Sport science, bro science, and the scientific value of big biceps

Max Dooley.

As governments seek to combat growing health concerns, the incentives for the layperson to start exercising are increased. With more and more non-athletes getting involved it is an important time to discuss the education of the public in the basics of health and fitness. The knowledge base for this comes predominantly from sports science and nutrition research.

A lot of sport science is centred on professional athletes. This is where the most direct benefit can be achieved. Research is often commissioned by a team, especially in Russia, China, and other places where national teams are well funded. This research is done to answer the particular questions of a coach or to explore new avenues of training and injury prevention. The benefits of this research are not limited to the professional athletes, however, and the conclusions drawn in these papers have implications for the wider public.

In many societies where lifting and other fitness pursuits have not been directly sponsored by the government in any major way, predominantly in the West, the public has a huge disconnect from the information they need to be successful or even just be safe in the pursuit of fitness and health. This is where “Bro science” comes in; . It is not uncommon for a piece of knowledge that is often true in the beginning to be simplified so many times through Internet gurus and then fitness instructors and finally person to person that it becomes indistinguishable from a falsehood. Through these Chinese whispers people remember bits of the explanation which they pass on to others so perpetuating myths and twisting evidence into fiction.

So why does this happen? What is it that makes people believe and pass on information without doing the research themselves? The knowledge barrier for understanding a sport science paper is the obvious first problem; for anyone without a scientific background a PubMed article offers them no real help. This is because the papers are not written for the lay public; much like a physics paper is written for physicists to read, a sports science paper assumes a certain level of knowledge in the reader. So people have to turn to other sources to get their information.

Even those with the ability to access and understand the literature often choose not to. Discounting those people who are doing nutrition or sport science degrees, it is almost unheard of for anyone to quote the literature in defence of a training program. To treat fitness in an intellectual manner is alien to our society and is at least unusual if not actually taboo. It is quite common to see very clever people discussing their degrees in a university gym and then shift into an argument over whose internet guru was right about a certain topic with no points being made other than the number of followers he or she has or how good his or her physique is.

The amount of abstraction that takes place in the literature is quite likely also partially to blame. When a coach looks for an answer to a specific question or when a particular biomechanical action is studied a clear conclusion can often be drawn.  Given the specificity of a lot of problems in sport science, however, using papers as a more general guide is not always possible, even for experts.

The problem of connecting the results of a paper to a practical application are not unique to sports science however; this can be seen across the entire scientific community. A paper on an abstract concept in theoretical physics can be published years, if not entire decades, before the understanding and technology catches up to do the experiments to investigate the underlying physics. The Higgs boson was first discussed in a basic way in the 1960s with the Large Hadron Collider not even opening until 2010.

Another problem sports science suffers from is study size. It is often hard for the study to gather more than 20 participating members, many of which will drop out if the study lasts more than a few weeks and, given that training is a long term game, they often do. Many scientists are then left trying to draw conclusions from vastly reduced numbers of data points. It is not uncommon to see the errors be well over 25% of the measured values (1) (2) (3). With errors like this papers often disagree with each other even when studying the same principle. .For those people without the time to perform their own literature reviews or meta-analysis there is no direct solution to this.

This is where a third party comes in. The obvious solution for people without access to the literature would be to find someone they trusted who did. The problem here is choosing that person. Many fitness channels that have a large following have so for two main reasons, they have good marketing, and the producer has the physique that the audience wants. Neither of these things are really good indicators of the producers credibility. These people are often just as likely to fall into the traps of the layperson; often aided by good genetics and better camera angles to produces the physique that draws the crowd.

Feynman is often quoted as saying, “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts “. If this is true then the concept of listening internet gurus and the big guy at your gym is completely counter to the scientific method.  Does it matter? Well for the majority of people who struggle to find time for exercise the answer is yes. If you can only spare half an hour here and there to try to get fit then you need to use that time as efficiently as possible. To people like this it is imperative that they optimise their time, simply for their own health.

How can we fix this? How can we get people fitter better? The benefits of doing so are obvious. Education should start from a younger age. There is already a big push to get parents and their children to make sure the child is active, £450 million was pledged over the three years following the Olympic Games (4), so could it be taken one step further? Just getting involved isn’t enough. When they leave school, or move away from whatever team or group they were part of they are left adrift.

Of all the things that could be taught in schools I would say that a basic understanding of sport science would be one of the most beneficial to the health on the nation. Kids don’t need to leave school with the ability to write a paper on the matter, but enough knowledge to maintain their fitness throughout their lives. With the fitness of the populous becoming increasingly more important, bridging the gap between the research and the public is something that must happen.




Sport science, bro science, and the scientific value of big biceps

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