Today I have the honor of interviewing a special guest about an important topic. His name is Mark Young and he is the creator of the How To Read Fitness Research program.
We’re going to talk about health research and how to be aware of the various inaccuracies that you may be exposed to in the media regarding research in the health and fitness field.
Question: Mark, what can you tell us about your experience in health and fitness, areas in which you specialize, and how you got into the “fitness research” niche?
MY (stands for Mark Young): First off, thanks for the interview, Jonathan. I always appreciate the opportunity to reach a new audience.
In terms of my academic background, I have a degree in kinesiology and a minor in psychology from McMaster University. My research from my undergrad thesis was presented as a poster at the World Congress of Biomechanics in Calgary some years back. And now I’m wrapping up my M.Sc. in exercise physiology as part of the world-renowned exercise metabolism research group under the guidance of Dr. Stuart Phillips. My grad thesis work comparing the effects of eccentric and concentric contractions on muscle growth has just been published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology.
But lest you think I’m just some lab geek (which I am just a little bit), I’ve been a strength coach for about 11 years now focusing primarily on fat loss and body recomposition. My work has been published on T-Nation.com, WannaBeBig.com, StrengthCoach.com, MuscleAndFitness.com, and MuscleAndFitnessHers.com to name a few. On top of all that, I currently provide services to one of Canada’s very few government funded Bariatric Medical Programs for the evidence based treatment of obesity.
I guess my interest in fitness research comes from an attempt to tie my academic experience to real world application to bring about the best results for my clients and anyone else interested in hearing what I have to say.
Question: Why is it important for the average person to know how to read fitness research? How can this ability affect our life?
MY: These days diet programs, exercise routines, and supplements are everywhere! Newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and the internet flood us with a steady stream of information on what to eat, how to train, and which miracle pills to take to get the perfect body, get strong, or live for eternity.
So how do we determine which of those programs, routines, and supplements to take? How do we know which will help us to achieve our goals and which are gimmicks just looking to separate us from our hard earned money? How do we know which ones are actually potentially dangerous?
The answer is that most people don’t.They ask friends who aren’t really qualified to answer those questions. Or they turn on the television and the internet and look to “experts” to inform them of the correct choices to make. But sadly, many of the most popular experts on the internet are preaching or selling the same stuff.
Some are well intentioned but are equally as lost because they don’t know how to read research any more than the general public and others just don’t care about what they’re selling as long as they’re making a buck. Heck, even some of the ones citing research (and thereby leading you to believe they know what they’re doing) have only read the abstracts to studies and don’t understand the outcomes of the studies at all.
Being able to read fitness research gives every person the power to instantly cut through the smokescreen of confusion and select the best programs for fat loss, muscle gain, athletic performance, and health.
Question: What drove you to create the How To Read Fitness Research program?
MY: I created this program because of the fact that I think most people WANT to understand which programs and methods are the best to use. After all, they tune in to TV shows, purchase magazines, and often follow multiple blogs to learn which methods are the most current and effective. Seriously, people interested in fitness will spend HOURS every single week trying to acquire this information.
But I felt that if people had the research education I have they’d know better. Or at least they’d know where to look for that information and be able to scour the research to determine for themselves if a method they’d heard or had any merit whatsoever. By doing this they’d be able to save themselves money AND determine which blogs or experts are worthy of following in the first place. So I decided to put together my 7 years of university education and the basics of understanding research into a crash course to help people to do just that.
Question: Who can benefit from this program? Is it for professionals or everyone?
MY: Frankly, I think that there should be a research methods and statistics course taught in every high-school around the world so that people aren’t stepping into society completely unable to interpret the vast amount of “scientific” information thrown at them every day.
Is aspartame really bad for you?
Is high fructose corn syrup really the devil?
What is the ideal rep range for muscle growth?
Does interval training really result in greater fat loss?
Does stretching really cause weakness if done prior to training?
Are Tabata workouts really as effective for fat loss as people claim?
If you’ve ever wondered about the answers to any of these questions then this product is for you whether you’re a fitness professional or just want to get fit and be healthy. Ultimately, my goal is to help as many people cut through the hype as possible and think for themselves instead of being led blindly by some “expert” who wouldn’t be able to read a study to save his life.
Question: In various infomercials or on websites selling supplements and diet plans, there are claims that are supposedly supported by research. How do I go about verifying whether this is indeed true and whether the research done is ethical and accurate?
MY: There are really two ways to do this:
1. If it really is supported by research then citations for studies should be provided so you can look them up for yourself. To do this you’d simply go to PubMed.gov and enter the title of the paper in the search bar and you’d get an abstract which is basically a summary of the study. From here you’d go about downloading the study (in my product I talk about a few ways to get studies for free) and read the whole thing for yourself.
2. Alternatively (this is what you’ll probably have to do because most programs that are “supported by research” don’t provide references), you’d go to PubMed again and search out a review paper or something called a meta-analysis on the topic as a whole. Generally, these include the results of several studies and provide a more balanced view than a single paper in a specific area anyway. This is a quick and relatively effective way to determine if the claims of a product are actually supported by research. In fact, being able to search for these papers is such an important skill that I’ve included a short video on this as a bonus for purchasing my product.
Of course, reading the studies is a whole other ball of wax, but that is what my product is for. Needless to say, the key thing is that if you want to determine if a product has research support you need to look to the research as this is where the answers will undoubtedly lie.
Question: Does an ad or an infomercial have to disclose whether studies mentioned in them were peer reviewed or not, or whether they were paid for by the manufacturer of the products advertised?
MY: As far as I know, there are no legal requirements in most countries that require ads to disclose any such thing. And even if there were, most people who are putting together product promotions know that those viewing them won’t bother to look up the research anyway so they often take results out of context or twist them to say something they weren’t intended to say.
I’ve seen commercials where they stated that the fat loss of the group on their supplement was almost 100% greater than the placebo group, but when I pulled the study the results painted a different picture. Technically the supplement group did beat the placebo group by 100%. However, the supplement group only lost 2 pounds over 16 weeks as opposed to the 1 pound lost by the group that got a placebo.
Up by 100%?
Worth spending money on?
Question: How much does the source of funding for a research affect its conclusions? Can we trust that a university or hospital based research is free from corporate influence?
MY: Research can obviously be influenced by corporate sponsorship, but I think a lot of people make a bigger deal of this than is warranted.
In many cases the researcher has an expected outcome from the beginning so the corporation will know ahead of time whether a positive outcome is expected. For instance, there is a relatively new drug for Diabetics called Victoza that not only helps to regulate their sugars, but also helps them to lose weight. Studies are now underway to determine if the same drug will be effective in reducing body weight of people who are not Diabetic. The assumption, of course, is that the drug will produce weight loss in non-Diabetics as well.
With this information in hand (and the expectation of a positive outcome) the drug company is willing to help fund (or provide the drug for) this research. In cases like this, the funding doesn’t really influence the outcome as it was pretty likely to happen anyway. But just in case it doesn’t, researchers in charge of most studies I’ve been close to have been careful to avoid contracts that prevent publication of results that don’t favor the sponsor.
That said, a recent meta-analysis of glucosamine showed that studies funded by corporate sponsors showed the glucosamine to be more effective than studies that were not supported by these sponsors.
In the end, I don’t think that corporate sponsorship alone should make anyone discredit a study. But we should still read the whole paper and compare to the rest of the research in the field as we would with any other study.
Question: In your program you talk about the Impact Factor of research articles. What is Impact Factor and how accurately does it really reflect the quality of a particular study or publication?
MY: Impact Factor is essentially a way of measuring the number of citations (references) to articles in a specific journal. If a journal has a high impact factor that typically means that a lot of other researchers are citing articles in that journal so many would consider that journal influential. As a researcher, it would be considered good to get published in any of the high impact journals like Nature, Cell, or Science.
While there is certainly something to be said for impact factor, the one issue that faces the exercise population particularly is that articles in journals like The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research are largely read by people actually in the field who are practicing more than they are writing research. So, while this journal might be influential in the sense that it is affecting people’s practices, it isn’t as likely to be cited by other researchers and the impact factor might not reflect its actual impact on the field.
Frankly, I don’t pay a lot of attention to impact factor as long as the study was conducted well. I’ve seen poorly conducted studies in high impact journals so this is no guarantee that the research there is solid.
Question: Why is it important to know the method in which a study was conducted and the subject characteristics of the people examined in it?
MY: There are so many different ways in which studies can be conducted and not knowing the methods leaves us lacking a great deal of information. For example, let’s look at the infamous study upon which the very popular Tabata protocols are based:
In this study, one group performed regular old steady state cycling for 60 minutes at around 70% of their VO2 Max on 5 days per week. This is a fairly moderate intensity. The “Tabata” group performed 8 sets at 170% of their VO2 Max on 4 days per week. On the fifth day the Tabata group performed 30 minutes of moderate intensity cardio at 70% of VO2 Max followed by 4 sets of the high intensity protocol. And in the end, both groups increased their VO2 Max, but only the Tabata group had a significant improvement in their anaerobic capacity.
The first issue, of course, is that this isn’t a pure comparison between steady state and Tabatas because the Tabata group actually did some steady state cardio. But interestingly, the real thing that I feel is lacking (at least based on what most online experts are saying) is that there was NO MEASURE OF FAT LOSS IN THIS STUDY AT ALL. So the protocol that is hyped up to be the best in the world for fat loss (even named after the author of the study where the protocol was used) didn’t even measure it!!!
To take it in another direction, just knowing who the study was conducted on can tell you a lot. If it was conducted on mice or elderly untrained patients (as was one of the popular studies on post-workout supplementation) it certainly might not be applicable for most trainees.
Question: One of the tools you mention in your program is PubMed. Why is this such an important research tool and how should people begin using it?
MY: As I mentioned above, PubMed is essentially a free search database were the majority of fitness based research articles are indexed. If you’re looking for research in the area of fitness, you’ll probably be able to find it here. Assuming you’re just getting started reading research and you want a broad overview of a specific topic for free (most articles cost money otherwise), here’s what you’d do.
- Go to PubMed and click on the word “Limits” just above the search bar at the top of the page.
- In the section on the top left where it says “Type of Article” click the check boxes beside the words “Review” and “Meta Analysis”
- In the section on the bottom left where it says “Text Options” click the check box beside “Links to free full text”.
- Type the key word of the subject you want to look up in the search bar and hit search.
Question: What are some of the publications that you recommend that people follow to get timely and accurate fitness research?
MY: To keep up on timely research it helps to keep your eye on the media as they tend to get press releases for breaking news. From there you can head over to PubMed and pull up the abstracts and hunt down the studies. I also recommend subscribing to email alerts from publications like The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, The Strength and Conditioning Journal, and the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition to be notified when new studies are released.
As far as accuracy goes, no publication should be really considered accurate as studies differ in their quality within one journal. That is where the skill of reading research comes in which is the whole purpose of my product.
Question: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview, Mark.
For more on Mark Young’s work visit How To Read Fitness Research.
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