We all want to be stronger, better looking, and more healthy. We all want it to be easy. Everyone is looking for “the method”—a straightforward method to get the most out of your workouts. After dietary pseudoscience, exercise is the next worst category of pseudo-scientific misinformation. The Internet and television are full of ideas and/or anecdotes recommending this or that. Exercise is a complex issue and, simply put, you are a custom build. There is no shortage of someone selling something to “make their workout better.” Like dietary “woo,” there is usually scant evidence and large amounts of ideological proselytizing.
In fact the evidence related to proper exercise is complicated and nuanced. Complicated science is ripe for exploitation. I myself have fallen prey to some of this type of chicanery. For example, I once had a pair of strength shoes, parodied as “Jimmy’s shoes” in an episode of the 1990s television show Seinfeld. They were advertised as isometric training shoes that would allow the wearer to jump higher. Not a shining moment as a nascent skeptic but still an excellent example, in my opinion, of the exploitation of plausibility. Needless to say workout routines, devices, and supplements are often completely based upon anecdote and athlete endorsements.
Lets look at some common workout advice skeptically.
- “Get strong, not skinny”
Yes: adding muscle mass will add to your overall baseline metabolism, but this is an oversimplification of a complicated issue. There is good research showing that straight weight training raises overall blood pressure and has negative impact on cardiovascular risk. Overweight individuals should focus on calorie reduction, strength training, and cardiovascular exercise—all of them. Do not favor one over the other.
- “Drink X amount of water per day”There is no set amount of water you should drink daily. Despite Dr. Oz’s recommendation that you ought to perform a weight-based calculation and drink that amount of H2O every day, there is no basis for this advice. You can have too much water: hemodilution can result in life threatening complications and even death. The truth is that a 100 kg, 30-year-old male bicycling 50 miles in the desert has vastly different water needs than a 75-year-old, 60 kg female walking three miles on an air-conditioned indoor track. Any hard and fast rule that tells you to drink a certain amount of water daily is pseudoscience.
- “Supplements can ‘raise your metabolism'”
Whenever you see the words “boost your metabolism” be skeptical. Most supplements don’t do anything. However, even if supplements perform as advertised this would not be desirable. Any supplement that can affect your body’s metabolism directly could cause a host of deadly side effects, such as tachycardia, fatal arrhythmia, renal failure, or thyroid dysfunction. Exercise is the only safe way to increase your basal metabolism. There have been deaths from this type of supplement. Recently, a supplement called methylhexanamine, DMAA, or geranium extract resulted in 89 fatalities in the US. Products promising to boost your metabolism typically do nothing, but they can put your health in danger.
- “Sleep more to slim down”
This is not completely false. Good un-medicated rest is beneficial for recovery from workouts. That does not mean that you can sleep your way thin, despite good ol’ Dr. Oz claiming exactly that: “The old saying ‘you snooze, you lose’ couldn’t be more accurate when it comes to shedding pounds. According to Dr. Oz, depriving your body of sleep can speed up the aging process and deter your weight-loss efforts. ‘The brain craves carbohydrates when you’re tired, so you could unknowingly sabotage even the best laid plans,’ he says. Aim for a good seven hours (minimum) of shuteye every night to allow your body to restore and to protect vital organ functions.” No, every part of that statement is unproven. Most of it makes no medical sense at all, or is meaningless double speak.
- “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day”
This is total unequivocal rubbish. It’s long been assumed that routinely eating breakfast is a simple habit that helps prevent weight gain. Skipping breakfast, the thinking goes, increases hunger throughout the day, making people overeat and seek out snacks to compensate for missing that first, and some would say vital, meal of the day. Well-controlled, rigorous research has shown that breakfast has either little or no effect on weight gain, and that people who eat breakfast end up consuming more daily calories than those who skip it.
- “Protein shakes during workouts help build muscle”
There are many problems with this suggestion. Overloading your digestive system with specialized protein to achieve quicker, more powerful muscle growth is fallacy. It is an oversimplification of what your body does. This topic could be a whole post in itself. Restricting protein slows recovery but overdosing does nothing. If you are eating a well-rounded diet with low-fat, high-quality protein like egg whites or chicken at about 40% of daily calories you are maxing out your bodies ability to utilize it. No matter the quality, concentration, or frequency of protein consumption, there is a maximum your body can use. You are probably displacing other necessary nutrients like insoluble fiber. There is no research showing a benefit from eating simpler protein sources like whey protein. It is cheaper by weight to eat chicken, that is about the bottom line. If you are a vegetarian or vegan exerciser, proteins powders derived from plants may be worth that extra cost for you. Otherwise, protein shakes are expensive not likely to “produce better results.” Woo-promoter Mike Adams has made alarmist claims about heavy metal in protein powder, but this is only fear mongering. The contaminants he warns about have been found in such low amounts that even if you are consuming gallons of protein shakes the drink is more of a danger to your organs than the metals.
There are many more examples of workout advice/devices/supplements—the issue is too complicated for one short blog post. The best advice is the simplest and common-sensical: keep your workout program simple; see your physician and get checked out; understand that training has to be adjusted for age, weight, and sex. There are a few sport-specific scientific studies, but most science indicates that individualized programs work best. The best diet is one that is well-balanced and free of costly, unnecessary, and potentially harmful supplements. Usually, protein should make up about 40% of your food, max. Take the time to calculate out your daily caloric estimate. There are good online calculators, such as the one provided by the Mayo Clinic. Just remember they are estimates based on the honesty of your reporting. Low-impact cardiovascular exercise has the greatest health benefits overall.
Avoid programs and advice that are rigid and regimented. We are all custom builds. There is no one secret, or even group of secrets, for easy, effortless health. Stay away from anyone who has a vested financial interest in selling you something. Chances are it doesn’t work and is a waste of money. Most importantly: steer clear of any product/site/or advice that focuses on the most woo-filled subjects or uses buzzwords like “boosts your metabolism,” “glycemic index,” or “tapping the power of _____.” When you get someone who is trying to tell you that exercise and weight loss has one simple answer, you have good reason to be skeptical.