Recently I found myself in a meeting with colleagues discussing blog ideas for our personal training clients. One of the points that was raised was the title of the blog. Now for anyone that has read any of my blogs previously, you will know I like to be descriptive – super creative titles are not my bag. I’ll be the first to admit I’m a numbers guy; I like things plain and simple. However if you search the web for a matter of seconds with a search term such as “weight loss tricks”, “how to lose weight quickly”, does the blah blah diet work” you’ll find tens of thousands of articles with amazing captivating titles, giving you their interpretation of some research paper.
Peer reviewed literature is a great resource that all personal trainers should be reading constantly, not only to continue their professional development, but also to help their clients achieve the best possible results. However there is a real danger of misinterpretation of the results, leading many to write articles with sweeping speculations and promises. In fact, how often do we read articles in the mainstream media with statements such as “**** has been shown to help you lose 5lbs of weight in 1 hour” or ” drink **** for weight loss” followed the next week by “don’t drink **** for weight loss”. We need to be careful how we interpret research so that we don’t add to the confusion that is the health and fitness world.
Here are the top tips to help you interpret peer reviewed research: Check the following;
- Sample population – Just because a study found a statistically significant result when examining some dependant variable it does not mean it actually has any bearing in a real world scenario. For example, a study may be claiming that pork pies are the key to fat loss. Well what was the gender, did they have any previous medical complications, how old where the individuals, what was their body composition, was the sample homogeneous, did the sample population go to sleep at the same time every night, what else did they eat through the study… was it the same?
- What statistical test was employed? – Papers often infer that statistical significance means there is a cause and effect; the reality is far from the truth. A relationship is not an effect, there may be other variables that the paper has not considered. For example, a study has reported that individuals who eat more ice cream get sunburnt more… now it’s very obvious that ice cream isn’t causing sunburn; there is some other variable that hasn’t been considered (i.e. individuals that eat more ice cream are more likely in a hot environment). While the previous example is quite obvious, in literature it can often be a little more complicated and needs a trained eye. Look at the statistical test employed!
- Was the data processed correctly? – Often individuals will skip through the methods section, particularly the statistical analysis. We need to check if the data was parametric or non-parametric, was the correct test utilised based on the sample size, was the correct post-hoc test used, what is the reliability of the test employed? Without ensuring these components, how can we be sure what was published has not just simply occurred by chance?
- Does the literature agree or disagree with previous findings?- Often media articles and blogs cherry pick research to support their point – this is probably the most dangerous thing we can do as individuals. There is a 5% chance in most papers related to sport science that it hasn’t occurred by chance…. assuming the statistical methods are sound. This means that there is still a chance the findings have just occurred by chance. A safer way of reviewing literature is to search out meta-analysis and review papers in which whole topics are reviewed against each other; these findings have significantly more power and should be the source of our advice to clients.
In summary, we need to read for continued professional development, but don’t believe everything you read and look deeper into the subject to ask questions.