Readers react to mouse fitness study on NY Times “Well” blog – and I agree

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:

  • heart monitoring for stroke patients
  • aspirin may cut pancreatic cancer risk
  • putting us all at risk for measles
  • vitamin D screening

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:

  • “Mice??? Ridiculous test subject. Don’t apply these results to humans.”
  • “How intense was the mouse workout!”
  • “While fascinating, the real world application of such a finding is problematic.”
  • “No doubt the molecular pathway is of interest as science, but for those interested in practical training the basic principle is simple and well known.”
  • “One more study reiterating what all people who work out regularly already know. The parade of official confusion over common knowledge continues. Meanwhile expect this headline: Does Eating Less Helps You Lose Weight? Great Scientists Debate!”
  • “the gap between these research findings and the headline and the “moral” of the story is so illustrative of how poorly people understand science and how it is misused. Mice are genetically modified for a test that is designed to prove a theory that the researchers had about the effect of a certain enzyme that is produced more during intense exercise than regular exercise. As a result of that genetic modification, the mice had certain effects that sound good…more endurance, “tighter larger muscles” and “far more efficient at releasing fat.” So the holes are: 1) These are mice; 2) they are genetically modified to simulate what happens when the enzymes are released; 3) there is no assessment of other effects of this modification (organ issues, growth issues, stress related damage etc). As far as the translation to the moral (the importance of reassessing the intensity of your workouts), there is simply no connection. There are lots of reasons to continue moderate workouts and not to drive the body into stress including all kinds of effects of stress, joint damage, etc. It is interesting foundational research, but it really has no bearing on how to stay healthy.”

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 “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., 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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