Recently, several well-regarded fitness websites published articles that cited “research” concluding that extreme cardio could lead to long-term cardiovascular damage. And while hating on cardio is as fun for me as it is for the next powerlifter, there’s something you need to know…
YOU’RE BEING MISLED
And it’s not just the usual fitness-industrial complex fanatics trying to pull the UnderArmor over your eyes; it’s well-meaning “evidence-based” writers, the ones who’ve taken it upon themselves to interpret the research for us.
An interest in science is a good thing. The problem arises when trainers think they have “reading research” all figured out when they clearly don’t. Interpreting research takes work and practice. And experience. And, ideally, education. Reading some random, publicly accessible journal articles (or worse, abstracts) and thinking you’re now qualified to analyze research is like ordering Dim Sum off the menu and thinking you can speak Mandarin.
So most aren’t sufficiently trained to differentiate between what’s good (or at least applicable) science and what’s not.
And some shady types simply cherry-pick studies or statistics to advance poorly structured arguments.
Or just sell you shit.
RUNNING FROM STUPIDITY
Recently a popular bodybuilding website ran yet another lame “cardio is the devil” article.
Anti-cardio articles are the epitome of preaching to the converted. Most lifters can’t stand doing cardio, so any information, factual or otherwise, that lends justification for strong, fat guys to avoid the treadmill is always well received.
The editors of this particular clunker took it a step further though, choosing to title it “Cardio Kills.”
If you think the notion that cardio will kill you is a bit of a stretch, you’re right. Suffice it to say, the article failed to convince me or any other fitness pro with two functioning brain cells that was unfortunate enough to read it.
The problem with the Killer Cardio article is that it attempted to cite studies to substantiate a head-up-the-ass argument.
At first glance, seeing citations to back up an even dubious claim can be persuasive. But if you look closer and use your noodle, it’s easy to spot the holes.
“Although it’s been suggested that sudden death during marathon training only occurs in 1 in 100,000 people, the majority of those fatalities are from a cardiovascular event.”
Wow, forget a night out in Baghdad, these marathons sound dangerous. They should charge the thugs organizing them with criminal negligence.
But as my colleague Dean Somerset rightfully pointed out, in terms of actual population data — because a statistic without a frame of reference is worthless — the “1 in 100k” stat is magnitudes lower than the rate of sudden cardiac death in the general population, which is 13 in 1000.
Suddenly, 1 in 100,000 ain’t no big thing.
Now consider that we don’t know if that one unlucky bastard out of 100K had a heart condition before opting to run his deadly marathon.
So that scary 1 in 100,000 stat can be summed up as “something that basically doesn’t happen statistically, but when it does happen could very well be due to a pre-existing issue that wasn’t screened for.”
According to physical therapist Jonathan Fass, this is a classic example of how unscrupulous people lie — or how incompetent people fuck up — with statistics. They start out with an agenda to sell and then try to find research, however inappropriate, to support that agenda. Which is the opposite of the scientific method.
“Fitting arguments/evidence to your beliefs versus fitting your beliefs to the evidence only serves to confuse and frustrate,” says Fass. “It holds us back instead of helping to move us forwards.”
So why isn’t anyone out there policing them?
THE PROS AND THE JOES
I have a friend who is a doctor. He is smart.
He’s a fitness expert who also happens to be a surgeon, an MD, and has a Ph.D. And a Masters degree. Plus more than a decade’s worth of research experience specifically in musculoskeletal health and sport medicine.
He’s my go-to guy when I need research, or at least if I need to find out if credible research even exists. Writers from Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, and Experience Life use him as well. He’s also a frequent resource for other exercise science Ph.Ds who need a second pair of eyes.
So my friend is a research pro. Like any pro, he finds hobbyists running amuck in his field a little off-putting. And he finds the snake oil marketers using research to mislead or sell garbage even more disturbing.
But he won’t write about it or blog about it or post videos blasting them. He won’t even talk about it in private to laypeople, avoiding the subject entirely.
In fact, the last time we met up in NYC for brunch, my saying “correlation not causation” led him to almost choke on his $30 omelet.
It’s because legitimate researchers like my friend are well aware of what’s going on. And they care. They just don’t want to get involved.
They’re holding out for Lex Luthor.
LEX LUTHOR AND THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE
When I was a kid Superman frustrated me. People were dying all over the world yet he spent his days wallowing about in his Fortress of Solitude, likely playing Krypton’s equivalent of Sudoku and watching Crossfit fails on YouTube.
The only time he ever even bothered to come out to kick ass was when a really big problem reared its ugly head, such as the latest scheme from Lex Luthor that would threaten all of mankind.
Selfish? Lazy? Nope. Superman was focused on the big picture.
Professional researchers like my friends are the same way.
They can fly around the internet all day putting out mini-fires, calling out poor research and con artists til they’re exhausted. Or they can quietly focus on doing meaningful work that may one day actually benefit society.
The problem is, their absence has created a void – not only for unqualified writers to misinterpret research, but also for hucksters to seriously profit.
It’s even opened the door for dweebs like Dr. Oz to become bajillionaires by being “the doctor who knows more about health than your doctor.”
As you’ll see, opportunists like Dr. Oz are Lex Luthor’s best friend.
X marks the Spot
Dr. Oz puts on his scrubs and talks about the “incredible breast cancer fighting power of X” and there’s a mainstream uproar.
Demand for X explodes. Viewers ask their doctors about it. Cancer patients ask their oncologists for it. Some even go off their lifesaving medications entirely and switch to X, on the basis of what they heard in an overproduced one-hour TV show.
The drug companies soon take notice, especially if they conveniently own stock in X already. Or own stock in Dr. Oz.
And if the hoopla lasts longer than a few weeks, real breast cancer research takes a hit. Endless inquiries about the power of X eventually pressure the scientific community into investigating the claims. Meaning time and resources and money are spent.
So a scientist who has devoted his professional life to fighting the disease equivalent of Lex Luthor is finally forced drop his clipboard, squeeze into his costume and fly off somewhere to perform what amounts to rescuing a housecat from an apple tree.
My friend calls this “scientific distraction” and an “upside-down prioritization of research goals.” It also represents a lot of potentially wasted time and money that could’ve been spent on, say, legitimate breast cancer research.
“There’s always a limited pot for research grants. Funding one project means another one can’t be funded,” says my friend.
In 2-3 years, long after the X hype is a faded memory; a publication will quietly come out debunking the claims. But no one will notice cause like Jay Z, the Dr. Oz Machine is already on to the next one.
No big deal I guess. Unless you or someone you love is affected by breast cancer.
And Lex Luthor keeps getting stronger.
DO WHAT YOU DO BEST
Science is the backbone of what we do. I use science-based practices every day when designing programs or offering dietary recommendations.
And while I’m forever a card-carrying member of the Body By Bro club, I always side with science when my methods are called into question. I’m not a scientist or a research pro. You probably aren’t either. And certainly Dr. Oz isn’t.
So let’s all just do what we do best and leave the research interpretation to the experts.
That way the real scientists can stay holed up in their Fortresses of Solitude, fighting the bigger fight. A fight that affects all of us.
Because whether Lex Luthor is coming back isn’t the question.