Candles & Card Games: Navigating the Unknown

One of my favorite things about the health and wellness industry is that each aspect the field has such great breadth and depth that my learning is never done. Since embarking on my journey into the field I’ve made a point to study at very least 1 hour a day, often devoting 5 plus hours to my education and foolishly foregoing sleep in some marathon knowledge binges. Yet despite what I would consider a wide knowledge base, there are very few things I am certain of.

As my knowledge has grown, I’ve come to realize that much of what highly regarded industry leaders espouse as facts are conjecture at best. Research on specific exercises, protocols, and techniques is incredibly sparse and often poor quality, so hearsay and opinion statements dominate the field. I strongly doubt that most of these people are being knowingly deceptive or dishonest, but the bottom line is that a tremendous amount of information is presented as fact when no one really knows what’s true.

When hit with this realization both professionals and clients can be left with a great deal of uncertainty. Egos flare and confidence wavers. What’s a person to do when navigating the great unknown? To borrow a phrase from the late Carl Sagan, let us use science as a candle in the dark.

Candles

Fortunately for us, there is some (limited) strong research and a few well validated principles that can be referred to as guiding lights. Principles like SAID (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) and progressive overload have consistently been the cornerstone of all well designed exercise programs long before either of those terms we coined. In more recent years developments in neuroscience as seen in body mapping and the central governor theory have lead to amazingly elegant and simple explanations of previously unexplainable phenomena. These things offer us a lens to view more circumstantial evidence like anecdotes, experiences, opinions, and weaker quality research.

Once we can view circumstantial evidence in the light of the known, patterns and commonalities among the successful are good places to look for emerging information. When research and trends align we can even make assumptions. For example: I’d probably find little argument suggesting that elite sprinters can move faster on 2 legs than they can crab walking sideways down the track. While I’d love to see this done (in the interest of research, of course) my statement makes sense in the context of what I have seen over time and how I understand the human body. Therefore I can assume this is a reasonable and defensible statement despite the fact that this trial (probably) hasn’t been done.

Navigating similar claims is perhaps the trickiest and most common situation in the world of health and wellness. A successful and often well credentialed person (an “expert”) will make a statement based on circumstantial evidence that makes sense in light of larger principles, which is then held up as a fact by others. I don’t mean to dismiss expert opinions, because they can surely be a useful tool, but it becomes very easy to assume that because someone is an expert their opinion is not subject to scrutiny.

All experts suffer from the very common condition known as being human, and as such they are also subject to biases and other cognitive tricks that serve to reinforce their own views and opinions. This means that even with the best intentions they are likely to search for and remember evidence to support their views rather than opposing information. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of times I’ve heard experts cite other experts who have in turn cited weak or irrelevant research. I’ve even believed them for a time – after all they’re the experts and who am I to question them? It’s inconvenient and time consuming, but the fact is that in order to have the best available information each claim must be scrutinized individually in light of the known.

Regardless of the source, when strong research and circumstantial evidence do not align, the situation must be approached cautiously. If someone professed to becoming substantially stronger by lifting progressively lighter weights less often this would fly in the face of known principles. When I see claims that are unsupported by what is known, I firmly plant my most skeptical hat atop my head and run through a few scenarios.

First, it is possible the claim is inaccurate or false. Second, there are other unmentioned variables in play that may have significant impact on the claim. In my experience this is the most common circumstance. Third, it’s possible that the previous research and/or principles did not account for the outcomes reported by the claim. If this is the case, what was previously thought to be true must be modified or discarded. In these situations the logical axiom known as Occam’s Razor dictates that the explanation that makes the fewest assumptions is usually correct. It is always worth exploring the disparity between research and practice, but the chances of stumbling upon a scientific revolution are fairly slim.

Card Games

I like to view this whole process as a more elaborate hand of Poker. If you win a Poker hand thinking that you’re playing Black Jack, that’s purely luck.  If you imitate someone who you saw win with a bad hand then you’re misplacing your faith, but at least you’re playing the right game. If you know the rules, pay attention to your surroundings, and play a hand with strong cards, then you’ve done everything in your power to make the best decision with the information available. You may still lose the hand, but you made the right move. While we can never be absolutely certain of the outcome, by cultivating critical thinking skills we can greatly improve our odds of being successful.

The good news is that the future is bright. An increasing number of providers and clients in health and wellness settings are demanding a higher quality of care, and it is our responsibility to push this process forward by asking the tough questions to ourselves and others. In the mean time we might all find some solace knowing that making changes to dietary and exercise habits in the presence of a caring individual almost always seems to help. As for me, I will continue to try my absolute hardest to make sure the things I say and do professionally make sense in the light of the known and to make changes based on new information. We can do better, but for now this the best I or anyone else can do, and that’s not too shabby.