particularly the young) will continue to be exposed to misinformation and unrealistic goals leaving me and my fellow bonafide fitness professionals, to at some stage pick up the pieces! 

Not all bad

To wind up I should say that not all social media fitness channels are bad, there are some good ones out there. The problem is they are few and far between and most are not willing and/or able to know how to distinguish the good from the bad.

In the future I might do a post on good and bad channels. So watch this space. 

References

The Impact of Media Exposure on Males' Body Image. THE JOURNAL OF SOCIAL AND CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY. Vol 23 issue 1 2004.

Idealized media images and adolescent body image: “comparing” boys and girls. BODY IMAGE. Vol 1 issue 4 Dec 2004.

Variability in Muscle Size and Strength Gain after Unilateral Resistance Training. MEDICINE & SCIENCE IN SPORT AND EXERCISE June 2005.

Genetic influence on athletic performance. CURRENT OPINION IN PEADIATRICS Dec 2013. 

A league of their own: demographics, motivations and patterns of use of 1,955 male adult non-medical anabolic steroid users in the United States. JOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY OF SPORTS NUTRITION. Oct 2007. 

Social Media Update 2016. PEW RESEARCH CENTRE Nov 2016.

ACSM Guideline for Exercise Testing and Prescription. Ninth Addition. Chapter 11. Behavioural Theories and Stratergies for Promoting Exercise. 

Science's Worst Enemy: Corporate Funding. DISCOVER Magazine Oct 2007.

The Edge of Reason (part 2)

Donald Trump thinks exercise is bad for you......SAD!