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ABC News extrapolates wildly, misleads readers by claiming high intensity exercise ‘could be secret to staying young’

Rating

2 Star

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High-intensity interval training may have anti-aging benefits, study finds

Our Review Summary

This Good Morning America! video and accompanying article from ABC News extrapolate wildly from a study looking at the effects of three exercise types on molecular changes in the skeletal muscles of younger (18-30 years) and older (65-80 years) adults.

Unfortunately, the story takes a statement from the study abstract — “high intensity interval training (HIIT) improved age-related decline in muscle mitochondria” — and incorrectly suggests this translates to an anti-aging effect in people. In reality, there is no proven link between changes seen at the molecular level, nor with aging at the individual level.

The story also glosses over the harms–HIIT exercise should be used very judiciously in older adults. In fact, the vast majority of people who signed up for the study were excluded because of a variety of health concerns. This is important information since the article and video take a promotional stance toward HIIT, claiming it “could keep you younger,” without informing people that it is clearly not appropriate for everyone and may even cause significant harm.

 

Why This Matters

“Anti-aging” is one of the most entrenched and enticing click-baits out there. Taking a biochemical study (with a very small sample size no less) and applying the results to individuals is misguided, misleading, and perpetuates misinformation.  Rule of thumb: There is nothing in the history of science that has been proven to reverse aging. Slow aging? Debatable. Stop aging? Death.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

The article briefly summarizes the findings of a study looking at three forms of exercise. Theoretically, all three could be performed without investing in specialized equipment or health club membership. Given that, cost is not a major issue here.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The story claims that high intensity interval training improves the exercise capacity of muscle mitochondria. How much did it improve? Neither this nor any of the other benefits attributed to HIIT is described with any specifics.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

All exercise regimes carry some risk, and that risk usually increases with age. High intensity interval training, by definition, involves a very significant level of cardio-respiratory stress. This risk is underscored by the fact that the vast majority of people who signed up for the study were excluded because of a variety of health concerns (see next criterion). This is important information since the article and video take a promotional stance toward HIIT, claiming it “could keep you younger,” without informing people that it is clearly not appropriate for everyone and may even cause significant harm.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The ABC news coverage fails to mention there is no proven link between changes seen at the molecular level and with aging at the individual level. It also fails to mention that after the vast majority of study candidates were excluded, and others dropped out, the final study group who participated in the HIIT training consisted of just 10 subjects. That’s a very small group from which to draw bold conclusions about reversing aging.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Not Satisfactory

The assumption of this story is that aging is bad and something that needs to be “reversed.” Aging is a normal process.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

Both the article and the video quote independent sources not involved with the study. That is enough to rate satisfactory, but we do have some concerns with their commentary.

Chris Powell, a personal trainer and “transformation specialist”  featured in ABC’s “Extreme Weight Loss,” incorrectly defines HIIT as “aerobic training with short bouts of weight training in between.” HIIT — as was also defined in the study — is actually alternating between short bouts of intense (anaerobic) activity and recovery pauses. The exercise bursts are done at near maximal effort. In this case, it was very intense cycling for four minutes, followed by light cycling for three minutes, repeated four times; along with two days a week of treadmill walking for 45 minutes at a relatively intense pace.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The study looked at three forms of exercise, including HIIT. The story implies that HIIT training has an an anti-aging effect — and even though that’s wildly speculative — they make no effort to discuss other forms of exercise that might impact the aging process.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Applicable

The health intervention addressed in the study is three forms of exercise that can be done without specialized equipment. The story could have said something about how easy it might be to find a trainer who knows about HIIT.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

No mention is made of other studies looking at the effects of exercise on skeletal muscle in the young or old, and how this one differs from others.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

The story does not appear to rely on a news release.

Total Score: 2 of 8 Satisfactory

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