Signal and Noise: Part 1
Cutting the Fat from Commercial Fitness
Jonathan Swift wrote that “falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”
Let’s define these terms.
Truth is a verifiable statement about the world, free of bias or agenda. Falsehood is a facade suiting the needs of its architect, often contains some grain of truth, and is supported by logical fallacies, misrepresentations, or fabrications. Such structural unsoundness is hard to miss, given more than a cursory glance.
But our instinct is to not look closely. The difference in propagation speed noted by Swift stems from the relationship humans have with belief. Our brain is more likely to accept conclusions based in emotion, comfort, and personal biases, than those based in logic and empirical observation — a well-documented psychological phenomenon. Put simply, we are more likely to believe what we want to believe, and we don’t part with our beliefs quietly. We also have a tendency to assume that something is true because it’s repeated often, with conviction, and everyone seems to accept it — argumentum ad populum (an example, and one of my pet peeves: “we only use 10% of our brain!” — bunk). The result is that falsehoods are easily accepted, quickly disseminated, and almost impossible to dispel once ingrained in the public mind.
Most people can access all human knowledge, on demand, from anywhere with a data connection. That should fix the problem, right? While a tempting thought, the Web and its contents are still human products and are crafted to serve their human architects. Many of its residents are obstinately ignorant and misinformed people who lubricate the machine of mass misunderstanding.
Let’s delve into the anarchic world of commercial fitness. Interest in fitness seems to be at an all-time high, given the recent popularity surge of programs like CrossFit. Here’s the problem: health and supplement companies capitalize on the fact that spreading appealing misinformation is easy. My motivations for writing this post are: 1) to demonstrate just how bad the situation is; and 2) to talk about how to differentiate truth from nonsense in this environment.
As far as public understanding of scientific disciplines is concerned, fitness and nutrition rank among the most deplorable. I use the word “scientific” with purpose.
Some people are under the impression that you can walk into the gym without a clear goal in mind, tepidly use the machines for a half-hour (bonus points for doing so completely incorrectly), go home and proceed to eat — or not eat — whatever you please, and still call that a fitness routine. Some people are under the impression that you can follow the latest diet or exercise trend, conjured by some gym-bro posing as a trainer because he completed a week-long online certification course, and still call that a fitness routine. Some people are under the impression that they should avoid strength training because they’ll “get too big,” as if professional athletes who routinely lift weight in the neighborhood of a thousand pounds at the competition level became that strong on accident, without years of relentless dedication.
To be fair, it’s not entirely their fault. Because few people interested in nutrition and exercise science are experts, misinformation abounds. There are primarily two forces at play.
The first is the prevalence of anecdotal, non-empirical knowledge exchanged between fitness enthusiasts — you may know it as “broscience.” Some of it is accurate or at least vaguely based in real science, but most of it is just wrong. Nonetheless, the myths refuse to die. The combined force of the Web and argumentum ad populum is formidable.
The second is the marketing arm of large fitness, nutrition and supplement corporations (think Super Supplements, GNC, Planet Fitness, and their ilk). Some of these companies capitalize on people’s ignorance by selling things like “herbal supplements,” which are not useful in any way. Others pander to the discomfort that fitness neophytes experience, or convince people that they can get something for nothing. Planet Fitness, for example, markets their gyms as “judgment-free zones,” explicitly discourages strength training under the pretense that it’s “intimidating,” and hosts free pizza nights.
So why not expose these peddlers of misinformation and show people that they’ve been duped?
They say that the devil is in the detail. Enter Martin Berkhan. Berkhan spent seven years refining an effective fitness regiment using sound scientific principles and empirical observation. The fitness industry rewarded his efforts by stealing and bastardizing his work. Let’s see exactly how things played out.
Drowned Out Signals
Martin Berkhan is the originator of a diet and exercise philosophy known as Leangains (LG). Before the birth of LG, Berkhan followed the dogmatic view, still perpetuated by the fitness industry, that one should eat five to six small meals per day in order to maintain sufficient levels of amino acids in the bloodstream for efficient protein synthesis (or “to keep the metabolic fire burning,” to use vague marketing terminology). Aside from constant hunger and having to bow out of social gatherings involving food, Berkhan’s daily routine centered around meal preparation and timing.
Fortunately, Berkhan held a bachelor’s degree in the medical sciences and was inclined to approach matters scientifically. He discovered that the aforementioned dieting regiment was entirely unsubstantiated. The digestion process of a typical meal lasts about six hours, throughout which nutrient release and protein synthesis occur continuously. There is no advantage to maintaining high meal frequency.
Using this as a starting point, Berkhan developed and refined the regime that would become LG, and underwent an incredible physical transformation in the process. He started a consulting business based on the program; his clients’ results speak for themselves. For what it’s worth, I can personally attest to the efficacy of LG.
LG gained a cult following on the Web. Communities formed where practitioners could share results and exchange advice. People flooded the comment section of articles posted on the official website (which was frequently updated at the time), dissecting the particulars of the program, and Berkhan himself often took the time to respond. There was talk of a highly anticipated LG book.
Berkhan went on to release his book, rose to international recognition as a fitness expert, and watched with satisfaction as weightlifters everywhere, once shackled by the misinformation used to fill the purses of the fitness conglomerate, attained exercise nirvana.
Just kidding. What actually happened is that Berkhan began posting less frequently, the tone of his posts became more frustrated, and eventually he disappeared altogether.
From the beginning, Berkhan was swimming upstream. He was fighting other alleged experts who used anecdotal success in the weight room (often questionably attained) to justify advocating baseless methodologies, marketing strategies deployed by multi-billion dollar companies in order to push products, and most dauntingly, the human tendencies of his audience — the unwillingness to discard old, self-servings beliefs even in the face of contrary evidence.
Berkhan was driven by integrity, and in his own words, “the hate of incompetence.” He recognized that years of pseudoscience had become the status quo. And he persisted in this environment for seven years — interacting with the community, training clients, publishing articles, keeping up with research. But things didn’t change.
Recognizing the merits of LG, others repackaged its principles into offshoots which became more popular than LG because they were marketed to appeal to a larger audience at the expense of integrity. Berkhan developed LG scientifically, and most of these variants were anything but. They appeared similar to LG on the surface, but lacked the same data-driven foundation. For Berkhan, continuing to contribute to the development of LG and related topics became a losing proposition.
And so Berkhan disappeared. He hasn’t posted to his website in over a year, and the last two posts were themselves spaced more than a year apart. His Twitter and Facebook feeds are dead. The prospect that the Leangains book will never surface becomes more probable with every passing day that Berkhan maintains his silence.
Filtering the Noise
Admittedly, I semi-shoehorned Berkhan’s story into this post, not only because it exemplifies the futility of fighting the spread of misinformation that garners mass public appeal and the difficulty of creating and consuming legitimate information about fitness in a truth-hostile environment, but also because on a personal level, Berkhan fundamentally changed how I think about diet and exercise. This is my inadequate attempt to repay him. His experience proves that the fitness industry is irredeemable as a source of truth. The purpose of a corporation is to maximize value for its shareholders — we can’t expect this to change. Health and wellness corporations achieve this by capitalizing on human nature. We can’t expect human nature to change, either (at least, for now). The takeaway is this: you can only embed the truth in the collective mind by making it more appealing and consumable than the alternatives.
Someone newly interested in fitness is met with a minefield of confusing and bad information. The mainstream narrative of being fit involves ill-defined ideas like “toning” and “cleanses.” Such imprecise phrasing gives one the freedom to interpret the underlying concepts as one pleases. Remember, our brains cling to the status quo — which, as we’ve seen, is broken — because it’s easy. There should be little interpretation happening in the context of the scientific processes that govern metabolism, fat loss and muscle growth. A chemist wouldn’t eyeball how much of a chemical to use in a solution. She would be extremely precise.
So how do you differentiate the signal from the noise? How can you succeed in an environment that sets you up for, at best, mediocre results and empty pockets? Keep in mind that there is nothing new under the sun. Homo sapien sapiens have physically changed very little in the last 200,000 years. Dial up your skepticism when a diet, supplement, or exercise routine makes claims that seem too good to be true or fly in the face of current scientific understanding. Corporations want you to believe that you can take a fat loss pill and not worry about your diet. Unless that pill is going to induce vomiting, you’re being played. Look for empirical evidence and consistency with scientific theory when evaluating fitness claims. Demand justification for sweeping statements like “never eat carbs before bedtime” and “the body can only use Y grams of protein in X time.” Recognize your tendency to believe what you want to believe, as you’re only human. Accept it — then resist it.
This may all feel overwhelming to someone just starting out. In reality, there is a methodical way to determine if a fitness program is legitimate, and more importantly, legitimate fitness programs tend to be straightforward and easy to follow. I will elaborate on these points in part 2. Even if just one person benefits from this information, making this small contribution to the signal of truth in the noisy channel that is commerical fitness will have been worth it.