Should you believe the fitness hype?

I see this over and over again among otherwise very intelligent people; an odd belief that the latest “big” thing in exercise or weight loss will be a magic bullet that suddenly brings them the body they’ve always thought they should have. Zaggora hot pants (Burn more calories!), Skechers Shape Ups (reduce cellulite!), green coffee extract (100% natural!) – the list is basically endless. Leaving aside the notion that this will somehow make them happy (for I haven’t the knowledge or skills to even begin to tackle that), why do these bright people fall for it?  I can’t answer that either. It’s potentially very harmful though – this tweet from @nchawkes says it rather well:

People end up spending frightening amounts of time, money and energy on these promises, and even when there’s temporary success (often due to diving into a new regime with a positive opinion, in my totally-un-evidence-based opinion) ultimately there’s stagnation at best, failure or regression at worst. These things are hugely destructive to body image and overall self-image.

So if I can’t explain the fascination with these things, the least I can do is provide a small extra weapon in the battle against profiteering and misinformation in the fitness world.  (Aside: it’s worth noting that much of the misinformation is spread amongst well-meaning friends, just trying to help one another; this type is just as difficult to address as any other dearly-held belief).

My first pearl of wisdom is hardly novel: anything that seems too good to be true, is. The cold hard truth is that you can’t permanently change your body without permanently changing your diet and lifestyle; they needn’t be massive, life-altering changes, but they must happen. You also can’t permanently change your body by throwing money at it instead of good quality food and exercise (unless we’re talking surgery; that’s pretty permanent).

My second piece of advice is: apply critical thinking. Is there something you’re naturally skeptical about, or distrustful of? Apply that same level of suspicion to diet and lifestyle advice. New device guarantees weight loss in one workout? Great. What’s the mechanism? Does it seem plausible? Is it more likely that it’s just helping dehydrate slightly, thereby losing water via sweat? Never ever forget that water’s heavy; 1kg (2.2lb) per litre to be precise. Doubt everything. 

Thirdly, and maybe most importantly (and predictably), demand evidence. Good quality evidence at that. Be ruthless. Be picky. Crucially, don’t accept anecdotes. These are everywhere in weight loss fads, to the point that I feel they’re worthy of a specially-adapted version of the anecdote rules:

  • Did the person gain the advertised benefit, and maintain it?
  • Was the advocated treatment the only one used?
  • If it’s really so good, why aren’t doctors and fitness professionals everywhere advocating it?

I’m hoping to look at some individual claims in more detail, but hopefully this post will at least serve as a cue to get you thinking about the way you look at claims in the weight-loss industry.

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Posted on March 31, 2013, in Evidence, Fitness, Skepticism and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on nclperformance and commented:

    This piece is cross-posted from my personal blog, Evidence Based Skepticism. It seemed relevant to share here too, and I’ll be sure to also share any updates. Enjoy!

  2. I’m willing to try anything, as long as it doesn’t involve eating less. 🙂 Honestly, I used to be obese some years ago, and I got such blank looks when people used to ask how I lost it “I ate less, ate better, exercise consistently”. And no, I certainly have not given up carbs.

    • Thanks for reading 🙂 I was obese myself (and still carry more body fat than I’d like), and honestly the lifestyle changes needed to change that weren’t massive – they just needed to be permanent. I exercise several times a week, and don’t give in to every food craving I have. It’s clearly not that simple for a lot of people, but it’s got to be the first step in any attempt to change your body shape.

  1. Pingback: So you think you do Tabata? | Evidence-Based Skepticism

  2. Pingback: Why you can’t believe weight loss testimonials | Evidence-Based Skepticism

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