“Wooo! What A Workout”

A senior citizen trying to slow down his process of aging by physical fitness exercises. Via Wikimedia.

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.

  1. “Get strong, not skinny”

    A Strong Man competition. Via Wikimedia.

    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.

  2. “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.
  3. “Supplements can ‘raise your metabolism'”

    Sports nutrition supplements

    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.

  4. “Sleep more to slim down”

    Couple sleeping in the street via wikimedia

    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.

  5. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day”

    A spoonful of breakfast cereal. Via Wikimedia.

    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.

  6. “Protein shakes during workouts help build muscle”

    A protein shake cup. Via Wikimedia.

    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.

US President Reagan lifting weights. Via Wikimedia.


About Stephen Propatier

Stephen Propatier is a board certified acute care nurse practitioner specializing in spine and sports medicine. He is a member of the Society for Science Based Medicine.
This entry was posted in Alternative Medicine, Health, Pseudoscience and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to “Wooo! What A Workout”

  1. Christian says:

    Typo alert. A 6 kg woman is probably dead 🙂

    • Bron Perna says:

      yep, that’s what I thought lol
      Otherwise an excellent summary of much of the exercise woo, but you left out “Telling everyone about it constantly on social media is an awesome part of your workout/weightloss ‘journey’, because clearly they all want to know” 😛

    • thanks I am certain that I had 60 there, errant backspace I am sure I am sure not really sure what happened.

  2. Another supplement I hear a lot about are the pre-workouts.The claim is that they contain stimulants which improve your workout lifting, and allow you to mentally fight that muscular fatigue and get that one more rep in the weight.

    While they do contain stimulants, that stimulant is usually just regular old caffeine, and a bunch of other stuff which sounds cool but probably does nothing. So you can get the same effect from drinking a cup of coffee before going to the gym. Some also claim they taste great in your drink bottle. To those people I would say watered down fruit juice, or cordial is much cheaper.

    I actually use protein powder, but really as a tasty protein-rich one meal a day meal replacement to maintain a calorie deficit, and only if I’m not having any other protein rich meal that day. My goals are to loose weight from fat loss, whilst maintaining the muscle gained from hard effort in the weight room. Protein powder is useful for me, but it’s also expensive, and I use it only with careful diet planning.

    Unfortunately I do so a lot of people around the gym chugging down all sorts of expensive supplements which are almost certainly offering them little to no benefit. Especially if the rest of their diet is moving them no closer to whatever goals they have in mind.

  3. Vere Nekoninda says:

    Please say more about the 40% of calories from protein. Using the Mayo Clinic calorie calculator that you linked, I’m told that I need about 2,550 calories per day. On the same Mayo website, and on the CDC.gov site, they say “The average adult needs 46 to 56 grams of protein a day.” That range would mean consuming protein calories equal to 7-9% of my total daily calories. A recommendation quadrupling of the Mayo protein guideline is surprising to me. WebMD recommends 10-35%. The Harvard School of Public Health recommends 10-25% of daily calories from protein.

    Another confusing aspect of many websites is that the percentages, grams, and calories don’t add up. Getting 10-25% of my calories from protein, no more than 30% of my calories from fat, and up to 40% of my calories from carbohydrates leaves me at least 5% short, and perhaps more than 20%. Do you have recommendations for good balance of the percentages of protein, fat, and carbohydrate daily calories?

    • Castielstar says:

      He did say MAX 40% calories from protein! does that help?
      What I would love to find is some magic way of STICKING AT diets, exercise routines etc. that is the biggest trouble for me and many others, and what gets exploited by the woo-merchants the most!

      • Short answer is…. If you can figure out personally how to eat a well balanced (calorie/nutrients) diet that keeps your cravings satiated that can be maintained. That is the holy grail of personal weight control and very individualized. Restrictive diets always fail in the end because they offer none of those things.

      • John Denys says:

        One way of sticking to an exercise program for me is to set my daily minimum amount of exercise very low. My minimum is ten minutes a day. If I’m busy I let myself stop there and don’t beat myself up about it. On days when I have more time the minimum is still ten minutes but I usually end up doing a half hour or an hour just because I’ve already got myself going.

      • Torchwood says:

        Electroshock if you falter would do it.

  4. John Lane says:

    “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.”

    Proteins are nearly 100% absorbed from the gut, which is why an all-meat diet will likely make you constipated. (And it’s a myth that we accumulate undigested meat in our colons.)

    Fiber is not a necessary nutrient, it’s a desirable non-nutrient (i.e., not absorbed) and adds bulk to the stool (multiple studies have demonstrated the benefits of dietary fiber). But yes, if you’re bingeing on protein shakes you’re probably not getting enough fiber.

    • Excellent point john my statement lacked clarity. to be precise what I meant is related to total calories. If you are taking in enough total calories to increase muscle fiber. Exceeding more than 40% of those calories intake as protein makes you nutrition deficient in other areas. Your body cannot utilize more protein to make even more muscle fiber. Excessive protein will result in one of two pathways, metabolized and excreted or stored as fat. Metabolized is not helpful. Fat is undesirable. Plus you are displacing food that is part of a well balanced workout diet which should contain a high percentage of food containing fiber. IE: fruits and vegetables. They contain necessary nutrients and the fiber helps with satiety control. I am not recommending taking in Metamucil 🙂

  5. Interested in reading more about the “Proposed effect of breakfast on obesity” reference but it seems to link to the same CNN article as the “Dietary Supplements and risks” reference. I’m assuming that’s a typo? Or did I miss the line explaining breakfast in the CNN piece?

    • Fixed it and added the research. Thanks you so much for restoring my faith that people actually look at the references at the bottom without being told to.

      • Vere Nekoninda says:

        Thanks for fixing the link. Is it this study that supports your statement, “This is total unequivocal rubbish”, regarding the importance of breakfast?

  6. David Koopmans says:

    Do you have a reference for the 89 deaths from DMAA? The most I can find on the web is 5 and I find it odd that 89 deaths would go so unnoticed. Surely someone would be shouting this from the rooftops.

  7. adebola says:

    this advice is not that good…

  8. Ken says:

    Let’s see your abs Mr. Propatier…

  9. Dave says:

    I used to fall for a lot of this woo back before I got into competitive weightlifting. When I got a coach and joined USA Weightlifting, the first thing he said was: no protein shakes. He said, firstly, they don’t do anything but drain your wallet and, secondly, since they are unregulated anything could be in there causing you to fail a piss test and get banned from competition!

    I asked him about caffeine and he said go for it. He said something to the effect of,”If you drink enough caffeine to alter a piss test, you’ve got bigger problems.” LOL

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