The State of the (Fitness) World

Earlier this month, the good folks at Greatist published their list of the 100 Most Influential People in Health and Fitness. Many of the names on the list are respected fitness professionals with unquestioned ethics, and deserve all the accolades they get. Many, not all. Let's start at the top.

1. Dr. Mehmet Oz. Not too many years ago, I'd have been tickled to see Dr. Oz on this list. Without question he is smarter than I'll ever be. As the old saying goes, Dr. Oz is so smart, he's forgotten more than I'll ever know about health and fitness. True. The problem is that he seems to be intent on forgetting it all as fast as possible.

Long before ratings became his chief concern, Dr. Oz was an Ivy League-educated, respected physician and extremely intelligent man. He was (and still is) a professor at the Department of Surgery at Columbia University. and was founder of HealthCorps, a non-profit that pays a small stipend to recent college grads to mentor high school students on health and fitness.

But, perhaps as a result of the pressures of now being a part of the entertainment world, Dr. Oz has seemingly changed his priorities. Somehow he morphed in the man the  James Randi Educational Foundation "awarded" their Media Pigasus Award, which the foundation states is for promoting "nonsense", for "his continued promotion of quack medical practices, paranormal belief, and pseudoscience".

According to Real Clear Science, "In the five years that Dr. Mehmet Oz has been on the air, he's shared no less than sixteen weight loss 'panaceas','game-changers,' and 'miracles.' From metabolism boosters, to diet plans, to pills, Oz's recommendations guarantee to help you shed the pounds fast." It would seem that if even one of these claims weren't exaggerated (if not flat out false), we'd be making legitimate progress in the fight against obesity.

And the criticisms of the once respected doctor don't end there. An article published last year by compares Dr. Oz's claims about weight loss "miracles" and contrasts each of them with the legitimate scientific studies on the topic that debunk the good doctor's headline grabbing hyperbole.

Certainly Dr. Oz influences a lot of people on his show, but unfortunately nowadays, quite often he's using his influence to mislead his audience.

2. Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is not the first time I've taken offense at, or criticized Mr. Schwarzenegger's status as an authority and role model, and it likely won't be the last. Let's examine the sequence of events that led to his fame and fortune, as well as his status on this list of influencers. Many years ago, he took steroids. Without them, it's highly unlikely that he would have gained such renown as a bodybuilder. Without his success as a bodybuilder, it's highly unlikely that  he would have become a movie star. Without becoming a movie star, it's highly unlikely that he would have married a Kennedy, been Governor of California, or - perhaps worst of all -  been appointed by President George H.W. Bush as the Chairman of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.

If you want to influence your children to believe that PED use is a viable path to success, then Arnold is your man.

7. Jillian Michaels. Where to begin? At best, Ms. Michaels possesses what at best can be considered decent, entry level credentials for a fitness professional, and is qualified to work as a low-level personal trainer in a reputable club while furthering her education. At worst, she has been sued for marketing dangerous diet supplements at least four times, has apparently cheated on The Biggest Loser, and has said that she won't become pregnant because she "can't handle what it will do to my body". Dr. Leslie Seppinni's response is spot on. “Women have children all the time and get right back in shape, particularly if they exercise. If this is how she truly feels, she should seek counsel before coaching others on issues of body image.”

Some of Ms. Michaels' training techniques are silly, some are dangerous. That she is considered a leader or an authority is an insult to any and every fitness professional who takes his or her job seriously. But she's laughing all the way to the bank as she capitalizes on all the people she influences.

17. Dr. Deepak Chopra. is one of the many sites that has done a great examination of Dr. Chopra's quackery. Among other things, he "claims that perfect health is a matter of choice and that he can identify your dosha and its state of balance or imbalance simply by taking your pulse. He claims that allergies are usually caused by poor digestion. He claims you can prevent and reverse cataracts by brushing your teeth, scraping your tongue, spitting into a cup of water, and washing your eyes for a few minutes with [a particular] mixture."

Dr. Chopra says dizzying things like "Quantum healing is healing the bodymind from a quantum level. That means from a level which is not manifest at a sensory level. Our bodies ultimately are fields of information, intelligence and energy. Quantum healing involves a shift in the fields of energy information, so as to bring about a correction in an idea that has gone wrong. So quantum healing involves healing one mode of consciousness, mind, to bring about changes in another mode of consciousness, body." Impressive stuff. It would be even better if it made any sense.

Skeptico puts it best. "Meaningless gibberish with the word 'quantum' thrown in (twice), as well as a quark and a photon for good measure. [H]e quotes quantum mechanics safe in the knowledge that that few people will know he’s talking garbage. In reality, he just wants to hijack the mantle of science to give this gibberish some respectability. It’s sold a lot of books."  And while I won't pretend to understand quantum physics, I trust the analysis at Skepticblog that rips apart Dr. Chopra's "mangling" of the concepts, as well as Quackwatch's examination of his deceptive and baseless claims.

That Dr. Chopra is an intelligent and charismatic man is indisputable. Whether he believes his own outlandish and unproven and disproven claims and faulty interpretation of quantum mechanics or makes them strictly for financial benefit is subject for debate.

42. Tara Parker-Pope. A few years ago, Ms. Parker-Pope was the subject of my ire when she wrote “Better Running Through Walking” in the New York Times. She claimed “To train for my first marathon, I’m using the “run-walk” method, popularized by the distance coach Jeff Galloway". Like many others, I posted a comment at her blog. And like many others, my comment was shot down by the author, who has no background in exercise science or athletics. I explained that walk/run intervals are fine for someone who is undertrained and incapable of running the whole race, but the idea of a well trained runner going faster by incorporating walking breaks is in defiance of logic and basic physiological principles. I pointed to the flaws in the line of reasoning that she and Mr. Galloway used, and the fact that their claim that Ronaldo da Costa used Galloway’s method in his marathon wins is patently false. Ms. Parker Pope was unmoved by my comments, and those of so many others, and insisted that this was the best way to run a faster marathon.

Fast forward to when Ms. Parker-Pope finished the marathon in 6:58:19, (or just slightly less than three times her advisor's impressive personal best, which he managed to achieve without walking breaks), and wrote the following about Gallowalking. "The downside is that just as you are out on the marathon course about 50 percent longer than the average runner, your  training time is much longer, too — four and five hours a weekend for long runs." In other words, what I had said all along.

In fairness, I don't doubt Ms. Parker-Pope's sincerity. I simple doubt her ability to comprehend basic physiological principles, understand research in a peer-reviewed journal, or accept criticism of her work.

60. Dr. Joseph Mercola. Ah yes, another favorite of mine and Quackwatch. According to Quackwatch, Dr. Mercola, "has expressed doubt that HIV causes AIDS, suggests that many cancers can be cured by baking soda, and warns parents not to vaccinate their children."

BusinessWeek referred to his marketing "relying on slick promotion, clever use of information, and scare tactics." He has been warned by the FDA on no less than four separate occasions to stop making illegal claims regarding his products'  "ability to detect, prevent and treat disease", and Quackwatch has said that he makes "unsubstantiated claims [that] clash with those of leading medical and public health organizations". 

At first Dr. Mercola seems nothing if not sincere. After all, he states " is not . . . a tool to get me a bigger house and car, or to run for Senate. I fund this site, and therefore, am not handcuffed to any advertisers, silent partners or corporate parents. . . .Profit generated from the sale of the products I recommend goes right back into maintaining and building a better site. A site that, startling as it may be with all the greed-motivated hype out there in health care land, is truly for you." Sounds good, except as Quackwatch points out "The word 'Mercola' on the labels of his 'Dr. Mercola Premium Supplements' is service-marked. Records at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office say that he began using the mark in commerce in 2000, applied to register it in 2009, and was granted registration in 2010. The registration address is for his home in South Barrington, Illinois, which the BlockShopper Chicago Web site states has 5,083 square feet and was purchased by Mercola in 2006 for $2 million." I wonder where he'd live if his products were a tool to get him that bigger house.

Oh, and did I mention that he's a frequent guest on the Dr. Oz Show?

78. Gina Kolata. Ms. Kolata is an other NY Times writer with whom I have repeatedly taken issue, such as the time she claimed that there's no difference between running on soft or hard surfaces, and backed it up with anecdotal evidence and a small, one-sided group of "experts", presenting no counterpoint even though it would have been exceedingly easy to find a dissenting opinion. As Mark Dowie of put it, "Deconstruct her stories, source by source, quote by quote, and a familiar pattern begins to emerge. Upon re-interviewing the people she cites, it becomes evident that she appears to have decided before making her first call what her story will say."

Then there was the time she wrote what the Central Park Track Club's esteemed blog referred to "yet another useless story by Gina Kolata" in which she inaccurately explained hyponatremia, and followed up her misstatement of facts with scare tactics and hyperbole.

Or, more significantly, the time when she wrote what Alliance for Human Research Protection called a "grossly dis-informative front-page report 'Spinal-Fluid Test Finds Proteins Identified With Memory Loss'", for which the New York Time published a three paragraph correction identifying no less than three major mistakes.

While Ms. Kolata is hugely popular, please don't think I'm her only critic. Here's what Paul Raeburn of Knight Science Journalism at MIT said after a misleading report on cancer. "Gina Kolata at The New York Times reported that researchers "have identified four genetically distinct types" of breast cancer. But the press release says researchers "described new insights into the four standard molecular subtypes" of breast cancer. Kolata's lede is apparently wrong, and so is the headline that reflects the error.

I fondly remember studying Ms. Kolata's writing in my grad school Research Methods class as we examined how to lie with statistics, due to either her lack of understanding or lack of concern about statistical methods. Additionally, Ms. Kolata loves to rely on anecdotal evidence, avoids presenting arguments from those who disagree with her "experts", and loves sample sizes of N=1. She makes overgeneralized conclusions based on these small sample sizes, and presents them as fact. I acknowledge the fact the NY Times is not a peer-reviewed publication and her audience isn't looking for hardcore science with double-blinded studies. But perhaps a writer with such a large readership should be more careful about what she presents as fact.

Certainly that's not an exhaustive list of the people on this list who make my hair hurt. Not even close. Plenty of others, ranging from a reality TV star with no fitness credentials to a triathlon coach pitching magic bracelets and "structured water", have an apparent lack of knowledge and/or ethics.

On the other hand, many of the names on the list are unquestionably smart, honest and accomplished. I can, and have learned from many of them. And even though I'm offended to see the names of those I mentioned (and many others that I didn't bother to catalogue), I don't disagree with Greatist's assertion that these people are influencers. The list is an accurate representation of what it claims to be, and I therefore have no gripe with the list or those who compiled it. But the fact that these people do carry so much weight makes me very concerned about the direction of the health and fitness industry.