You’re sick of getting misled by false information about health and fitness.
You’re sick of getting distracted and disappointed by pseudoscience and unproven ideas.
You’re not alone. There’s a lot of misinformation on the internet. Luckily, there are some simple principles you can use to find the good stuff.
In this podcast, Bryan Chung teaches you how to use the internet to educate yourself about health and fitness without getting duped. Bryan runs EvidenceBasedFitness.net, a website dedicated to “Defying the Madness of Fitness Mysticism.”
Bryan is an intelligent, skeptical, and funny guy who really knows what he’s talking about. Make sure you listen to the end of the interview where he shares some of his best tips on how to navigate the online fitness world.
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“Hey, ass-hat with the abstract link. Yeah. You.” by Bryan Chung
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**Armi Legge:** Are you worried about getting fooled by the inertness information you read online? Or in other words, how sick are you of being misled by false information about health and fitness? If you answered “yes” and “very,” you are not alone. There is a lot of misinformation on the internet. Luckily, there are some simple principles you can use to find the good stuff.
In this podcast, Bryan Chung teaches you how to use the internet to educate yourself about health and fitness without getting duped. Bryan runs evidencebasedfitness.net, a website dedicated to helping you “defy the madness of fitness mysticism.”
Bryan is an intelligent, skeptical, and funny guy who really knows what he’s talking about. Make sure you stick around to the end of the interview, where he shares some of his best tips on how to navigate the online fitness world.
My name is Armi Legge and you are listening to Impruvism Radio, the podcast that helps you simplify your health, fitness, and productivity.
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Now let’s hear from Bryan.
Bryan, thank you so much for coming on the show today. Can you give our listeners of an idea of who you are and what you do? Kind of your elevator pitch?
**Bryan Chung:** Sure. I’m a plastic surgeon by training. But I also have a PhD that I did before medical school, which is mostly in research methods and statistics. It centered at the sports medicine center in Calgary so all my research training is musculoskeletal based.
Way back when I was in medical school, I felt like I was getting dumber and felt like I needed to really touch base with my research roots again. That’s when I started Evidence Based Fitness which is the blog most of your listeners probably associate with me since they probably don’t think of me as a surgeon.
**Armi Legge:** So what made you transition more from a focus on plastic surgery? What brought broadened your horizon more to fitness? What got you into that?
**Bryan Chung:** I’ve always been interested in fitness. Even as a kid in high school, I played sports but not the typical sports because I’m from an immigrant family. Their idea of typical sports is not everyone else’s idea of typical sports.
To keep it short, I swam in high school and then in university, I ended up doing a bunch of different sports but also settled in on rowing. So all that time has been spent on a lot of fitness related stuff. Mostly, at that time, it was performance. Lately, it’s been more on hypertrophy.
Even if you go back into my undergrad, a lot of my research even then– my honors thesis was on the safety of exercise and hormonal training on pregnant women on maximal voluntary effort, VO2 max trials.
It goes way back and plastic surgery was more of a detour than I thought it was going to be but I still like it a lot.
**Armi Legge:** Interesting. There aren’t a lot of people in the fitness industry who also work on plastic surgery. That’s very cool.
Obviously, fitness and health is something you’re extremely passionate and knowledgeable about. Unfortunately, it seems like there is also a lot of misinformation out there. What do you really think is maybe the biggest threat to the fitness industry as a whole right now?
**Bryan Chung:** The biggest threat to the fitness industry? Hm.
**Armi Legge:** Let me rephrase that. The biggest threat to people achieving their goals in terms of fitness and health.
**Bryan Chung:** Right. This is something that I wrote about in my blog when I launched my website. The biggest problem now I think is having too much information and not knowledge what to do with it. Because you can dig yourself easily into a hole of contradictions. Even something so simple as “you should work out in the morning on an empty stomach” but then somebody else is saying “you should never work out on an empty stomach. You should always eat something before that.”
I give the example of my friend in 2007, where I started my blog. He decided he was going to get up and work out in the morning because that was better. He didn’t really know why it was better. Then he went on to get up even earlier because he had also been told he wasn’t supposed to work out on an empty stomach. If you know the rationale for why you want to work out the morning, it totally negates everything even on that theoretical level.
So I think it’s easy to fall into that trap. It’s easy because you don’t even have to click anymore to get that information. If your web browser comes up with a homepage of any kind other than a blank page or a blank google search page, it’s in your face all the time and it influences how you see things and how you decide things.
So without knowing who to trust and what their motives, and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with making money off of fitness, certainly I make money off of medicine– without having that trust factor, it’s really easy to get excited about something that’s either new, unproven, too good to be true, or just too much in terms of the amount of information that comes at you.
**Armi Legge:** You make an excellent point there. It seems like that problem of just an ever-present mountain of information out there causes two other problems. You have people who just get so overwhelmed by not taking any action, and then you have people who are like your friend, who combine all sorts of random weird stuff without really understanding why or how to do it or even if it works and just doing everything they can, which isn’t necessarily always great either.
What do you think is a more practical system? What do you think is a more effective strategy for people to use this information? Obviously, we don’t want to just ignore it and not do anything. What can we do to use this information in an effective way?
**Bryan Chung:** I think the first thing that people should do is consider anything new with great caution regardless of where it comes from or what it is.
Regardless of what your goal is, there are certain things that we know work. We know that if you reduce your caloric intake that weight will go down for the most part. Most people, by and large, outside of genetic outliers or people with odd diseases or people at the extremes of physical limits– basically, most people aren’t in those categories and decreasing caloric intake is effective.
Going to the gym and progressively heavier weights is effective at both hypertrophy and strength gaining. Obviously, there’s a limit to that. It’s not a linear progression. Once you start hitting the limits of your own physicality and your own potential, all the other stuff might come into play.
Apart from that, if you’re thinking about adding something to your routine or your life, chances are a lot of it is really marginal. If you start adding that stuff in, then that chips away at the energy that you spend at doing the stuff that really is important and really does work.
So every time you see a piece of information, if you’re sort of reading it for entertainment, great. Just treat it as entertainment and gloss it by. It’s like reading about the Kardashians, right? You don’t go into that. You don’t add stuff to your life because you read about– I don’t even know what the Kardashians do.
But if you treat every piece of information with as much caution as you would treat, say, a doctor saying to you, “I want you to start taking this pill,” which by and large most people do, then that’s going to make you automatically a little more informed and a little less haphazard about your strategy for whatever it is that you’re trying to achieve.
**Armi Legge:** I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to hear someone else thinks that, too. It’s just insane the amount of stuff people are trying to piece together and do right now.
I saw an interesting book on Amazon the other day called “The Vital Few vs. The Trivial Many.” It’s about investing. I clicked and it’s like the exact thing for fitness. It’s like everyone is forgetting these fundamental principles and chasing these things that, as you said, have marginal or no benefit instead of focusing on the things that really matter.
What do you think is the best way for people to figure out what those things are? You mentioned being very cautious of new ideas that don’t necessarily have a great argument behind them. What, on a practical level, can be do when they’re surfing the internet to decipher fact from fiction, basically?
**Bryan Chung:** That’s tricky because ultimately you’re going to have to rely on somebody. It’s kind of like when somebody sees me in my clinical practice, when someone sees me in my clinical environment. They’re coming to me because they don’t know enough about their own body, basically. They’re coming to me for a diagnosis. They’re coming to me for a treatment. They trust that I have roughly their best interests in mind when I tell them what my recommendation is going to be.
I think where it’s going to come down to is who’s going to be your guide to deciding whether you do something or not and how much faith you have in that person. It’s hard to really make a blanket statement of how you can protect yourself from everything that’s out there that is not useful for you. I don’t have a good answer. I wish I had a better answer for that.
I think there are vehicles that are in play right now that are in development that have a lot of promise and that will allow people to start distilling this kind of information.
I need to disclaim. I’m on the board of advisers for examine.com. I think the only reason I’m on that board is because I actually think what they’re doing is useful. Is it where I would like it to be? No. But it’s definitely a great start and something like that is a good tool for people to look at and say, “Well, what does the science say from a source that is not really that invested in selling them anything other than the links that they have on Amazon?”
I think those vehicles are in development. Those are the things that eventually will come forward. But right now, there’s a big void in that territory. You can’t rely on people to go Pub Medding. I can’t believe I just used that as a verb because it’s so common now, right?
I think it’s dangerous to do that. It’s no different than the person who comes to me in the clinic and says, “I have a problem with my hand and I read that it can be cancer.” They’ve got preconceived notions about what is wrong with them and it causes a lot of stress and it can cause a lot of misinformation. Sometimes they’re dead on but that’s rare.
I think it’s the same kind of situation. There’s more information about your body than you will be able to process generally as a lay person and you’re going to end up having to rely on someone else to sort it out for you. It’s about developing some sort of one-way relationship or some sort of a reliable relationship with the sources that you trust to go in that direction because you’re not going to be able to do it on your own. That’s why people hire trainers. That’s why people hire doctors and dentists and lawyers, right?
**Armi Legge:** Right. You just mentioned examine.com. As an example, who are people you trust in the fitness industry and why do you trust them? What makes them somebody you can turn to for information? I’m sure you have people you agree with and who you look to for other sources of information as well. How can people pick through, “OK, this guy says one thing, this guy says another?”
We’ve kind of taken it for granted so far that these people are looking at the research. Someone who doesn’t even know what Pub Med is and is coming into this, they see one website that doesn’t necessarily have any sources and another website that just has a bunch of links to Pub Med. They’re not sure which one to trust. How do you go about that and how do you figure out who is a reliable source of information?
**Bryan Chung:** I think my situation is different than most people’s situations because I have a different background. I have a different training background. It’s a little bit of a joke in the surgery world but the motto a lot of times in surgery is “You trust no one.” Right? So for me, when I’m trying to figure out whether someone is trustworthy or not, I will look at the body of their work that I will then make my own opinions on, using the skills that I have to go in that direction.
It’s not always that person all the time. So one person might write something that’s excellent one time for that issue. Then for another issue, it’s not really that great. You’re really sorting through a big quagmire of stuff. I think it’s more important for lay people and people who are just starting out, who don’t even know what Pub Med is and they’re afraid of being overloaded with information, is to pick something that is fairly popular that has recommendations and just go with that and put your blinders on and just do that.
It doesn’t matter what it is. If you have been sedentary your whole life and you want to lose weight. If you want to improve your life or improve your health, whatever you decide that means, then you are more likely to experience change if you actually change. Whether that change is large or small is almost irrelevant because you’re doing nothing, right?
I used to work as a volunteer on a crisis phone line, which included suicide intervention and all this stuff. A lot of people who called in were really very depressed and lonely people. What the overarching message ends up being talking to these people stuck in a rut, and it’s not that different than anyone who’s stuck in a rut in any other aspect of their lives, is that they’re almost afraid to take that first step because they might mis-step. If you don’t take any steps, then nothing will change. So just take a step, any step! Then decide if that step is good for you.
If it’s not good for you, then go back, because you can always go back to not taking any steps, and then decide what your other step is going to be.
But I think it’s more important that people just go with it. If you want to go paleo or low-carb or crossfit or any of the sorta more popular, controversial stuff that’s going on right now, then go for it. There’s no reason not to do that. There’s no reason not to try something and see if it’s good for you. I think that’s ultimately what people have to do. They have to put their faith in something because to acquire the knowledge it would require to determine if somebody is reliable or not requires way more work that probably anybody is willing to do.
**Armi Legge:** That’s a great segue to my next question. Let’s say we have a nerd like us out there who wants to be more informed, who wants to figure this stuff out on their own, who likes to geek out on this stuff. What are probably the three biggest thinking errors or mistakes people make when they’re looking at Pub Med?
You wrote a great article recently with a funny headline about how people will just kind of tweet out the abstract to a Pub Med study, often making very large claims about the results of that study based on that abstract. It seems like there’s a lot of that kind of thing going on, so what are the three biggest mistakes similar to that you see people making online?
**Bryan Chung:** Yeah. So I would say the first one is relevance. In an abstract, you don’t always get who they’re studying. This goes to basically the concept of generalizability. We can’t measure everyone in the world for whatever it is we’re trying to measure. Ultimately, we take a sample of those people and we say, “If this sample behaves in this manner, then we are going to make this assumption that other people who are similar to the people in the sample are going to behave in the same way.”
The problem is that you have to know what that sample is to be able to make that generalizable statement that everyone else who is similar to the sample is going to behave the same way. And that doesn’t always fit in the research abstract, because you can’t generalize past your sample.
If we do a study on women, generally speaking, you can’t really take that information and apply it to men and vice versa. And that’s a simple one to do. That’s a simple one to look at when looking at abstracts. Usually they’ll say men or women. If you’re a man and it says women, then you probably don’t need to look at that piece of research.
A lot of the times, again, they’re using the whole “untrained male.” “If you are not an untrained male, then stop reading. If you are an untrained male, then you can read a little bit more.” “They’re between 18 and 24. If you’re not between 18 and 24, stop and move on.” I think that’s probably the biggest one.
That was one of the reasons I really liked the precise trial, where they actually did a randomized trial on the Mediterranean diet and it was like a feat of pure magic of research. Like I have never been so excited to read a paper. But the limitations of that research are actually quite enormous, so if you had never had coronary artery disease before, you probably don’t need to read the precise trial and you don’t need to know what it says because you’re not in that population, so the results of that amazing trial do not apply to you.
That’s the biggest one I would say, is generalizability.
After that I would any the second one would be mistaking what is statistically significant for what is actually important. You’ll see it a lot because there is still pressure to publish statistically significant results in journals.
We know this publication bias. We know that studies that don’t report statistical significance are less likely to be published and in an academic environment where publications are the currency of your career basically, you’re always going to try to find something that will make your article publishable.
So being able to sift through that and decide, “Well, is this relevant? Or is this just the statistics?” is really important. That only comes with experience or with somebody else’s interpretation because you might not know exactly what’s truly important for your situation. And that assuming that your situation applies in that study.
The third one I’m having trouble coming up with. I would say those are the major two. If I come up with a third one, I’ll tell you at some point.
**Armi Legge:** Great. That actually leads into the next question I have, anyway. What is probably the number one false claim or piece of misinformation or absurd, ridiculous idea that is being thrown out in the fitness and health blogosphere right now that lacks good, scientific evidence behind it?
**Bryan Chung:** I think the better question is what isn’t!
It’s all out there because everybody is trying to make a niche for themselves. I had this conversation last night with a friend of mine where we were talking about how there’s this attitude of, “Well, science is always lags behind the innovation. We’re only starting to prove stuff that ‘trainers knew 10 years ago.'”
My response to that is innovation only gets classified as innovation when you look at it in retrospect. So if we went back not even 10 years and we were looking at something like high intensity interval training that was becoming popular at the time– even though I know that it has been used for years and years, but it sort of had this surge of popularity around that time– but around that time, the BOSU ball also was invented. It’s only an innovation in fitness that trainers always knew about 10 years because today we see there are some studies that show yeah, it actually is really effective at doing certain things.
But there is virtually nobody saying, “Yeah, we all knew about the BOSU ball 10 years ago.” Nobody is saying that was a great innovation. I think I’m getting off into a different tangent, but that’s kind of where it all falls apart.
Everything that’s new and exciting right now is yet to be tested and yet to really go through the grind. So we won’t know what’s really innovative until we’ve actually figured it out. That’s why science will always have this apparent biased lack of innovation because you can’t do it that way.
**Armi Legge:** Right. You can’t rush it.
**Bryan Chung:** Yeah. You can’t really rush it and it will never appear like it’s groundbreaking because it takes the early adopters and people to take risks and do all of that to see what falls off to the wayside and what actually persists. And science will generally filter out the stuff that should fall to the wayside and the stuff that should persist.
Creatine is a good example of that, right? Where everybody is like, “We all knew creatine worked 20 years ago” but it wasn’t until the early 2000s where there were really good trials coming out about creatine and strength gains. Now everybody is like, “Well, you should be on creatine.” Creatine is something that is recommended for a lot of people to use.
Now they’re doing research on creatine and other health benefits. It’s not even about performance and strength and hypertrophy and getting “swole.” It’s an emerging field of other stuff now as well. But again, if you talked to somebody 20 years ago, it would be like, “Oh, creatine. That’s that new thing that nobody knows anything about.”
**Armi Legge:** Sure. Another common claim it seems like a lot of those same people make is they often start put with, “Oh, it’s not tested.” They make a straw man argument out of it. “You say it’s not tested. That means there’s no evidence it works.” As you said, that’s not really it. It just takes a long time to be certain or have it develop a greater degree of certainty.
But another argument people often make is that there are studies to prove anything. If you take any claim, there is a counter-argument and an argument for it that are all supported by research, therefore, you just kind of have to go it yourself and do self-experiments to figure it out. How do you respond to when people say that?
**Bryan Chung:** I would say yes, that is largely true, but it’s also a very simplistic way of looking at the argument and the problem. By and large, there are going to be conflicting studies. That’s why there are organizations like the Cochran Database of Systematic Reviews, where that information and compiled and analyzed in the “meta-analysis style” and synthesized and resynthesized into something new.
One of the greatest triumphs of the Cochran Review was one of its very early systematic reviews on the use of corticosteroids in premature baby births. Where now, if a child is born prematurely in a certain number of weeks of pregnancy, they give them corticosteroids to help their lungs develop surfactant– and that’s probably not information your listeners or readers really need to know about– but that wasn’t a common practice for close to 20 or 30 years. Nobody knew whether you should or shouldn’t give those drugs to these little preemie babies.
There were a lot of studies done, I think like 17 trials where they looked at whether we should or shouldn’t give these little preemie babies corticosteroids when they’re born. It wasn’t until all those studies were synthesized together into a final risk assessment and benefit assessment that it became very clear that every child who is born prematurely between certain weeks should be given corticosteroids to improve their survival and they dropped the mortality rate by some ridiculous number after that.
So yes, there’s always going to be conflicting evidence because we are always limited by how we sample and the sample that we end up getting. But in the long run, it’s going to wash out.
One study is also not necessarily equal to another study. Any study that is not a randomized, multi-centered diet on the Mediterranean diet is automatically of less value than the precise study. You can’t go, “Well, the precise style says it’s good for you and this other study of 7 people says it’s not good for you.”
If you’re going to make the argument that you can find a study that will prove anything, yes that is, on its surface, true. But it’s very difficult to find trials of equal quality where the answer is going to be that different.
**Armi Legge:** Right. Bryan, you have taken a ton of time to talk to us. Thank you so much. But before we finish up, would you tell our listeners about your blog? You’ve done some new things with it. Tell us what your goal is and what they can expect from it.
**Bryan Chung:** Sure. I decided to leave the blogger platform and start my own site, which is evidencebasedfitness.net, because .com is being camped by a party that I don’t want to talk about now. The blog is basically my thoughts on the use of science in fitness and nutrition.
It’s either one of three things I talk about.
One is just my random thoughts on fitness and science.
The second type of post that I usually make is actually looking at a study and basically dissecting it apart and trying to find what its limitations are and whether its recommendations should or can be used by the general person who’s looking at that piece of research or if they read about that research in a magazine in passing.
I’ll usually look at the trials that are making big splashes so I don’t usually post about small studies unless I’m super interested in the topic, although I’m more than happy to accept recommendations for studies that people want to be reviewed, because I don’t always have the luxury of combing through several journals worth of table of contents.
The third type of post I usually have is sort of a mini tutorial post which is basically on how to read a little better in terms of if you actually got a hold on the study, which is getting more and more possible now, how you would actually go about interpreting some of that data for yourself.
If you’re interested in actually developing that skill, the skill of critical appraisal, then getting a hold of the study that’s reviewed on my blog, reading it, and sort of deciding how you would interpret it and then reading my interpretation– which may not necessarily be the most correct but maybe better than most people, I hope– then you might get a better sense of how good you are or whether you’re hitting on the points that really are important.
I find that most people, when they first start reading studies– and I did this as an undergrad– they read the introduction, they skip the methods, they skim the results, and they read the conclusion and the discussion. But as you get better, that relationship becomes inverse. You end up not reading the introduction. I don’t ever read the introduction to a paper. I read the methods and then I’ll really read the results and go back into the methods and go back and forth and I will rarely read the discussion.
So transitioning from being able to do that I think is an important step in developing how you’re going to read the research, if that’s what you really want to do. So that’s basically my blog in a nutshell.
**Armi Legge:** That’s great, and I love your blog, too. Not only do you do a great job with interpreting studies, but it’s also pretty hilarious, too. So it’s great. Bryan, thank you so much. Again, if you’re listening to this, this is Bryan Chung from evidencebasedfitness.net. Thanks, man. I hope to have you on again, soon.
**Bryan Chung:** Yeah, thanks very much.
**Armi Legge:** Remember, if you enjoyed this podcast, the best way to show your appreciation is to leave a positive review and ranking on iTunes. To do so, navigate to impruvism.com/itunes and you will be redirected to where you can leave your comments.
Thanks for listening, and I will see you next week.