March 12, 2013
It’s not easy to be you. How can it be?
You are told one thing about exercise and nutrition one day and then before you know it, you are told something contradictory the next.
Sometimes it all just seems like too much. And I would agree, it can be too much. You shouldn’t have to work so hard to make sense of things. I’m here to tell you it’s not your fault.
I blame the media. Kind of. And scientists. Kind of. And my fellow trainers. Kind of. Let me explain.
If no one reads your articles – which are increasingly being read online – then no one is looking at your banner ads, no one is paying your bills, and you and your media outlet have to shut down. Thus, every story must have some shock value.
No one is going to read the article that says more intense exercise is better than less, you shouldn’t skip breakfast, and that you shouldn’t eat too many carbs at night. So every story that gets headlines reports a study that “proves” (ahem) the opposite.
For example, a recent article in the Washington Post ran with the following headline:
“Less intense but longer-lasting exercise may be better than strenuous workouts”
When you examine the study used for this, you see that the media drew conclusions that cannot be drawn from the study. Notice I didn’t say “wrong” conclusions.
Now we get to the part where I blame the scientists.
The study was so poorly designed; you can almost tell that the researchers set out to get a study that gets them the end result they wanted.
I will keep this short and sweet.
There were three groups studied: a “sitting” group that did very little physical activity, a “minimal intensity physical activity” group and an “exercise” group (emphasis added by me to the last two groups). The results showed that the minimal intensity physical activity group showed more improvement in various measures of health. All you need to do is check out the graphics used to illustrate the problem with the conclusion here:
The study makes conclusions about “exercise” but there are too many variables changing to lead to the conclusions. And of course, the poor, unsuspecting media outlets that trusted the scientists – drew from the results.
Here are the two big problems, both easily visible in the graphic above.
- Note that the exercise group did MVPA (moderate to vigorous physical activity) in the form of cycling (yellow section) while the minimal intensity physical activity did NO exercise at all. They just stood and walked.
- But next, and more importantly, note that the minimal intensity group did far less sitting than the exercise group. Other than the higher intensity exercise, the exercise group sat down most of the rest of the day! What was the difference in sitting time?
I hope you’re sitting down for this.
The exercise group spent 12.7 hours sitting while the minimal intensity physical activity group spent 7.4 hours sitting and about 8.6 hours standing or walking. Yes, that’s right, by forcing the exercise group to sit as much as humanly possible the rest of the day, the researchers managed to “show” that less “exercise” is better than more intense exercise.
Just what a shocking-headline-hungry media and an unmotivated public want to hear!
If you’re interested in reading the details of the study, it is from the Feb. 13 online issue of PLoS One.
Now we get to the part where I blame fitness trainers.
Even when a study is designed well, we don’t know how to use it properly. Many of my colleagues claim to do “Tabata Training,” but not one of them anywhere is actually doing it. In fact, most of them have never even read the Tabata study from 1996. Anyone claiming to do Tabata training is really just doing interval training (not a sexy, catchy term anymore – Tabata sounds exotic and foreign!) where the interval is 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of full rest.
What’s the problem?
Without doing the intensity used in the Tabata study and only using the interval timing used, you are not doing Tabata training. And it is impossible to achieve the intensities used in the study outside of a research setting. You cannot do it with push-ups or jumping jacks. It just can’t happen.
So even my fellow members of the fitness industry have contributed to the problem by using a term they have no business using for training that they aren’t really doing. If Izumi Tabata’s last name were “Jones” no one would be imitating his training.
And you, the poor public, just keep getting more confused. Scientists tweak data to show a “breakthrough,” to score attention, while a media desperate for eyeballs and clicks scoops it up and leagues of well-meaning fitness trainers start haphazardly using whatever buzzwords they’ve heard in the media and from clients in an effort to ride current fads to success.
So which is better, less intense or more intense exercise? I can’t answer that based on the study above. And this is why you can seemingly never get definitive answers – only contradictory ones – no matter how many studies are done. Too many of them are done not in the name of science but in the name of shocking stories dressed up like science.