Nov 17, 2010

working it out

The NY Times health section has a way of driving me into abject rage on a frequent basis.

The setup. Today's post in the Well section talks about a study done in Finland with some intriguing results. The study looked at 175 sedentary adults within the context of a 21 week exercise program. Three programs were employed - a cardio program (jogging/walking), a strength program (lifting weights), and a combination of the two. Fitness and strength were assessed at the end with interesting results.

The range of physiological outcomes for the combined program ranged from -8% (they became less fit) to positive 42%. The other programs had similar ranges. And there was large variation around whether someone became just fitter or just stronger. In other words people responded very differently to the same exercise program and some became less fit.

The great thing about this study is that it didn't reduce the study to averages. This is the common measurement that media fixates on. But in reality the variation could be far more interesting and in this case it is.

Caveats. It is one study. It may have been done poorly. There is no causality or mechanism to describe why these differences occur.

Nevertheless it is an unusual result and one that begs further study.

What drives me absolutely crazy though is the last paragraph which begins
But none of this means that if you once took up jogging or weight lifting and didn’t respond, you should take to the couch.
Why? Based on what data? None is given. Some people became more unhealthy as a result of working out. Why should they workout? I'm not saying that is the right answer but where is the data to suggest they should workout? In fact the doctor then bizarrely goes on to say that exercise is "on average one of the best 'health' treatments we have."  Wait a second. Your study just pointed out that averages are obscuring a far more interesting result and then you prescribe health advice based on the average.  It is irrelevant.  This is the sort of sacred cow bullshit that permeates health research.  Either provide data or stop making these stupid assertions.

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