Sensationalizing Solid Science

I worked hard to not write 3000 words for this article. Enjoy my ranting.

My phone regularly pings me with news from outlets that publish articles in areas that interest me. As may be obvious from my blog, physiology is one of those areas. So when a press titled “Why strength training might come at the expense of endurance muscles” was pushed on me the other week, my ears pricked up. 

That’s how ears look when they prick up.

This is exactly the kind of headline journalists and fitness experts love to read and use as the basis for articles that grossly misinterpret the mechanisms of exercise. So I wrote directly to professor Cristoph Handschin, author of the original research, titled “BDNF is a mediator of glycolytic fiber-type specification in mouse skeletal muscle”, on twitter. By the way, that is not a sexy title. Very interesting to me, but not to the public at large.

Anyway: I wrote to him on twitter. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but it’s a fantastic place to talk to scientists directly. I won’t divulge all of our conversation here (you can find it on my twitter) but he said two things that stood out to me (I’m paraphrasing): “Do not worry about interference when exercising” and “In terms of understanding the molecular basis of exercise adaptation we, like Jon Snow know nothing”.

In my opinion this is very far from the press release headline, which leaves a lot to the imagination when it shouldn’t. The press release itself only mentions that the trials were on mice once, in the fifth paragraph. 

And here is an excerpt from near the end of the article: 

“The new knowledge gained about the myokine BDNF also provides a possible explanation for the decrease in endurance musculature seen as a result of strength training.”

What are you talking about? This makes it sound like the effect is instant and applicable to anyone. After that it does mention that this is “already taken into account for high-performance sports”. But it doesn’t mention that this is not applicable to a normal person.

Heard about specificity? You get good at what you train. If you want to do champion level weights, running a marathon a day will impact it negatively, and vice versa. But this is nothing new, and this study really is not about that.

At most you could say “A mechanism behind the specification of muscle fibers has been identified in mice – This could provide part of the answer to why you can’t be a champion of endurance and strength at the same time”. Maybe. Remember what Handschin said: We don’t know.

The dangers of using the language in this press release is very nicely illustrated by one of the comments on twitter:
“This simply means that you cannot be an endurance champion and strength champion at the same time. For the rest of us a strength focused training is much more useful in general (also in physiotherapy!).” – Written by a student of Biomedical Informantics, not a doctor of physiotherapy.

How I feel when I read exercise advice from people who have no scientific basis for their opinion.

Handschin, the author, replies to this tweet, commenting that he agrees with the first part (about being a champion), in fact this was the point of the press release, but disagrees with the second part (about resistance training being ”better”). I agree with Handschin, he is of course much more knowledgeable than me on the topic, but we both agree that the health benefits of Cardiovascular Endurance are proven and worth pursuing.

For someone who likes to peruse YouTube and other media for fitness information, cardio is so often ignored, often put aside, in fitness because it’s not as conducive to building muscle. I hate pitting different types of exercise against each other because I think you need both, and there is no doubt: They yield different benefits and you will want both as you age.

This is clear: scientific information is often misunderstood, and by using sensational titles we don’t do anyone a favor. 

Little known fact: Cardio is better for weight-loss than resistance training, in contrast to what many seem to believe.

The goal of the original research was to identify causes for muscle atrophy, not investigate if resistance training interferes with endurance training. You should, and there’s no doubt, do both endurance training and resistance training. There is a consensus on this. I hope there is also a consensus that we need to avoid writing sensational headlines.

Did I mention I have Twitter and Instagram?

Picture attribution

”lost”by pdam2 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

”Ears”by sara.lauderdale is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Publicerad av FysioNoa

Jag är fysioterapeut (utbildad vid Karolinska Institutet) som är intresserad av hälsosam träning och forskning.

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