Have you ever heard someone say, “I know just enough to be dangerous,”? It’s an interesting phrase that I often think applies to how health and fitness information is presented for the general public.

Health and Fitness in the Media
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This has been on my mind lately because of 2 recent studies that I have seen mentioned numerous times on Twitter, Facebook and various news outlets. The headlines that are being flashed everywhere, while accurate, don’t tell the whole story.

Study One – Drink More, Weigh Less

The first study to come out was a study in which the headlines eagerly proclaimed “Drink More, Weigh Less”.  Conducted by researchers at Bringham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, the study tracked the drinking habits and weight of over 19,ooo women. After 13 years what they found was a correlation between higher alcohol consumption and weight gain.  The key word is correlation. They have hypothesized several reasons why this might be, however they cannot pinpoint exactly what that is.

When you see the headlines, the attention grabber sound bites, it makes the study sound like you should drink more to weigh less. This is not what the researchers have said. In fact they have stated the opposite; women should not start drinking just as tool for weight loss. However, the way the story has been presented to the general public I can see how some people might see it that way. Like I said, just enough to be dangerous.

Study Two – Aging Women Need 1 Hour Exercise Daily

The second study, which has been just as widely publicized, is a study from the same hospital.  This particular study followed more than 34,000 women, this time measuring activity levels and weight gain over a 13 year period. What the study found was that women who fell into the group that got more than 420 minutes of physical activity a week gained less weight over the period of the study.

The headlines, however, have read things like “Exercise 1 Hour a Day to Avoid Weight Gain”, “Older Women Need 1 hour Workouts to Fend off Flab, or “Study Says Aging Women Need 1 Hour Exercise Daily”.

Wait, where did the older or aging come from? Women of all ages participated in the study. The average age was 54, however if you know anything about statistics the average can be easily skewed by a few participants. So there isn’t a reason to focus just on “aging” women. My other issue is that there is more to it than the 1 hour. The women were divided into 3 groups. The women who gained the least weight were the ones who exercised more than an hour a day.

Based on how the study has been presented, again I think we have just enough information to be dangerous. The headlines don’t mention the second group who got somewhere between 150 and 420 minutes of physical activity a week. They too gained less weight that those with less than the 150 minutes of physical activity. No one is talking about that.  

Sound Bites and Headlines Can Mislead

When I think about the average person seeing this study, who sees the headline and not the whole story, I am afraid they are going to think that anything less than an hour won’t do any good. Nothing could be further from the truth! 30 minutes a day, or most days, when focused and efficient and combined with a clean diet can do wonders.  In fact, the 2008 Physical Activities Guidelines (see the Physical Activity Guidelines post) for Adults recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity for health. While weight loss will take more physical activity, the 150 minutes can be effective in maintaining your weight. Not to mention, no matter what your goal, something is better than nothing. I never want anyone to think if they can’t devote an hour or more to exercise a day that it’s not worth it.

They also don’t mention in the headlines that the women are reported to have followed healthy diets. I am sure if we dig deeper into the study, we will find that there is a recommendation on diet and that this also plays a part in the women’s success in not gaining as much weight. I see many women at the gym who exercise on a regular basis, but are still not a healthy weight. My guess is because they ignore the nutrition portion of the equation, just like the headlines about the study. For success in weight maintenance and weight loss you must have both exercise and a balanced, healthy diet.

If you take away anything from the post today I hope it is this-educate yourself. Sound bites get our attention. Just don’t stop there. The more educated your are about health and fitness, the more willing you are to go beyond the hype, the better off you will be.

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