Is there anything more aggravating than when the media take a sound research study and distort the findings just to attract attention? (Okay, this season’s American Idol and the “five-dollar footlong” jingle are probably more aggravating, but still . . .) And it’s even worse when the public may take the incorrect message and change their behavior as a result. I’m thinking we should sponsor a contest for the worst reporting (stay tuned).
So take this article from the London Daily Mail. The headline: “Fitness flop? It’s all down to the genes, say researchers.” The first line of the article carries on the same theme: ”Spent hours sweating it out in the gym but don’t feel any fitter? Blame your parents.” The article was then picked up by other sources and reported as fact (for example, by Fox News). Much of the reporting seems to suggest that some people shouldn’t exercise, as this cartoon accompanying the Daily Mail suggests.
We at Evidence-Based Living, of course, had to track down the original article and take a look (here’s the reference). Now, a lot of the article is close to unintelligible to the lay person (here’s one for you: “Target areas for the SNP selection was defined as the coding region of the gene 269 plus 20kb upstream of the 5’ end and 10 kb downstream of the 3’ end of the gene.”). However, the major finding is pretty straightforward.
One important indicator of fitness is oxygen uptake, and exercise such as running and biking can increase your ability to take in oxygen. This is commonly referred to as “aerobic fitness.” However, in the study, for about 20% of people intense exercise didn’t improve their oxygen uptake. All the subjects (around 600) in this study did a cycling exercise program. On average, people’s aerobic capacity improved around 15 percent, but in approximately 20 percent of those studied, improvement was minimal (5 percent or less). The failure to improve was related to specific genes. The study will have practical value, because doctors may be able to tailor special programs to people who don’t respond to exercise.
All in all, a nice study. However, when you saw the extensive media coverage, your take-home could easily be: Why exercise? In fact, there is still every reason to hit the gym or track, or get on the bike several times a week. First and foremost, let’s turn it around and note that 80 % of people DID improve aerobic capacity. What the misleading headlines and coverage don’t tell you that for most of us, exercise works, and works well.
And even if you are in the minority, the study only looked at a couple of outcomes. However, exercise has multiple other benefits, from weight loss, to improving mood, to increasing flexibility, to reducing the risk of osteoporosis. The excellent evidence-based medicine blog Bandolier summarizes all the benefits of exercise concisely.
So for those of you working to promote healthy behaviors like exercise, make sure people know that it’s still definitely good for people. And for everyone involved in disseminating research to the public: Let’s remember to keep a skeptical eye on media one-liners about scientific findings, especially as they relate to human health. It’s almost always more complicated, and there’s no excuse not to go to the source of the information, rather than relying only on the press.