In the social-media age, everyone has a platform to voice their opinions. In the past, one had to earn a platform to voice their opinion on their topic of interest, but today social media has provided that to each and every person automatically. This leads to a massive quantity of opinions, personal biases, and potential misinformation. In the age of information, people tend to migrate toward what they most commonly hear and their personal opinions and beliefs can be influenced as a result. The most susceptible to this form of “learning” is the youth and the young professional looking to gain an advantage. In this article I hope to offer some perspective on how to navigate through today’s environment of information overload and help each of you decide how to best pursue your individual goals in your areas of interest.
The main audience demographic of social media is likely teenage to young adult, a susceptible age to believe the message being delivered by those you look up to. Although many attempt to offer quality advice, well-intentioned bad advice is still bad advice. It is important to realize what is unbiased advice and those who have identified themselves with the advice or approach they have adapted. Like many things in life, people respond to different stimulus in different manners. Everyone has a unique history, experiences, and outlook. It is important to keep this in mind while dissecting the advice given by any individual. A highly respected and well known therapist simplified this by stating “N=1”. In the research world, “N” refers to number of subjects in a study. Stating that “N=1” implies that each individual is unique and should be assessed and cared for with that in mind. The first step while looking for quality advice is to be aware that people are unique in their specific needs to reach even the same goal. This includes nutritionally, physically, and mentally. This approach neither disregards or accepts the information, rather it brings awareness to a reality. It allows you to look with a broader lens and assess the big picture of the message being delivered and how it applies to your life circumstances. Far too often the application of the intervention is being missed. The best advice on paper doesn’t necessarily equal the best advice in life due to countless other unique factors.
So if we are all unique, how could a specific program, diet, or protocol work for everyone. Quite simply, it probably cannot. Keep in mind, the goal is likely still the same, it is the methods of achieving it that may need to be adjusted based on each individual. In the past, I use to feel that personal experience trumped all and until you’ve had personal experience with something you didn’t fully understand it. Although I still feel that way to a certain extent, I now feel that experience is just one necessary component to fully understanding a topic. Without it, you are certainly limited. But even with it, there are multiple additional areas that supplement your experience. Taking a step back and integrating your personal experience with applicable, quality information is likely the best approach. But what about the individual who has no personal experience or prior history? How does one navigate through the massive quantity of information? Deciding who is credible, who is invested for financial reasons, who may be biased, or many other factors is a daunting task to tackle. Here is a quick list of Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to getting started:
1. Search For Absolutes: One thing you will notice when talking with someone who has spent years in the academic world is that they will use works like “probable” “likely” and “potentially”. This is because they know there aren’t any absolutes in science and/or research. Without getting into the Xs and Os of the research process, there are multiple factors that are taken into account when conducting sound, quality research (disproving the hypothesis that that the two factors being investigated are not different, the power of the study, bias, etc.). Quality research and findings open the door to further expansion and exploration, it is not necessarily an endpoint.
2. Trust Lack Of Experience: Sample size increases the power of a study. Something that weakens a study then, is obviously, a low sample size. This is true for any intervention. Because it works for one, two or even a handful of people does not mean it is applicable or even correct for the general population. Take into consideration your specific needs, and it may be even less likely. It is important to make sure the information you receive has substantial “power” meaning it’s passed the quantity test. In the real world, you can think of this as simply being something that has worked for a large number of people. If it has worked for a large number of people, it likely by default has accounted for variability among individuals.
3. Identifies With Their Beliefs: An unfortunate part of having a monetary incentive combined with limited knowledge is the need to go “all in”. Promotion and learning via confirmation bias both contribute to individual putting the blinders on and only accepting what they are reinforcing to themselves. Over time they identify with their message or product and take personal offense to anyone who disagrees. You do not want this, an individual who is unable to admit their limits in knowledge or mistakes.
1. Practice What You Preach: Who wants to take advice from someone who just read about why it should work but has never actually experienced it themselves. A few rather comical studies come to mind, one in particular regarding athletic performance. In the study it shows sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) increases time to exhaustion (increase duration of exercise) at a specific amount. What it doesn’t show it that same amount also causing rather unpleasant “bathroom visits”. This is an easy to understand example of what is possible on varying levels within many areas of health and wellness. The “no days off!” Approach likely isn’t being said by someone who’s applied that over a sustained period of time. The eat every 3 hours on the dot isn’t being said by someone who has a job, family, and other commitments. It is important to take into account all aspects of life when implementing any variable of health and wellness.
2. Has Applied It To Others: Has this individual made this philosophy, lifestyle, or approach work with a large variety of individuals all trying to achieve similar goals. If it fails with an overwhelming large population group, how sound is the advice. Steer away from specifics and exacts. At best they work in the short term. At worst, they don’t work and negatively other aspects of life. By seeing a certain practice work with a large number of people, you can feel more comfortable that it is likely a worthwhile approach due to their variability within each individual yet still showing success.
3. Adopt An “Always Learning” Unbiased Approach: Admitting when you’re wrong, what you have yet to learn, where you’re unsure, etc. are all signs of someone who is unbiased and continuing to learn. Because there are no absolutes, information can be changing and it is in your best interest to adopt sources of information who continue to expand their knowledge.
A healthy debate or conversation is often needed to fully dissect the information and how it may apply. A scientific debate should be among individuals working toward the same goal who may have different approaches. Questioning information, requesting a more detailed breakdown to help you fully understand, and checking multiple sources are all effective ways to broaden your understanding. It is my belief that the more you understand the “why” behind what you’re doing, the more likely you are to adhere to it. However, in the social media age there is no healthy debate, no contradictions, and little to know additional information. This poses a problem to those who have an audience who believes in that individual. Simply stating your beliefs or opinions, without contradictions, can be an irresponsible attempt to help others.
How many times have we seen someone excel in a certain area branch off into other areas. This is particularly true in the health and fitness industry. I think the reason is two-fold. First, physical and mental health is something everyone strives for. Regardless of your current condition, most people are always looking to be healthier, happier, and enjoy life more. The avenue of choice is dependent on personal factors but the end goal is typically the same. If someone feels they are attaining this goal, they want to voice how they did that. What easier way than to snap a photo and write a quick blog entry saying how you went from A to B and promote those strategies. The problem arises when you believe that your path is the only path and everyone will have similar results if they do as you say. The human condition is extremely complex and we can become easily influenced whether we are aware of it or not.
Secondly, everyone does some form of exercise or activity and every single person on the planet eats. If you’re not a banker, you don’t bank. If you’re not a lawyer, you don’t practice law in your free time. If you’re not a health and wellness coach, you still participate in physical activity and eat, which leads to your own personal opinions on why you are in the current condition you are. How many people do you know that lost a drastic amount of weight and contribute to one certain variable. Right now the biggest thing that comes to mind is the ketogenic diet. Many will tell you they lost all this weight because sugar or carbohydrates make you fat and by eliminating those, they lost weight. This is fundamentally incorrect. Furthermore, many will not just say how much weight they lost but also say how amazing they feel (which may be a psychological byproduct of taking control of their weight) and promote it for everyone. Associating your personal results with a certain factor leads many people to falsely promote the benefits of certain interventions, no more popular than in the nutrition world. The same is true with social media and exercise. The reality is that the 99% of the things you don’t see are what lead to the results, but again that’s not sexy and doesn’t capture the attention of others.
This can create an “this is the only way” mindset. Best case scenario, you do it and it works even though you don’t actually understand why. However, this can lead to unnecessary sacrifice and lack of enjoyment ultimately leading to an unsustainable lifestyle approach. At worst, it seems too difficult a change to make and you never even start. This can be seen with “yo-yo” dieting, overly excessive exercise habits, and many other approaches to enhance one’s quality of life. The initial success temporarily allows one to “sacrifice” to reach their goal, ultimately ending in burn out or justification for discontinuing. Unfortunately, they may have been misinformed on the reality of how they can reach those goals in a unique, sustainable fashion.
So how does someone know what is true, what is hype, and what is simply self-promotion? This can be difficult because often time those who do have a platform on social media is due to other forms of media spotlight. Actors, comedians, professional athletes, etc. I can think of many individuals who I respect and enjoy listening to who are just flat out incorrect in their thinking when it comes to nutrition and exercise. Does that mean the opposite of what they are saying it true? Does that mean they are only after self-promoting, self-profiting means? Not at all. I know more today than I did 5 years ago, and if I’m doing things right I’ll know more in the next 5 then I do today. As mentioned earlier, the main demographic of social media is young, young adults. You know who are not experts in anything regardless of much time they have invested…young people. The real experts have been studying their craft longer than most 20-somethings have been alive.
I’m not trying to promote a “shoot the messenger” mentality, however I do hope to help you gain some insight and help you gain some perspective and confidence when navigating through all the information today. The truth is, you likely know what’s best for you, you could benefit from learning more, and there is always room for improvement. Lets not forget the overall goal behind the message… to enhance one’s life. Is it really that necessary to dissect things if they still lead someone to a better quality life? Separating your ego from the topic is a difficult thing to do, and most aren’t fully aware of the impact their ego has on their opinion. It’s human nature to want to identify with a team, a side, a way of doing things. And when it’s questioned, more often then not it’s the person who feels attacked. This leads to people digging their heals in the ground and defending themselves as much as they are thinking they are defending their methods. They’re personally invested and feel attacked. So how does the every day person, who isn’t well-informed or necessarily cares to learn at a higher level, dissect through what’s simply untrue, what’s fad, and what’s scientifically sound?
Information Overload = Ignore It All
If you’ve been interested in a topic or particular field, you’ve likely seen the rise and fall of it as well. Something gains interest, shows initial promise, possibly gets further exploration and potentially even studied and then loses it’s initial lust. An example in the nutrition world is a former fad of high carbohydrate, low fat diet. More recently we have the exact opposite fad which is high fat, low carbohydrate diet. A similar example is the promotion of the benefits of dairy in the past. Today, we hear about all the negative aspects of dairy. Many people simply throw their metaphorical hands in the air and say “I don’t know what to believe!” and just disregard it all. All to common, a person who puts forth the initial effort to take responsibility for their physical, mental, and emotional health end up feeling overwhelmed and wind up back at square one. This can develop a negative outlook and a “no one knows” approach to information. However, it likely isn’t that people don’t know rather the ones who are truly pursuing the hard data and knowledge aren’t well known to the general public. Differentiating between quality sources of information is key, or at the least finding someone who has taken on that responsibility who can relay the information to you in an easy to apply fashion to your particular interests, needs, and lifestyle. It is not your fault if you have failed to manage your health correctly. However, it is your responsibility to take control. Multiple paths will take you to the same destination, but if you try to take them all at once you will get nowhere.
It's unrealistic to think that everyone should get a degree in health and wellness or pursue higher education in the field. Today most people will turn to the internet as a resource, or perhaps trainers and coaches. The internet is saturated with fads that although they may elicit results, can be fundamentally flawed. Misunderstood, unsustainable and applicable to a small population is the foundation for a majority of the fads today. Fads come and go and are short term by nature, scientifically supported findings enable longevity and/or lifestyle changes where the overall impact on health is much greater. We have access to any piece of information we want at our fingertips. We can simply google something and within seconds we have our answer. Of course we are going to want to know the answer to things that interest us. A lot of personal investigation online is rooted in confirmation bias or finding evidence to support your beliefs. Back to the nutrition example… if person A loses 50 pounds doing the ketogenic diet, they may search “the amazing benefits of the ketogenic diet”. The shear quantity of positive stories and links will flood your search. This causes a potential issue. The quantity of online opinions drastically overshadows the quality of data supported research. Let’s not forgot the multitude of other factors involved. What was person A doing before adopting this new strategy? What other factors were changed? Research in the lab setting isolates for these variables, the outside world often does not.
A Natural Progression, Where Are You?
Where to draw the line? If you’re getting results why does it matter how it is happening, especially considering that scientific research is always retracting previous claims and new findings oppose previous findings?! As with anything, I believe it’s first imperative to define your goals. One of my personal favorite quotes is, “If you know not which way you sail, no wind is favorable.” Be honest with yourself, what are really your personal goals. Define that goal and work backwards. The reality of most anything we do is looking for a sense of community, acceptance/validation and happiness. Why get in better shape? Why eat healthier? It’s not to temporarily punish yourself and then be done. It’s to enhance your quality of life. This is extremely important to remember and is all to often lost along the way. There is zero purpose in extending one’s life expectancy if you’re just extending bad days. Don’t choose an exercise program or “diet” that cannot be sustained or you simply don’t enjoy regardless of the the results. With your goal in mind, you can begin to include variables into your life that will help you attain those goals. This happens through knowledge, trial and error, and personal preference.
As you get older, you’re priorities change and certain values become more important to you. You define the metric by which you assess yourself and your values. Being introspective and assessing your current position in your pursuit to overall quality of life and health is perhaps the most important aspect to reaching your goals. What is your relationships with exercise? How about your relationship with food? The feeling of being punished in order to reach your destination creates an entirely different dynamic and internal environment, one that at worst is unsustainable and at best unenjoyable. What stressor do you have in life? How do you deal with those stressors? We all handle stress and mental discomfort differently but we all have them. Take a look around, people are searching for comfort in every possible… food, exercise, drugs (legal/illegal), alcohol, caffeine, the list goes on. It is unrealistic to think we can simply eliminate stress, nor should you want to. It is also unrealistic to think we will only have good days and always be positive. However, it is your responsibility to be aware and choose healthy outlets. Sometimes a healthy outlet is one that is a mentally healthy outlet, other times a physically healthy one, at times both. Ask any nutritionist or health and wellness coach who has been in the industry for a sustained period of time. They will tell you a key component to any health and wellness intervention is to first be aware of your relationship with food and exercise. The emotional and psychological aspects of nutrition and exercise are important to assess prior and throughout your journey. A simple perspective change can radically change your habits, outlook, and purpose which ultimately can change your life.
If all this seems too much, or you’d like to enhance your chances of getting it right….find someone willing to help you learn the information you desire, adopt the best nutrition plan for you, and execute the proper physical activity routine. You should be holding your health and wellness coaches, personal trainers, and nutrition coaches to the highest standard. Good health is true wealth. Good health includes physical, mental and emotional health and is unique to each of us. The return on investment is much greater than the initial cost when addressing your overall health. Below I’ve outlined a 6 step approach for one looking to enhance their quality of life. Don’t dissect, don’t overanalyze and don’t give more importance to one area over another. Simply be aware and approach your unique health and wellness journey from a positive perspective.