The downside of having access to more information than ever before is the need to discern good advice from bad. We face an astounding number of suggestions and have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of options when trying to get healthier. This article says I need to have a strong core. That expert says don’t eat grains. The guy in my office says I need to run. Are they right? Maybe, maybe not. Unless you have a good reason, don’t trust any of them.
A side effect of success is the assumption that the world works according to rules youunderstand; yet, rules don’t always function as they do within your sphere of expertise. Throughout my years of training, I’ve been chided, argued with, and corrected by attorneys, accountants, architects and fund managers. They resisted advice and claimed to have a better understanding of their bodies than I do. The more successful they were, the more convinced they were that they had it right. In short, they knew better, even though their outlandish claims violated laws of science and contradicted years of hard-fought experience. These were brilliant people, but they made an error: they assumed that their expertise transferred.
Many of us are experts at something; yet, most of us assume we are experts at everything. When I sit with new clients, I more often hear “I know what I’m doing,” than “I’m completely lost.”How do clients who haven’t been able to solve whatever problem brought them to me concludethat they know what they’re doing? I’ve never considered paying anyone to eat my breakfast for me. I know how to eat, and eat efficiently. The job of breakfast eater is filled, and I’ve never considered hiring anyone for it — there’s no need for help.
As we become successful and grow accustomed to giving advice and being heeded, it’s easy to get a sense of hyper-inflated competency. We fool ourselves into thinking that being good here translates to being good there. It does not. It’s valuable to take professional experience and life lessons and apply them to your endeavors. Many professions provide great experience with critical thinking, planning, or hitting targets. Use these skills daily, but do not assume expertise in a field you’ve never labored in. I commonly see people who make decisions for a living decide what is credible and what is not based on their current understanding, some weird hunch, or “common sense.” We make mistakes this way. Some things are technical and cannot be gleaned from common sense. There are rules in play that only the initiated understand. Assumingyou get it, when you do not, can be at its best wasted time, and at its worst dangerous.
A common pitfall is a non-expert who reads articles by other non-experts. When one readsenough articles, the illusion of expertise creeps in. While it’s great to learn about diet and exercise, some information must be evaluated against a base of knowledge that is often taught in school or with a certification: if you and I read the same article, I will come away with a vastly different understanding because of my background. The moral: stay informed, use the skills you possess, but don’t assume expertise. If you require expertise, seek it out.
The closer to the field of exercise or nutrition one’s sphere of expertise is, the more the assumption of expertise. While some medical doctors have training in nutrition and understand a good deal about exercise, most do not. I repeat: the majority of medical doctors know little to nothing about diet and exercise.
In many medical schools, a single nutrition course is offered as an elective. An MD’s familiarity with exercise is often restricted to the effects that it may have on patients. Some doctors mustknow about these things, and they can be the top experts in their fields. But this is rare. Your general practitioner knows a good deal about your body, but likely knows nothing about what you should eat and how you should move.
This doesn’t stop docs from offering advice, unfortunately. They offer their patients (who become my very confused clients) advice that’s all wrong. Want to drop a few pounds? Count your calories. Back pain? Take yoga and Pilates classes (while there may be value in either suggestion, that advice rarely works, and more often causes harm). Someone who is an “expert” has told you what to do, so you do it. The problem? Your doctor was never an expert.
Here are few tips when dealing with your doc. First, go to the “right” doctor. A general practitioner should not be diagnosing musculoskeletal injuries or recommending a nutritional intervention. Their job is to help you be less sick or to be a gatekeeper for specialists. A generalist can do some tests to decide if a specialist is right for you but never settle on a dietary or movement intervention from these people.
Second, don’t be afraid to ask the question: “what sort of training have you had?” If your doctor suggests a change in diet or a type of exercise, ask the reason behind the recommendation, andwhere the information came from. Don’t be satisfied with “medical school.” I’ve heard advice from highly-skilled doctors that the greenest personal trainers know to be false.
Last, understand where doctors are coming from. Their patients think they should know everything. They can’t and don’t. Further, they have as their primary purpose to deal with people when things are already bad. Sure, doctors should be better at prevention, but they aren’t. They are very bad at it. And why shouldn’t they be? They deal with the worst of the worst, so how can they possibly have time to learn more about how to deal with people before they are sick or broken? This is the work of scientists and specialists, not your GP.
Finally, understand that doctors live worst-case-scenario. When they encounter pain or disease, it’s already bad, and they just want it to go away. Take low back pain: a commonrecommendation from doctors is to avoid squatting and deadlifting. This makes sense if you consider the number of people who injure themselves doing these activities. But is it the activity or the people doing it? Should we advise against marriage? Statistics show that we can’t seem to get that right. It isn’t the activity, but the way it’s performed. Correlation is not causation, but how many of your doctors know how to perform a proper squat? (If they do, they probably learned it from their trainers). I’ve helped several people recover from back pain by teaching them how to use their legs, specifically by squatting and deadlifting. Hear what your doc has to say, but be cautious, and if it’s a stretch, then seek out someone who knows better.
If there is a source of all bullshit, it’s probably fitness writers. What is a fitness writer? That’s a difficult question to answer, because, as far as I know, there aren’t any qualifications. These folks range from celebrity know-it-alls to self-help gurus, yet sometimes they are just regular journalists who were stuck on the fitness beat. They wanted to be war correspondents, break big stories, yet end up in some dark corner of the internet with the same urge to make a name for themselves. Occasionally, you’ll get a “fitness personality,” who assumes expertise because of a rock-hard body (no need to name names, but several come to mind). These are the people with loud voices, yet little authority to speak.
Most of these folks have two things in common: first, they have an agenda. They’re selling something, whether it’s a product, a book, or simply more buy-in for the publication they represent. Second, they rarely have a fitness background, the know-how or experience to understand and apply the concepts about which they write. Some of these people will claim to have pored over research to come to their conclusions, yet they don’t have the know-how to be able to understand the research, fit that research into context, and apply that research. Further, these people want to be sensational, and make claims about what “the fitness industry doesn’t want you to know!” What the fitness industry doesn’t want you to know is that it’s full of shit. The fitness industry, at least the voices the average person is likely to hear, is comprised of celebrities, spokespeople, pretty faces and untrained rogues on the edge of their industry selling a controversial and usually unproven way of doing things.
If you want quality material, there are plenty of doctors, researchers, and fitness professionals who blog about fitness, or who write guest pieces for publications. There is plenty of goodmaterial out there, and much of it is free. These pieces are easy to spot because there’s usually a short bio at the beginning or the end of the article. Some things to watch out for: if all you see is CPT (certified personal trainer), it doesn’t mean that the information is invalid, just that the person writing likely has little experience, and certainly doesn’t have much certification. Also look out for qualifications that don’t transfer. If you’re reading a nutrition article written by a yoga instructor, then you should be skeptical, unless other certification or experience is outlined. And if the writer has no experience or qualifications in health and fitness, assume that the article is incomplete, and any research is improperly interpreted.
A common article you’ll come across is the study piece. The study piece is usually a quick write-up of a new study tacked under a sensational headline: “Walnuts cure cancer.” These pieces are rarely valuable. They usually restate the abstract of the study and try to make it seem that it’smore meaningful than it is. These studies rarely offer any substantive information and have the sole purpose of grabbing your attention. Forget that most studies won’t generalize to youanyway, and only when several studies suggest the same thing are they relevant, most often these eye-catching headlines are misleading. All-too-often I’ve been forwarded one of these articlesthat suggests a silver bullet strategy that one of my clients needs to try. And all-too-often I’ve discovered that the study the article writes about doesn’t even accurately describe what the study discovered. In many cases, a small study that was only done to justify further studies falls into the hands of someone who can write, yet has no fitness background, with the sole task of making the information seem more exciting than it is. At their best, these articles don’t make any claims, other than “further studies are necessary” (in spite of the headline that claims the “new study will change your life”), and at their worst, they get the information wrong.
I don’t need to say much here. Just because someone’s in shape, it doesn’t mean that he or she is an expert. As I scroll through Facebook or Instagram, I come across more pseudo-experts than I care to count. You can find good material on these platforms, but it’s not detailed (nor is it meant to be). People offering exercise ideas, or entire workouts are truly bad, and for every person I come across that offers sound advice, I see fifty who do not. There is no correlation between the number of followers an “expert” has and the quality of the advice. In fact, the smartest people on Instagram usually have very few followers. Social media is a practice, a skill one must develop and use daily. The smartest people don’t have time for it because they are busy helping people or getting smarter.
Exercise experts don’t make main-stream workout videos. If you’re following a pre-packaged program, you are probably following the advice of a novice. Sure, these programs have their place but don’t confuse the advice these folks give you as expert.
If you find people you know to be credible, follow them on social media. But the first step is essential. Social media is not a place for research, because even the best of the best on Social Media recognize that the forum, though great for exposing people to healthy ideas, is not conducive to sound, in-depth, context-dependent advice. Always keep that in mind: just because it works on someone else, it doesn’t mean it will work on you.
We fool ourselves into thinking we make good decisions. We think because something squares with what we already know, then it must be correct. There’s a big problem with this: if what we already know becomes the guarantor of future knowledge, we will never learn anything new. Further, the rules of exercise don’t follow the rules of the IRS, or any other professional code.
People read articles that they enjoy reading, and that make sense to them, that fit with the ideas they’ve already selected as valid. And in the process, they get it wrong. They assume information they get is valid because it comes from someone trusted. “My son told me…and he works out all the time.” So the !@#$%^%$# what? Your son doesn’t have an exercise related degree. He’s never taken a single certification course. He’s never undergone education beyond an occasional muscle magazine that pushes the idea of the month. Your son doesn’t know shit about exercise, so why do you think he’s an expert? And why do you think you’re an expert because you’ve listened to his incorrect opinions?
Unfortunately, the loudest voices in the wellness industry are often wrong. Be critical of the ideas you consume. They will shape your body just as much as the exercise you do and the food you eat.
Janus Movement Solutions is an online, movement-centric, coaching platform dedicated to improving human beings by making them move better and feel better.