Why Are Fitness Myths So Persistent?

We live in a world with more information than ever before. You have more knowledge readily available in your pocket than at any other time in human history. Despite this wealth of information, there are still persistent misconceptions about basic concepts. Flat-Earthers aside, fitness myths are some of the primary offenders. We’ve all heard them before, and hopefully accompany them with the eye-roll they deserve:

“I can eat whatever I want if I exercise.”

“I can tone my muscles”

“Women need different exercises than men”

“I only burn fat at a target heart rate”

All of these are false and are the target of appropriate ire from fitness professionals. But I want to ask a different question. Why are these myths so persistent? Why do we have to disprove these same myths over and over again? If we have so much knowledge readily available, why do falsehoods like these stick around? 

Health is emotional

Health is important. Like really important. I mean, your life literally depends on it. It  is a super emotional topic, and likely to awaken all of the biases and worst oversights of basic logic in humans. Ever try to talk someone out of their religion or politics? It doesn’t go over very well, and telling someone to change their health habits can feel the same way. Telling someone with Type 2 Diabetes to change their eating habits sounds very much like, ‘This is your fault.’ This makes people defensive and combative which is the worst way to change someone’s behavior.  It’s really hard to have a conversation about facts seen with objective judgment under these conditions. That is why the best coaches ALWAYS consider their message and see the client as a person and present information in a compassionate and understanding way. Marketers on the other hand, use this vulnerability to take advantage and separate people from their wallets. We see this in other industries as well such as weddings, pregnancy, and even funerals. People who are in these emotionally vulnerable states are likely to suspend logic and overspend for a $10K baby stroller that’s ‘scientifically-backed’, or a solid gold casket because grandpa was so dear to your heart. The infomercials for the Gazelle and the current Celery-Juicing craze both prey on peoples’ fears to sell them a bill of goods.

Health science is less than perfect

This hurts me to say because I love science and everything it has done to improve our world. But unfortunately there is a major flaw in our scientific models at it pertains to health and fitness. The standard Scientific Method requires you to isolate a variable to determine causes and effects. Unfortunately, humans are dynamic systems that are more like the weather than subjects in a lab, therefore variables are impossible to isolate. You can never say, ‘X always causes Y’. You can only say, ‘we observed X under these specific conditions that resulted in Y’. That is why we get strange headlines like Coconut Oil is Bad for You , and Drinking Tea Will Kill You. These headlines are the results of studies with specific findings under specific conditions, followed by the fallacious extrapolation of results to all people in all cases. It’s obvious that this doesn’t work, and yet knowing this won’t stop the next study from being misapplied to everyone. There is a difference between the studies to be viewed with suspicion and those that have withstood a more scientific rigor. Studies showing the correlation between lifting weights and long term health have been overwhelmingly repeated and tested for use by the broader population.

 
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Since it’s really hard to isolate a variable, we are primed to notice causes for health and fitness that don’t exist. This is called the N=1 experiment, meaning that there is only one test subject. We can’t extrapolate to entire populations from one subject, and when we draw conclusions based on friends or testimonials, we always have incomplete information. We don’t know all the reasons for a friend’s body changes, so it would be wrong to chalk it up solely to their new diet or workout routine. There are a lot of people who are healthy and look good because they “selected” great parents, not because of their exercise or eating habits. Even the testimonials on infomercials are somewhat genuine, but the fact that one person lost weight in a particular way does not mean it is the best way for all people. The common refrain of “I have a friend who does this, and it works for them” is not a scientific argument and shouldn’t be taken seriously, especially when someone is asking for your money. 

Everyone has a Body

The easiest pitfall of the N=1 experiment is when we apply it to ourselves. We all have bodies and eat food everyday so it is easy to think that we are experts on these subjects. This simply isn’t true, as we are not only unreliable narrators of our own experience, but likely the least reliable. Friends are simply better equipped to predict how long someone will last on a new diet or training plan because they are more objective. Being clouded by emotion skews our judgment in predictable ways, most notably the consistent under-estimating of caloric consumption and over-estimation of caloric expenditure. We are not bad people for getting this information incorrect, it is simply how human brains work. That is just one reason why coaching is important, to have an objective view of your choices. Without this outside guidance we are likely to pick exercises and foods we like simply because we enjoy them, and then convince ourselves of their effectiveness after the fact.

Fight the Unwinnable Fight

The reason True Fitness and Nutrition exists is to dispel fitness myths, and give people the tools to change their health and lives for the better. There is good information out there if you know where to look, and we hope to shout from it from the mountain tops to drown out the drivel. It’s frustrating to admit, but I don’t think we will ever get rid of these misconceptions entirely. As long as there are hucksters willing to mislead an emotionally-charged population you will see our current late-night-fitness-gadget-informercial lineup. Even professionals with good intentions are left to sift through scientific evidence that is sometimes flawed and their own personal anecdotes that they are hardwired to overvalue. It’s no wonder there is so much nonsense out there. But knowing can indeed be half the battle, and we’ll need all the help we can get as we continue to fight the unwinnable fight. And amidst the confusion, the truths of health and fitness will stand the test of time and even our natural biases. 

 
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