One Trainer’s Journey to Learn How to Use Research, Everyone Else’s Guide
“In a world where everyone flocks to the extremes it is important to be able to say “no” to bias in research, “no” to bias within ourselves, and “yes” to being more capable as thinkers, researchers, and professionals.”
Flash back to the fall of 2009 — a wide-eyed college student is hastily rushing through the pages of yet another research paper — desperate to find a scrap of evidence he could use to support his argument in a paper due on Monday. It’s a Saturday morning in College Park, Maryland — home of the Maryland Terrapins football team, a mediocre but competitive team in the ACC.
Today, on this brisk fall day in October, they are playing a rival at noon and the tailgate is going to be epic. After that all bets are off too, so he better get his work done now, like…right…now.
So this student, let’s call him Kevin, woke up early and had his typical breakfast — a sugar-free Monster energy drink and an egg and cheese from the diner. He threw on his best drinking jeans, a red Under Armour shirt with the new Maryland logo on it, and his favorite hoodie — another Maryland item, but this one from his visit with his father to see another football game many years back. The pockets are a bit torn, but it still feels as cozy as it did when he was thirteen. Amazing how that happens…
Kevin plopped himself down in his desk chair and sprawled out all of his research studies and notes on the executive desk that came with his over-priced bedroom off-campus. His laptop displayed the blinking cursor of Microsoft Word and pushed out the music that was energizing Kevin’s mind.
As he flipped through the pages of each study Kevin found himself frustrated by the whole process. Sure, he was a college student with the allure of another great party in his future, but that wasn’t it. He was frustrated that he was specifically reading the study with the intent of finding a piece of information that support his stance on the effect of exercise on diabetes.
He felt like he was cherry-picking, a practice frowned upon in academic professions. Kevin was actively disregarding an entire paper’s context so long as he could find a blip, a quote, or some sort of factoid that supported his argument that exercise can help those who have diabetes. It got the job done in the end, but it felt wrong…
This paper was completed, as were many others like it, but Kevin graduated the University of Maryland with a degree in Kinesiology in December of 2010. This accomplishment launched his career as a fitness professional and writer — two careers that made understanding research papers a critical factor for success. Oh, the irony…
If you haven’t gathered it yet — I’m Kevin; the guy in the story above. For years I’ve worked to refine my craft as a personal trainer, strength coach, nutrition advocate, and writer of words. Much of that has been experiential — I’ve done about fifteen thousand training sessions in my career, not to mention the group exercise classes and lectures I’ve taught as a Master Instructor. I’ve written many of word about health and wellness too.
Still though, all of that experience is only one part of an equation that must factor in the educational component — the research.
I still remember the morning I wrote about like it was yesterday. I was genuinely frustrated at how wrong I felt discarding the majority of work that a group of individuals had worked so hard on just because I had found a tidbit I could use in my college paper. That feeling never left and as my career continued up the elevator of success I was forced to continue to refine my methods.
The journey led to discovering that the research industry is often at war with anyone who doesn’t take what they say as Bible — a bias that must be accounted for when reading a paper. Just the same, there is a legion of coaches out there who don’t really “care about the papers” — they just work people and do what has always worked for them — a bias that must be understood when someone argues against the research community.
This Civil War felt right out of the Avengers. Two sides that should be working together to fight against a greater evil were suddenly thrown at each other — arguing over the minutia and validity of each other’s camps. This sort of banter is wasteful and detracts from the real good — making people healthier.
Thankfully, like any great Marvel flick there was a wise-mind that came at just the right time. His wisdom, once merged with my own thoughts on the matter, formed the perfect formula for utilizing research to further one’s career in fitness. The wise-mind, Dr. Bryan Chung, was right there to mastermind the process with me in the next story.
The sound of EDM blasted through the speakers of the television as the shows from Ultra music festival in Miami had just been uploaded to YouTube for home-watching. While most people find this genre to be noisy and unorganized, Kevin has found it to be quite relaxing during his work sessions.
It’s as if the noise from the music and the noise of all of his thoughts cancel out and create a place of silence — an oddity that might only exist in his crazy skull space. Still though, it works and Tiesto never lets him down…
It’s the middle of the day on a random Tuesday in August and Kevin is twirling around in his head, reliving the same frustration he felt almost a decade ago — the research papers aren’t giving him what he wants. Facing a problem is always a challenge, but facing the same problem twice in a lifetime felt like double jeopardy. An irritated Kevin got up from his chair and walked to the kitchen, grabbed a banana and took a sip of some water…
He took a deep breathe and tried to refocus. He had to get this research done soon — he had a client who was pressing him for the best data on their issue and he was considering writing an article about too. The middle of the day always provided such a great work space for him too — a perfect segment of time after his morning sessions, but before his evening clients that he could use for anything he wanted to pursue.
He decided he might be tired and that maybe, just maybe, if he shut his eyes for fifteen minutes he’d wake up with the solution. So, Kevin shuffled over to the television and turned it off, plopped onto his couch and pulled a pillow over his head — the sun is bright in August in Washington D.C.
It didn’t take long for Kevin to find himself in the state between sleep and awake. That odd self-awareness paired with physical immobility and an ironic sense of peacefulness whisked him away as the clock hands kept spinning. A voice began penetrating the silence of the room. Assuming it was just a loud-mouth on the street below Kevin just pulled the pillow tighter to his head.
The rest of this story is completely true…or at least that’s how I remember it.
Yet, the voice only got louder. It kept saying “Only those who want to leave the Matrix actually get out”. There was an exciting tone to the voice, as though the person on the other end was incredibly smart, but easily energized by a great conversation. The voice continued to repeat this adage until I finally acknowledged its presence.
I answered the distance voice with “who are you” and was immediately answered in a voice that sounded more like someone who just won the lottery than someone who is here to cure research-study paralysis.
He said, “I’m Dr. Bryan Chung of Evidence Based Fitness and I’m here to solve your problem with reading research. I’m the spirit of research. I travel from person-to-person, fixing inquisitive minds and setting the path straight.”
I was tempted to ask how he got in, but screw it…I needed help with research and this guy sounds legit. I asked, “well how are you going to help?”
“I’m going to teach you how to say no to bias, how to understand context, and how to ask yourself whether or not you actually need to be researching something in the first place. You are deep-diving when you should be wading in the water and you are afraid to shake up your beliefs or challenge your own opinions. That has to change”. Dr. Chung spoke with such confidence and pride.
I sort of just nodded and let my eyes implore him to continue…
“See, you need to realize that research studies, in any field, are best used in context. Far too many people are taking studies and taking them out of context…like you now. Are you studying the effects of intermittent fasting in middle-aged women?”
“Yes”, I answered proudly. “Of course I am. It is a highly debated topic”.
Dr. Chung nodded and continued, “of course it is. But are you looking at this the right way? I see a study right here that focused on men — that doesn’t help you since the results don’t pertain to your focus. Oh look, you highlighted things that supported your opinion that it could be risky for women to do intermittent fasting due to their hormonal levels…how safe of you…”
I quickly fought back, “how do you know my opinion?”
“I’m in your head silly — I know everything. By the way, you really need to clear your head of so many song lyrics — it’s like a concert in here; can you even sleep?” Dr. Chung was nodding his head and laughing at first, but seemed very serious about the music comment.
“Wow, this got trippy fast — how are you in my head and leave my music alone…I like life with a soundtrack, thank you very much”. I continued, “well, Dr. Chung — how did you get in here and why are you here and why do I suddenly feel so smart about how I should be using research studies?
With a little chuckle Dr. Chung dove into his experiences with Evidence-Based Fitness. The stories about working with other fitness professionals, his own frustrations with the state-of-the-industry and how everyone is calling themselves “evidence-based” now…a trend that makes him wish he used a different name for his website.
He explained that there was a better way of doing business, a better way to handle research, and that there were 6 distinct steps that must be followed. It was all so fascinating that it was imprinted into my mind like a vision — something impossible to forget.
Step 1 — “Learn to Say No”
We must “say no” to the idea that a research paper lacks bias. Many publishers work hard to present a neutral point of view, but such a thing is fundamentally impossible. We have to say “no” to the “concept that evidence has truth in a vacuum”. As Dr. Chung stated, “this leads to a misappropriation of language” because “in the end, what does evidence even mean and how do we classify something as evidence when it is nearly impossible to remain objective as a researcher or a reader.”
There are two opinions in any research study — the researchers and the readers. It’s even worse with research reviews too, as someone else has interpreted the data through their lens and bias before you do the same. I personally call this “ABC” Knowledge (already-been-chewed). With this sort of data we have to keep in mind that
We must say “NO” to biases and context if we are to use research for our betterment.
2. Ask yourself “Do I need to be here”?
Far too many fitness professionals read everything that’s published. Between the science journals that are mailed to their homes, the research groups they are subscribed to on the internet, and the research reviews that are published quarterly — it is all too much.
As fitness professionals we must begin by saying no to what we don’t need. We don’t need to read about the training methodologies of elite cricket athletes or glenohumeral range-of-motion in competitive swimmers if we mostly train senior citizens looking to live a healthy life.
It is important to ask yourself if you could use what you are reading today. As Dr. Chung elaborates, “we must ask ourselves if we are browsing or researching. There is nothing wrong with browsing — it exposes us to a breadth of knowledge as opposed to the depths of it. However, if we are going to research something we must know that we must switch out of a passive reading style and into an active one — otherwise we are not doing the data justice.”
Ask yourself if what your purpose is before going any further.
3. Conduct a Deep Dive
The “hardest part” of reading research is “isolating what you can use for the purposes of your practice and finding the necessary research documents that tackle the exact issue you are exploring”. It is critical to avoid studies that aren’t focused on your specific population or outcome — they will only get in the way of your truth formation.
Dr. Chung and I discussed this principle in relation to studies about intermittent fasting and women’s hormones. It has been long stated that women can have issues with IF and therefore it is an often researched, and googled, topic. But as Dr. Chung pointed out, it is important to sift through the findings and be sure to disregard anything that studies men, women with pre-existing conditions, advanced trainees, or anyone outside of our target age range. This sort of filter must be put on or else the data becomes murky with inaccurate data.
When we choose to dive deep we must ensure that we need to be there and that we get what we need while we are there. Access to such context-rich data can be a gift or curse depending upon who interprets it and how they do it.
4. Apply Both “Lenses” to your Finding
Far too many coaches only reference what they’ve seen in practice during training sessions when they read academic papers. On the other hand, researchers tend to stick with research — rarely considering the on-the-ground implications in fitness facilities around the world. This sort of bias is why we are even having this discussion in the first place.
A great fitness professional asks themselves “how would my clients see this info?” and “do I agree or disagree with these findings based upon everything I’ve come to know up to this point?” The answer to both questions is critical for the formation or amendment of someone’s thoughts on a matter.
As Dr. Chung points out, “we must share a certain level of foundation of truth with the paper that we are reading. We must have some level of agreed upon science prior to diving into the depths or else we’ll come out the other end in absolute disagreement”. It is OK, even ideal, to have a paper challenge your beliefs on a subject — such as intermittent fasting — but for us to grow from our research we must believe that the academics involved and us share a similar foundation.
We must read the paper through the eyes of a practitioner and a researcher for us to truly grasp whether the information provided is valid for our use, which leads us to the most uncomfortable phase of research.
5. The Uncomfortable Interrogation
“We must drive down the roads in our minds to discover our new position on a given topic. We must be critical of what we’ve read today and all the data and bias we brought into the experience. Most importantly, we must ask ourselves if this research is valid for our purposes, right here, right now”.
It is incredibly hard to admit we are wrong. Just ask any married couple about ten years into their partnership — it’s a tug of war with never-ending grip. However, when it comes to our intellectual prowess it is most important to tussle with our own biases and intentions. Could we have been wrong prior to this paper? Could we have been doing things all wrong?
This uncomfortable interrogation of yourself and the information you received is imperative for your growth going forward. If you are to successfully apply what you’ve learned, then you must find exactly where it fits into your intellect, your mantra, and your business. As always, “do my clients benefit from me knowing this?”
You have to be OK with being wrong and even more OK with amending your stance.
6. Reform Your Stance or Confirm it
It is so important to remember that the entire point behind research is to prove something wrong. We set hypothesis’ in advance of studies and set up conditions to disprove them; not the other way around. Thus, we must understand that reading something with the intent of simply confirming what we already know is a slippery slope of ego-infused education.
However, if we can refine our stances, or completely reform them, after vetting and interpreting research, then we’ve experienced the pinnacle of education. We’ve successfully challenged ourselves to expand beyond our bias and scope and grew into a broader and more capable mind.
At this point we must ask ourselves, “Do I continue down this path for more information or do I stop here because I’ve gathered all I need to make this work?”. As Dr. Chung pointed out, “we have to be willing to repeat this entire process for everything we consume”.
And with the same haste that he arrived Dr. Chung’s voice faded into the distance. I’ve never slept so well in thirty minutes before. When I finally woke I shot up thinking a stranger, albeit a gifted doctor, was in my home. I looked around and saw nothing but the desk full of papers and my laptop.
What a dream that was…
I stumbled to the table and grabbed most of the studies and threw them in the recycling container — they weren’t pertinent. The two I kept though were read front-to-back as though they were a compelling novel. I spun off and read a few of the studies that they listed as references too. As a result I found myself having a better grasp on my topic and most importantly…
I didn’t cherry-pick data simply because I wanted to be “right”. I followed Dr. Chung’s words and developed my new hypothesis.
Take the time to develop your skills with research. It is a weapon and it is a shield. Respect its value but understand that it is incredibly hard to escape bias. You can do better too.