The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


How to Separate Reputable Health, Fitness, and Nutrition Information from Myth and Hype

Posted in

Monday, Sep 17, 2018


It’s easy to be overwhelmed or confused by the vast amount of information on health, fitness and nutrition - much of it with claims that seem too good to be true. So how can you tell between fact and fiction, between sound science and marketing hype? Do you know how to objectively evaluate the validity of health information? While some of this information is based on high quality research (good science), some of it is nonsense (junk science).  

Research - What Does It Really Mean?

Research settings typically include colleges and universities, hospitals and clinics, and even private industry. Research studies are overseen by individuals with advanced college degrees and expertise in the subject area. Many health-related studies are funded by government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the American Heart Association (AHA). They may also be conducted by nonprofits like The Cooper Institute. Legitimate researchers always strive to publish their results in a reputable peer-reviewed scientific journal (e.g. Journal of the American Medical Association) and present their results at a regional or national meeting of other scientists in their field of study.

Peer-Reviewed – Why Does It Matter?

The peer-review process acts as a quality control measure. In this step, the research is reviewed by other researchers who are experts on the topic. They ensure that the research methodology is sound and credible. Not all research is of high quality, nor are all research studies worthy of publication. So if a study isn’t peer-reviewed or published, there is probably a good reason for it.

How Can I Tell a Good Study From a Not-So-Good (or Non-Existent) Study?

  1. Publishing:  The most important question to ask when you hear about a research study is if, when, and where the study was published. If it was not published in a reputable scientific journal, then beware. It could mean that the study was never even performed in the first place. For example, let’s say that the manufacturer of a dietary supplement claims that their product has been ‘clinically proven’ to burn body fat without the need for dieting or exercise. It is very unlikely that any research was ever performed on the product, nor was any type of study regarding the product published in a reputable scientific journal. Additionally, so-called ‘before and after’ pictures are typically nothing more than the results of a talented graphic artist or clever photo angles. If the claim seems too good to be true, then it probably is.   

  2. Subjects:  Ask how many and what kinds of subjects were used in the study. The larger the sample size, the more likely the results are generalizable. Remember that the results of a study are only applicable to the types of people who participated in the study. So if a research study is done on elite male triathletes, then the results of the study only apply to other elite male triathletes and not to the general population. Although animal research studies are very important, they do not always accurately predict what might occur in humans.

  3. Double-Blind Study:  In these types of studies, one group receives the substance under study. and another group receives a placebo. Neither the researchers nor the study participants know who is receiving the substance or placebo until the study is completed. A perfect example is a study to evaluate the effectiveness of a medication or supplement. Double-blind studies are the gold standard for this type of research.

  4. Duplication: Ask if the research results have been duplicated by other groups and be wary of research that goes against many similar studies. For example, if a study came out today saying that regular physical activity is harmful, you should consider that there are tens of thousands of published studies showing that regular physical activity is extremely beneficial. Always go with what the majority of the published studies are showing.

Asking these types of questions is not a guarantee that you will be able to sort out scientific fact from myth and hype, but it should help. If you cannot obtain straight answers to these very basic questions, it may very well mean that there was no research actually performed in the first place. E caveat emptor (let the buyer beware).

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If you have a passion for health and fitness and enjoy working with people, or if you are already working as a personal trainer, click here to learn more about the CI-CPT (Cooper Institute Certified Personal Trainer)!