Earlier this week I praised one New York Times blog piece. But I have a quite different reaction to another I just read.
The Times’ “Well” blog published a piece, “For Fitness, Push Yourself.“ It was about tips for you.
The column fits in among other recent personal health postings on the blog on:
All of these topics were specifically about human health and wellness.
But the fitness piece – as explained, appropriately, in the second sentence – was about a study in mice. The very next sentence made the huge – and I would argue, unwarranted – leap to people – “that to realize the greatest benefits from workouts, we probably need to push ourselves.”
If you’re interested in the research in question – “catecholamines and their relationship with a protein found in both mice and people that is genetically activated during stress” – you can read the blog post.
What I am commenting on is the placement of a basic science piece – limited to animal research at this point – in the midst of a “Well” blog clearly focused on human health, as evidenced by past editorial patterns.
Why does this matter?
Because we flood the American public with “health” news every day. And the overload may very well cause confusion and disorientation about what’s important in health and wellness in our everyday lives. A mouse study to confirm this is underway.
The Well blog fitness piece ends with these direct statements about human implications from one of the researchers. (There is no independent perspective in the piece.)
What this finding means, Dr. Conkright said, is that “there is some truth to that idea of ‘no pain, no gain.’” …
The study also underscores the importance of periodically reassessing the intensity of your workouts, Dr. Conkright said, if you wish to continually improve your fitness. Once a routine is familiar, your sympathetic nervous system grows blasé, he said, holds back adrenaline and doesn’t alert the CRTC2 proteins, and few additional adaptations occur.
The good news is that “intensity is a completely relative concept,” Dr. Conkright said. If you are out of shape, an intense workout could be a brisk walk around the block. For a marathon runner, it would involve more sweat.
“But the point is to get out of your body’s comfort zone,” Dr. Conkright, “because it does look like there are unique consequences when you do.”
I added the bold, underlined emphasis. But maybe I didn’t need to do that. When you read some of the online comments left by readers of the Well blog, you’ll see that many readers question the story as well. Examples:
In conclusion, don’t get me wrong. This is not an anti-basic science or an anti-animal research rant. It’s an observation about journalism.
We’re losing people, drowning them in a sea of questionable or downright useless health information.
When you slap a basic science story onto a “Well” blog and allow researchers to make huge leaps about what it means for people – using definitive-sounding statements without any independent perspective vetting these claims, I think you’re adding to the cacophony of confusion.
While I’m at it, I could make another similar observation about a Time.com “Health” page column, “These Goosebump Sensors Can Read Your Emotions.” It’s based on very preliminary work published in the journal Applied Physics Letters.
Addendum on June 30: Here’s another example. Boston.com, on its Health page, posted “New Method by Mass. General Researchers Keeps Organs Alive Outside Body Longer.” That’s rat organs. 12 rats. That is so far from a consumer “Health” story, it might just as well have been posted on a Sports page.
If news organizations are going to start scouring journals like Applied Physics Letters, put it on your Science page, not on your Health page. And if you don’t have a Science page anymore, resurrect one.
In case you missed it, I posted recently about the BMJ editor’s column, “How predictive and productive is animal research?”
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