Austin Personal Trainer Ross' Blog

A Precision Health & Fitness blog

Misuse of Scientific Research in Health and Fitness Marketing

Posted by Ross Harrison, CSCS, NSCA-CPT on August 25, 2010

     It can be very difficult to separate quality sources of health and fitness information from misleading or untruthful information used for manipulation or product promotion. One of the primary reasons is because sources of quality information and sources of mediocre information both use scientific data to make their information come across as more factual or compelling.

     Scientific studies are very useful for supporting or refuting theories and claims, but they are also problematic, because data can be easily manipulated by anyone who wants to use the information to their personal advantage. Data manipulation has become widespread in all fields, but it seems especially prevalent in health and fitness, because scientific claims are effective for promoting and selling products like exercise equipment, supplements, and diets programs.

     Even when scientific data is presented accurately, marketers still make misleading claims that are not supported by the studies they cite. Sometimes this is done on purpose, but it also happens because the people citing the studies frequently don’t understand the research or even basic scientific methodology. Surprisingly, this is more common than you might believe and it happens in all forms of media.

     As a result, scientific studies end up being used to promote ideas or products that are never supported or even discussed in the original research. Another problem is the person citing the scientific data may form his or her own conclusions from the data, even if they are in direct conflict with those of the original researchers. The reality is that whenever scientific data is presented, you will not necessarily have all the information you need.

     Of course, when companies use scientific information in advertisements, they only show the information that supports their products or services and any conflicting data is withheld. People realize this happens, but seeing or hearing scientific data still influences the way we think about things, because scientific information is thought of as being more factual than other information. In many ways this is true, but only if the information is presented fairly and accurately.

     The simple truth is you can find scientific data to support practically any product or viewpoint, especially if you are not concerned about maintaining the integrity of the information. Some companies even hire researchers specifically to conduct studies that will support their products. In these situations, the researchers are motivated to create specific outcomes, so the research is biased and often inaccurate.

     Research is critical for the advancement of knowledge, but you really have to watch out for the questionable ways many health and fitness companies use this information. For example, advertisements often make statements like “the group using product A improved 3 times more than group using product B,” but the changes in both groups may be so small that they are inconsequential. Therefore, the fact that one group improved more than the other doesn’t suggest that product A is any better than product B, but the information is presented in a way that makes you think it is.

     This is just one of many examples of how scientific information is misused in health and fitness and it reinforces the point that you shouldn’t automatically accept scientific data as fact, especially when it is part of an advertisement or presentation. If you are interested in a product, it is best to look up some information on your own, ideally from sources other than the company selling the product. If other sources agree with the initial information, then you can be more confident that the science is sound and not just another case of data manipulation.

2 Responses to “Misuse of Scientific Research in Health and Fitness Marketing”

  1. Cerin said

    I agree totally.
    There is a load of dodgy advertising going on out there!
    You may (or may not!) be interested in a couple of websites that can help you see through some of the misleading claims:

    http://www.badscience.net/ – This is a blog written by a doctor trying to expose dodgy science claims of all sorts (including weight loss and dodgy nutritionists).

    http://www.nhs.uk/news/Pages/NewsIndex.aspx – This is run by the National Health Service here in the UK. It looks behind the headlines of various health stories in the news and explains if the newspapers basically made them up of not.

    Both these sites help me stay healthily sceptical about claims made in the media.

    Cerin

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