It is no secret among health and fitness professionals that there is a myriad of misinformation out there that is easily accessible for students, practitioners, and clients alike. Some of the information in circulation is particularly concerning because it can be harmful to clients in pursuit of improving their health and wellbeing through training and nutritional interventions. The causes of the spread of misinformation are plentiful, and include the inability of some individuals or organisations to keep up with progressions in what is known to be true (i.e., to stay up to date with empirical evidence that advances what we know, and narrows what we don't know), leading to the spread of outdated information. Additionally, and perhaps most concerningly, is the spread of misinformation by ‘epistemic trespassers’. The purposes of this educational article are to describe instances of misinformation and epistemic trespassing present in the health and fitness industry. This article will also describe several ways that practitioners, students, and clients can ensure they are acquiring helpful, evidence-based knowledge that can help them to pursue their goals.
MISINFORMATION AND EPISTEMIC TRESPASSERS IN THE FIELD OF HEALTH AND FITNESS: HOW TO REMAIN FOCUSED ON EVIDENCE-BASED PRACTISE.
Examples of misinformation in the health and fitness industry
We live in an age of information. It is everywhere, and it is easily accessible. Whether through a quick google search, a magazine, the news, or social media sites like Instagram, people can spread and access information at the drop of a dime. While this can be tremendous - because we can instantly access information that piques our interests - it can also be dangerous if the information we access is wrong. That is, information with no foundation, no validity, and no proof to suggest it is worth knowing. In my experience as a trainer, student, and tutor, I have seen many cases of misinformation being shared and accepted as truth. I will detail some examples below.
There are numerous harmless examples of misinformation within the health and fitness industry. From an educational standpoint, many tertiary providers struggle to update their curriculum to include new research. As a result, many students are still taught simple ‘facts’ that have been debunked, like ensuring your knees don't go past your toes during a squat or that lactic acid build-up results in fatiguing muscles. While it can be challenging to know when to update your curriculum notes and which information to include, educators must appreciate a need to evolve course content to reflect what is currently considered best practice. A more recent example is research from Brad Schoenfeld and his many associates, which recently discovered that multiple rep ranges, as long as they are taken near failure, can incite hypertrophic gains. This finding is contrary to many textbooks and tertiary notes that state hypertrophy rep ranges of 6-12 work best. While the texts are not wrong, without reference to the latest findings (which expand on what we already know), they beg the question: Are we doing our learners a disservice? At the time curriculums were created, the examples above were all relevant and generally accepted to be accurate; now that research has evolved our understanding, curriculums should be altered to accommodate that newfound knowledge - perhaps in the form of additional downloadable resources.
Unfortunately, as far as misinformation spread is concerned, this is the tip of the iceberg.
In 1996 a naturopathic physician wrote a book detailing how people can eat according to their blood type. The book quickly gained traction and is a text that remains popular to this day. I have even had students defend this dietary fad in a classroom environment, despite the fact that there is no empirical evidence in the medical or nutritional fields that connects eating based on blood type to positive physical changes.
Another example of the spread of misinformation is the social media influencer. In one example, an influencer with no formal education in health and fitness has built a fellowship of over 12 million people. They have written training programmes for blog posts on popular fitness websites, insinuating that 1 set of 10 donkey kicks (among other exercises) can build your glutes to the extent that you will improve your look substantially and end up looking like the influencer. Information like this is somewhat dangerous in the sense that people out there who have read her work may believe they can achieve a glamorous body with very little work or effort. The blog post fails to address the impact of genetics, and also fails to take into account research from the terrific Bret Contreras on glute development. While Bret Contreras is the expert on training glutes, the influencer used in this example can be considered an imposter, an epistemic trespasser. And she isn't the only one, unfortunately.
What is an epistemic trespasser?
An epistemic trespasser is an individual that has expertise or success in a particular field, but forms and shares strong opinions on issues relating to other areas of a multidimensional field, or to a different industry altogether (Ballantyne, 2019). Essentially, they judge and advise on matters outside of their area of expertise (Ballantyne, 2019). An example of an epistemic trespasser would be a business owner who has experienced sales success previously and now, due to an overinflated ego (one of many reported character traits of epistemic trespassers), forms and shares strong opinions on non-sales topics, like, say, management of staff - a topic which is typically addressed by managers or HR personnel (Ballantyne, 2019). Further, an epistemic trespasser, as described by Ballantyne (2019), is someone who displays undesirable character traits; those who are arrogant, dogmatic, immodest and “out of their league, yet highly confident”.
The issue with epistemic trespassers is that they confidently spread misinformation based on unfounded opinions, due to intellectual incompetence (Ballantyne, 2019). When called out by those who know better, or corrected by empirical evidence, the epistemic trespasser will vehemently defend their stance, providing staunch justification for the information they have disseminated (Ballantyne, 2019). Because of their achievements elsewhere, epistemic trespassers display an inflated sense of self-importance, which prevents them from displaying wisdom (Ballantyne, 2019). These individuals lack the evidence, understanding, or expertise to make rational and reliable judgements about the topics they are discussing (Ballantyne, 2019).
The importance of working within our scope of practice
It is essential that as health and fitness professionals, we acknowledge our scope of practice and work within this scope's confines. For example, as a personal trainer, you can consult with potential clients, test their physical capabilities, and design training programmes individually tailored to suit their goals. While you can offer nutritional advice to help, this needs to remain broad and based on suggestion. You cannot design individually tailored healthy eating plans, nor can you advise or plan for intolerances. This line is so often crossed that many personal trainers now write nutrition plans without the required nutritional credentials; they are simply epistemic trespassers doing their client a disservice.
In my experiences as a strength and conditioning coach, epistemic trespassing puts athletes at risk of suffering burnout. Sports coaches and physiotherapists often have a basic understanding of developing physical qualities in athletes. They don't have the in-depth, specialist knowledge of a strength and conditioning coach, which often leads to arguments and disagreements about the best way to approach conditioning efforts in the pre-season. There are instances where multiple professionals (like those described above) come together to work on a project. Some cross-field examination is necessary and unavoidable—for example, a rugby player returning from injury. The physio is involved in the rehab process, so too is the strength and conditioning coach working to re-condition the athlete and monitor training workloads. The coach needs to get them up to speed in a team and skill-based sense. It is here where epistemic trespassing could present itself, becoming an issue as everyone thinks their viewpoint is the gospel.
An evidence-based approach to acquiring knowledge and staying current
We must investigate questions and develop perspectives on other fields if situations like those described above present, but we cannot forget that forming and holding confident opinions without the knowledge or expertise required is a recipe for disaster, because trespassing can harm others who hear and develop trust in the trespasser (Ballantyne, 2019). I will outline some practical suggestions below to help you, your clients, or other students acquire only the best evidence-based information.
- Get a mentor
Sometimes the best way to learn and stay current is by finding a mentor. A senior personal trainer whose methodologies inspire you would be a great place to start.
- Further your education
After the course in personal training you will have obtained REPS registration. To keep this valid, you will need to acquire 10 CPD points per year. One way you can achieve this amount is by attending workshops held by experts in the field; another way is to complete short courses on topics of interest, to keep your knowledge current and help expand your offerings as a trainer.
- Invest in a journal subscription
Subscribing to a journal is another way to stay up to date with the empirical evidence associated with training and nutrition. Obtaining a subscription to a journal, like the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, is a great way to stay up to speed with developments. Alternatively, if reading journal articles isn't your thing, you could subscribe to 'science for sport' or 'MASS'. These companies read the articles for you and share the critical take-home points with you. They also offer professional, evidence-backed opinions on how ton practically apply this newfound information in the workplace.
- Listen to podcasts
If reading isn't your thing, perhaps look up podcasts from leading experts in the field. Many discuss the latest research, trends, and how to apply them to strength training efforts in the gym or with your clients. Many of them have Instagram and Twitter accounts, where they share key take-home points from their latest research endeavours. If you're looking for people to follow in hypertrophy research or glute development, follow Brad Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras. For developing strength follow Dr Tim Suchomel. For agility and change of direction speed, follow Dr Sophia Nimphius, and for nutritional information follow Martin McDonald (as requested by our tutor George Pollitt, whose background is in nutrition).
Why evidence-based approaches are important
Clients want results. Trainers are paid to produce those results. If you believe something which isn't true and you apply that unbacked methodology, you risk not achieving the results the client is hoping for. This can lead to clients walking away and hiring a new personal trainer. Additionally, you need to have enough knowledge to answer your client’s 'why' questions. It isn't enough to know how to do something; you must describe why you’re asking the client to do it. For example, you may ask the client to perform a barbell back squat. Their goals may be to improve their body composition, and the client might associate the back squat with powerlifting. If you were asked why you have programmed the back squat, what would you say? Or, if you prescribed four sets and eight reps per set when the client is hoping to achieve muscular hypertrophy, but they saw on Instagram that you can do 1 set of 10 instead, what would you say?
Another reason evidence-based practice is so important is that new trainers often fall into prescribing exercises. After all, they like to do them. They are essentially attempting to train their clients how they train themselves, despite different goals, strength levels, mobility levels, health and wellness scores etc. For example, I once had a student write a six-day training split with many challenging exercises of four or five sets for an elderly client who stated they could only train twice a week for 45 minutes. Consulting the evidence on that demographic the student quickly learned they were wrong. 1-3 sets for 10-15 reps (lightweights) is the proof-backed approach. Furthermore, the client stated they could only train twice, so a six-day split was never appropriate. When asked why they chose this program the student couldn’t explain why, other than "Because that's what I do and it works for me". We can’t fall into this trap - although rest assured, most young trainers do, including me and my colleagues when we were starting out.
In the current age we live in, information spreads like wildfire. While this can be great if the information is truthful, there are plenty of sources of information out there that are not. This misinformation can be harmful to trainers, students, and clients as they try to educate themselves on the best way to approach training and nutrition. Contributing to this significantly is the epistemic trespasser. This individual has no place making claims about fields of industry that they are not educated in, about topics they don't have expertise in. We must strive to avoid trespassers at all costs, identifying evidence-based training trends via real experts. Furthering your education, finding a mentor and listening to podcasts are ways to acquire proper knowledge about the subjects that interest us and are, therefore, encouraged.
Ballantyne, N. (2019). Epistemic Trespassing. Mind, 128(510). https://doi.org/10.1093/mind/fzx042
Written by Nick Parke, the Senior Tutor at Fit Futures Academy.