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The need for evidence-based information in health and fitness

One needn't always wait for a peer-reviewed metanalysis of randomised controlled trials to seek the information

By Kaushik Talukdar

  • Published 18.01.20, 7:14 PM
  • Updated 18.01.20, 7:14 PM
I have ignored introspecting the content (not asking how lemon alone will help me lose weight) and context (people who did lose weight did they do anything else apart from consuming lemons?)
I have ignored introspecting the content (not asking how lemon alone will help me lose weight) and context (people who did lose weight did they do anything else apart from consuming lemons?) Shutterstock

Health and fitness today is a multibillion-dollar industry and it is not surprising that many people want to be part of it. There often seems to be a lot of opinions, myths and contradictions when it comes to information related to health and fitness. Information related to fitness topics is so readily available on social media that most people seem to have a very clear idea in terms of optimising their health and fitness. If there is so much clarity then why is obesity, lower back pain, depression and diabetes on the rise? Today a simple WhatsApp message (solution) in a group circulates with all the right intention to help but in most cases, the information is not only biased but, at times, harmful too. This is not just in the health and fitness industry but even with social and political issues. Therefore, evidence with regards to providing the right information is the need of the hour. This article will discuss the need for evidence-based information concerning health and fitness, although there is a far greater need for social and political issues.

There are many forms of evidence, one does not always need to wait for a peer-reviewed metanalysis of randomised controlled trials (the highest form of scientific investigation) to seek evidence-based information. Rather introspect a given piece of information with regards to both content and context before believing or accepting it. For example, let’s say I get a WhatsApp message saying: “Eat lemons to lose weight.” If I blindly follow that message without understanding the basic mechanism behind weight loss, that is, lower energy intake (calorie consumption) and increase physical activity, then most likely the information is not very helpful to me. In this case, I have ignored introspecting the content (not asking how lemon alone will help me lose weight) and context (people who did lose weight did they do anything else apart from consuming lemons?).

In most cases, experts/ coaches/gurus seem to be the only ones that drive the evidence in the health and fitness industry. This can be a limiting factor due to personal biases involved with anecdotal evidence (individual experience). Anecdotal evidence of an expert can help ask relevant questions and provide the foundation due to their expertise in that specific area, but it still needs to be scrutinised with regards to content and context before making conclusions for a larger and diverse population. For example, a fitness professional who loves to run might prescribe running as the only means to increased fitness levels and improve health to everyone. Not that running is bad but not everyone needs to run or have the adequate resource (time, awareness) to use running as the only means to improve health and fitness. This is relevant across domains today, be it CrossFit, powerlifting, bodybuilding or even yoga, a perfect case of Maslow’s hammer and the nail analogy — if all one has a hammer then everything appears to be a nail.

Furthermore, lack of evidence often tends to promote polarised opinions. For example, claiming a diet plan as the best. Few questions to ponder on the above claim. Why is a particular diet plan best? Is it best for a specific population? How was it concluded that this is the best diet plan? It is easy to get fooled by randomness — we see few people following a diet that looks good, what if they look good regardless of that particular diet plan? Understandably, most people lead busy lives and do not have the time to introspect or question everything. But if they are spending money to improve their health and fitness then investing a little time to make sure that they are getting the right information can be of immense help. A few guidelines below can provide a better perspective in understanding information related to health and fitness.

Try and filter information based on context and wider content (beyond plan/programme): Just because a particular fitness routine or a diet plan has worked for your friend it may not work for you. Many factors can influence results such as genetic predisposition, environment and stress to name a few.

Avoid giving fitness tips to your peers if you are not qualified: Would you give medical advice to your peers if you are not a medical practitioner? Rather share the things that have worked well for you but explain to them why you think it worked for you.

Seek an expert that appreciates an evidence-based approach, that is, not provide polarised views and relies excessively on his/her opinion.

Do not just read the conclusion of a study on your favourite fitness and health topics. Check how the conclusion was drawn. You do not need to check statistical correctness (unless you want to) but looking at the structure/design of a study, participants can help you understand the relevance.

Kaushik Talukdar is founder & CEO of Athlete Institute (www.athlete.institute), a PhD scholar (exercise and sports science) and the author of Sports Fit: Bridging the gap between research and practice. You can follow him on Twitter @coachkaushik or email him: kaushik@athlete.institute

References

Taleb, N (2001). Fooled by Randomness: The hidden role of chance in life and in the markets, Random House, US

Roecker, C (2012). Hierarchy of evidence saves time. Journal of American Chiropractic Association, 7-10

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