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Why You Shouldn't Take Health Advice From the News

Last week, a shot of a television screen kept popping up in my Instagram feed. The tv screen showed a list of exercises that people over 50 should avoid, all of which were strength training staples such as push-ups and squats. The background was the royal blue of local news shows.[1] The shot was posted by a number of my peers, who, of course, disputed the misinformation. (If modified to accommodate any restrictions, all of the exercises would be incredibly helpful to an aging client.) The tone of these posts ranged from annoyance to outrage, but the newscast didn’t surprise me at all. People have taken in by health misinformation since the days of snake-oil salesmen and beyond. The only way we can combat it is by examining why we’re so easily misled, why the news might not be the best source for health information, and, finally, which wells are safe to drink from.

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My mother, on the phone the other night, exclaimed that an article in the Houston Chronicle said it was “again” okay to eat red meat. “They’re always changing their minds.” By “they,” she presumably meant scientists. I tried to explain to her that what the news shows is hardly consensus, and that, even within the scientific community, consensus is like so much shifting sand. Perhaps it is the use of the word discovery that allows us to persist in our hope that at last we have found some firm fact upon which to rest. After all, in archeology, a discovery is definitive. Theories on the ancient culture that built King Tutankhamen’s Tomb, for instance, may be provisional, but the presence of the tomb itself is indisputable. It can be touched. It has been discovered in the most fundamental sense of the word, meaning uncovered. And here is the crux. Evidence is discovered, whereas a theory is created and scaffolded upon it. The theory is necessary if we are to derive any use from the evidence, for from theory application is extrapolated.

Not many of us are particularly interested in the science of health itself. If we bothered to link back to the scientific articles themselves, we would find a lot of hedging language. Peer-reviewed journal articles postulate, and most seem to end with a note that “more research is required.” But this is not helpful to us. We want to know what to doto perform and feel better, to live longer. We would rather not burn up energy sifting through the evidence itself, parsing causation and correlation. The fact of the matter is that we’d rather have a half-baked conclusion that is actionable. So that is what the news gives us. Conjecture is distorted into certainty, into dos and don’ts in bulleted lists. Save the bare evidence for the nerds.

Even in highly respected news sources, ones that wouldn’t deign to give you a bulleted list, still must run the interpretation of a journalist who presumably has limited knowledge and limited space in which to present that knowledge. For instance, an article was published in the New York Times last week proclaiming that, based on the results of a new study, muscle growth is dose-dependent, but strength is not, and that the same strength gains can be made by training for 13 minutes three times a week as by training seventy minutes three times a week. The study was valid for its population, and was conducted by some big names in the field. Within the confines of an eight-week study, the conclusion drawn is supported by what we already know: strength is primarily a neurological adaptation, and doesn’t require the same volume as a tissue adaptation (muscle growth). However, what the writer either didn’t consider or didn’t have the word allowance to mention is what happens after the eight-week study. What happens is you hit a plateau. There is a ceiling to how much force a certain amount of muscle can produce. Eventually, you need more contractile tissue to produce more contractile force. The best training programs recognize this by either alternating the focus of training or training both adaptations concurrently.

So if you can’t trust the news, who can you trust? I wish the answer were as simple as “your doctor,” or “your acupuncturist,” or “your trainer,” but the truth is that just because someone has a title in front of their name does not mean that they think deeply, critically, and flexibly about what they do. They are, weare, after all, humans just like you and we too like certainty. We like foregone conclusions and the feeling of having everything figured out. We can be just as bad as the news. Taking this into account, I’ll leave you with this: seek the advice of experts, but seek those who have an ongoing pursuit of knowledge. Seek those who can say that they don’t know, those who acknowledge that their treatment or training model is just that, a model. It’s something that works, for now, and that is subject to change. Seek those who acknowledge toothat their model is not the only one that works. These are the people who will truly be able to listen. The rest will be deafened by their own bias and dogma.

[1]The list was attributed to the Carolina Orthopedic and Neurologic Associates, but let’s not forget that the newscast has stripped it of any context. Besides which, doctors are sadly sometimes more interested in reducing short-term risk, and therefore legal culpability, than in enhancing long-term outcomes, but that’s an article for another week.