Fitness and the Internetz: Battling Objectivity, Rationality, and Even Our Own Psychology

A few days ago, my good friend Dick Talens of Fitocracy.com graciously tagged me in a Facebook thread he started that opened many a can of worms.  When I read his questions the first time through, I knew it would yield a ton of opinions, thoughts, rants, and some eventual trolling.

Dick’s basic question was the following:

“Why are people quick to get upset (butt-hurt) when you tell them there’s a better way to do something OR that what they’ve been doing is likely not the best method for their goals?”

I don’t want to go exactly into the same things he asked, but I will touch upon them.

Before I go any further, I want to make something clear – I don’t have the answers as to why we act a certain way.  I’m merely expressing my thoughts and would like to use this as a springboard for discussion.

Quite often fitness enthusiasts are quick to latch onto an idea and run with it – to the point of being dogmatic.  This is not exclusive to just the fitness industry.  It’s all around us.

What does dogmatic actually mean?  It’s a set of established beliefs, or ideas, which are authoritative, and even unquestionable.  It’s the way it is – end of story.

With this type of thinking, we’re doomed because if we never entertain the thought of new ideas and research, we’ll never progress.

Real World Examples

Have you ever met someone who had just learned about the Paleo Diet (or insert any diet here)?  Did they bug you to no end about how all their meals were similar to how their ancestors ate?  Did they begin to tell you how to eat because they read about it nonstop for the last week?

Ever met a Crossfit (also sometimes known as Cultfit) convert who swears their training method is so elite that everyone should do it regardless of their personal goals? Ever hear them trash other training methods, calling them subpar in comparison?

Now, I’m not picking on Paleo or Crossfitters exclusively, I’m just making an example because I think most fitness enthusiasts can understand and relate.

The problem is some of us become so narrowly focused on a concept that we tend to forget a whole bunch of other stuff actually works, too.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in my relatively short time in the industry, it’s that there’s no single way to achieve a particular goal.  One can get lean and strong training 2 times per week, and walking for an hour on their off days.

Then another can get just as lean and strong training 5 times per week, including interval training for their cardio.

Which method is better?  That’s really hard to say.

Are there advantages to one method over the other?  Sure, but it depends on the context, the individual and their needs.

What I prefer might not be what you prefer, or even suitable for your fitness levels.  I think Sohee Lee wrote a nice, concise piece about this topic called Your Way Isn’t The Only Way: A Rant.

I thought it was well written and loved her points about making things simple for the individual. For instance, she is into intermittent fasting, but if that style of dieting doesn’t fit with your schedule, simply choose a different method.  Don’t make things harder than they need to be.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence.  I was once an avid multiple-meals-per-day guy.  Then I discovered fasting and was adamant about it, often trying to pick fights on the internetz because intermittent fasting was new, and special, and better than every other diet method.

Then I backed off and remembered that there are many ways to get to the same goal.

So in saying that, I have not much energy to devote to arguing one method’s effectiveness over another if it’s clear we’re only splitting hairs.

What I am interested in, however, is how we as fitness pros and enthusiasts can reach more people and be more effective with our message.

Within that long thread, there were a ton of good chunks of information I believe we can all learn from.

The first one is something I’d never heard of, but thanks to Lyle McDonald for pointing this out, I now know about The Backfire Effect.

In short, the backfire effect is like this (taken directly from the link above).

The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.

The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.

If this is new information, you might find this alarming, but I hope you keep an open mind.  There are some interesting findings, especially when it comes to our beliefs, despite what is actually true and factual.

You see, for many of those new to fitness and who have experienced success, this is even more evident.

For instance when you speak to the thin person who struggled for years to lose weight and finally did it with a specific diet, you better believe they will be confident, positive, and most certainly sold when discussing their transformation.  It’s not uncommon to hear them rave about the magical diet that worked so well for them.

So let’s say they went on a low to no-carb diet and lost the weight very quickly.  Most people can relate to this example.  We all know removing carbohydrate from your diet does two things.

In the short term, it allows one to drop water fairly quickly as glycogen stores deplete over the coming days through energy deficit and exercise.  In the long(er) term, it helps someone maintain a decent energy deficit assuming they don’t over eat on protein and fat.

To the well-versed fitness nerd, this makes perfect sense.  To the layman who failed every diet except Atkins, zero carb dieting is the Holy Grail to fat loss and there’s NO OTHER METHOD, in their mind at least.

Succeeding with fat loss (or anything, for that matter) can prove to be a very emotional process.  During that time, people can develop various beliefs (regardless of rationale, or scientific fact) that reinforce their decisions and actions.  As you will see in the quote below (from the article above), we do all that we can to protect what we believe to be true.

Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do it instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them.

When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens them instead. Over time, the backfire effect helps make you less skeptical of those things which allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.

So in this case, if we try to tell the low-carb dieter they could’ve reached their goals by creating a moderate caloric deficit with carbs present, chances are they won’t believe you and will often get upset at what you’re proposing.

Why?

Because to them it’s false.  They tried for so long to lose weight, remember?

In their world, this is an impossible feat.  They proved to themselves that low-carb dieting is what gets results.

This is a major problem.

As humans evolved, and our brains grew bigger, many new things became possible. With the growth of our intelligence, came the advancement of technology, our ability to communicate, make decisions, etc. All positive things methinks.

Along with our big brains came this amazing ability to replace rationale with faulty belief systems that were inline with our emotional centers.  If it feels good, or seems right, then it must be.

Add to this the notion that we often take personal offense when someone tries to help us see a different side, and we become almost impenetrable.  No ounce of knowledge can permeate the walls of our psyche finely constructed of misinformation.

My Personal Feelings

After reading the entire thread I linked to on Facebook, my thoughts are fairly elementary, but I think it all comes down to not wanting to be wrong and/or fearing the idea of being invested in a belief for so long, only to find out it’s false.

I’m going to end this with a comment left by Matt Perryman, along with a few resources.  The bold is my emphasis.

if you really want to get into the hows and whys of this, I’d suggest starting with two papers:

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/185/4157/1124.short

http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/1914185

This is (nominally) behavioral economics but Tversky and Kahneman outline the way human psychology centers on “heuristics” (mental shortcuts that approximate rationality in difficult or uncertain situations) and “biases” (affinities or aversions driven by unconscious associative processes).

Human beings are “rational” but only in a “sort of” sense. All the pretty cortical regions that let our brains do human things — language, math, science, philosophy, art — are all recent, evolutionarily speaking, and are tacked on to the older, more primitive structures of the reptile brain (evolutionary processes love to repurpose and rarely throws anything out).

Beliefs are driven as much by anecdote, personal experience, and what psychologists call “cognitive ease” (how immediate and easily available the information is) as they are by rational thinking. Unless we expend real effort to overcome those “lazy” habits of thought (and as Baumeister’s self-regulation work has shown us, it is a very real kind of effort with physical implications), we default to a very inductive, very anecdotal mode of reasoning.

Your brain is literally wired to be a “causal” thinker, finding stories and patterns that make sense (even if there is no cause beyond random noise). It doesn’t come with an error-checker because, let’s face it, there’s no reason to check for false positives or statistical baselines if the goal is “avoid lion”. We aren’t intuitively statistically-minded, so we have to work at it

And most people don’t. The end result is p. much any and every “stupid” thing people believe. The worst part of all is that you do it, too. So do I. So do trained statisticians. It’s how we’re built and if we don’t work at it, we will default back into pattern-matching story-teller mode.

Ahem…

So now, I want to get your thoughts on the matter.

For any of us to progress in our understanding of fitness, health, or nutrition, we can all agree that change has to occur.  I cannot give even begin to tell you how many people I’ve received emails from stating that having a fresh perspective on meal frequency, proper training methods, dieting, and many other areas of fitness I write about have impacted them for the better.

Many times my writing on eating clean or fat loss might be a bit unnerving or threatening, but overall the response is generally positive for those who keep an open mind, which we all know is key for the learning process.

Be open to anything, and challenge everything.

What do you think?  How can we as fitness professionals improve our reach?  How would you go about coaching or educating those so new to fitness, who may be enslaved by their emotions and false beliefs?


April 4, 2012
29 Comments.

  • Darren November 19, 2012

    I constantly find myself remembering one thing when it comes to this stuff:

    Context Matters

    Meaning, rather than aiming to view a problem from my own point of view, view it from the desired outcomes point of view.

    Nothing is black and white, grey is the colour of the real-world.

    If I do get into arguments about it, it’s typically because I’ve failed to make clear the context of my advice, and people take my advice to be either black or white. The mistake I find myself getting upset about, is the assumption that my advice is unequivocally applicable to the reader, when in fact, I really only meant that for certain individuals, something may or may not be ideal. Or I’ll list points about things that I see on a more general basis (poor shoulder function for example) and people automatically assume that MUST mean them…

  • seth May 10, 2012

    Good stuff, its funny because i am a crossfitter but alot of their diet beliefs are interesting but misses the point of calories in calories out. The more i listen to you and lyle mcdonald the better i look and feel. I found my fat loss incredibly hard til I figured out most my eating was due to stress and over-exercising. I am sure my cortisol levels were off the charts and no days off. Now i take three days off and split my work outs upper/lower and cut crossfit to 2 days a week split in the morning and strength in the afternoon for my fatloss routine its hard but working like a charm, and with my flexible diet of eating what i like with high protein im keeping all my strength. Im very happy with my results, and ill keep reading all of the articles from lyle to get to my goals..

  • Dana May 08, 2012

    I have been thinking about this a lot and feel that much of it stems from people forgetting to look at the big picture and the phases of health and fitness they will see throughout their lives. Granted it’s easier to look at smaller chunks of time because jumping onto a bandwagon or staying faithful to a “guru” is doable for increments of 90 days (or 3 months if that sounds shorter to some) than committing oneself (and most likely failing) for more than 365 days. All over the internet we see countless “before and after” pictures with people espousing the benefits of the latest craze, but rarely do we see ‘after, after, after’ pictures.

    How can we improve reach? The simplest concept is to remind people and support them in keeping an open mind as well as looking at things at a higher conceptual level instead of a ‘follow it to the letter be all and end all.’ This is essential because not only will a single-minded approach ultimately fall short, but since there are things that happen in life that are beyond one’s control, people will be better prepared to handle these situations if they know when and how to change course.

  • Teddy April 27, 2012

    I can relate to this way of thinking because I was the same way. I lost my weight (around 35lbs) using a low carb approach and since it worked that became, in my mind, the only way to go about losing weight. Whenever anyone would ask me how I did it or what they should do I would immediately say “low carb and circuit training” because thats what worked for me. At the time I was just beginning to seek out real info on nutrition and working out and how it all came together. It wasnt until I came across JCs blog that my eyes were opened and I realized that carbs and “unlcean foods” arent what directly causes you to gain or lose weight.

  • Melen April 27, 2012

    This complements the other article I read today: Let’s put an end to ‘dietary tribalism’

  • Bret Contreras April 26, 2012

    Great article JC!!!

  • Ben Sparhawk April 26, 2012

    I have been guilty of this big time, but since I’ve gotten into the fitness industry I really work to keep an open mind on everything. I do this by reading people who are in different circles than I and from guys who’ve been in the game for a good long while (i.e. Dan John). Even though I’m primarily a westside/strength guy I recognize that it’s not the only path to the promise land and that it may not be the best for average Jane’s & Joe’s. This is why I use different methods but the same principles for my clients and I really work to be open and constantly learning. It’s hard sometimes though because you want to be right, because it feels like its an affirmation of you and that you are valid in this universe. People tie their image and self worth to their beliefs and if those beliefs end up wrong what does that say about you? In the 1800′s there was a religious sect that was predicting the Rapture on a certain date (can’t remember the date but I think the year was 1849) and it obviously didn’t happen. So did these people leave the religion and go back to their neighbors and tell them how they were wrong? No. They changed their belief structure and now they are known as 7th day Adventist. It was a protection of their egos and that they weren’t wrong. It’s all about protecting your ego and self image/worth. It’s something that I try hard to avoid but fall into because I am human.

  • Carl Mason-Liebenberg April 25, 2012

    Brilliant article! Thank you!

  • Duff April 24, 2012

    I’ve been reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Kahneman. Great book, highly recommended (and it’s on audiobook too). He covers many different cognitive biases in an engaging style.

    I’m not a fitness pro but this stuff shows up in every field. I’ve done similar things many, many times as I thought I found “the key” to it all. The mature perspective is what you put here: to accept that there is no One True Way.

    • JC Deen April 24, 2012

      thanks for the recommendation, Duff. Nice to see you around here again!

  • Kyle S. April 24, 2012

    Great article. I can honestly say that I have fallen victim to that type of thinking before and im sure I will again (ie.. I believe the St Louis Blues are the best hockey team and will go out of my way to prove it). Even basic stuff like sports teams, clothes I wear, and cars that I dive are totally based on this type of thinking. The bad part of this topic is that the fitness industry thrives off this type of thinking and encourges it. And it makes good (well for the most part) business sense.

    Take p90x for instance. Im one of the people that was sucked into believing that it was going to be the quickest and best way for me to get totally ripped in 90 days. And by god throughout those 90 days I was an unnofficial sales rep for BeachBody. I told friends, family, coworkers, and complete strangers that it was the be all and end all of all workout regimens. You would find me quoting the latest statistics that were posted on their websites and forums and using it as “proof” that reaffirmed my belief. Did it work for me? Hell yes it did. I got into fantastic shape. Because I wanted it to work and I believed that it would. I can honestly say that I convinced 20-25 people to purchase the workout and get into the cycle. Not one of them succeeded. It wasnt right for them. Its not right for 95% of the people who buy the program. But they still sell it and they still make tons of money.

    Its that type of marketing and and “belief brainwashing” that causes those facets of the fitness industry to thrive and make money.

    I love this article and I totally believe that more people should take an open mind to everything, especially diet and exercise. But unfortunately I believe that as long as there is money to be made, there will never be an end to “my way is the best way” type of thinking.

    Keep up the great work JC

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