The current state of fitness journalism is a topic I’ve wanted to raise for a while, but it’s one I’m not sure how to tackle as I try to stay grounded in the positive and coming down too hard could sound a bit like a rant. Thanks to a turning of the tide with some positive recent examples to celebrate, I feel like I now have the opportunity to highlight the good with the bad. And with any luck, I can turn my mixed feelings about wellness in the media into a helpful guide you can use to navigate the headlines and pick out the morsels of wisdom from the papers and magazines that can serve you and your health well.
On that note, let’s start with the good…
Last week The Times released a supplement series called Beat Ageing. Inside was a holistic and important series of articles directing people of every decade to the exercises, foods and activities that can help them stay ahead of the curve (the implied curve being, well, a rather long ways downhill, if you know what I mean). For the most part, this was science-backed advice and highlighted some facts that should definitely be in the public conscience. For example, the fact that rising stress levels in the middle aged is attributing to widening waistlines just as much as inactivity. Turns out the British motto ‘Keep Calm & Carry On’ has more merit than we thought.
The Times suggests HIIT workouts as the best activity to transform cellular activity as we age, ie, kick those fat cells at the source. While HIIT is certainly effective, the journalists did neglect to caveat that HIIT is not appropriate for everybody. If you’re a total newcomer to exercise or are already overweight, a more gentle introduction to training is necessary to strengthen the heart and safeguard the body ahead of more strenuous activities. I mean, we just talked about the dangers of stress, right? Ask someone who rarely gets up from a chair to drop and bash out 20 burpees; do you think they’re going to feel calm about it?
Another positive. The same series dedicated several pages to special considerations around hormonal changes in women and the implications on exercise and nutrition requirements. As someone who believes strongly in the benefits of introducing women to strength training, it was refreshing to read The Times’ advice that women commit to at least twice weekly weightlifting in order to strengthen bones and prevent the common occurrence of osteoporosis in over 40s. In fact, this was a particular relief after reading a Daily Mail piece that warns against the ‘chunkier muscles’ weight lifting can cause. Surely society has moved beyond this myth, which is simply misguided scaremongering that doesn’t take into account the style, format and expertise with which you approach the squat rack.
Enough back patting? Let’s have it out with the bad…
While The Times is my go-to for daily news and updates, they don’t always get it right. Naturally I’m using them for the majority of the examples in this post because I hold them in high regard as a trusted standard setter within the national media. Still, this feature on the rising desire for an ‘ab crack’ nearly made me spew my porridge.
It criticised everyone from the super skinny Instagram star to the professional bodybuilder, with a not-so-subtle scorn for anyone inspired by aesthetics at either end of the spectrum. Now here comes the irony… after challenging these aesthetic notions, they then enlist Matt Roberts to explain precisely how to get an ab crack, complete with a detailed workout and nutrition plan. So haven’t you condoned the vanity athletics on which you just shone a rather harsh spotlight?
[Sideline rant (can’t stop me now!). While Matt Roberts is indeed a very qualified and knowledgeable trainer, it would be nice to see more expert voices and alternative perspectives within the pages of leading press. After all, exercise is not a doctrine, and without a variety of views you risk overlooking several parts of the picture. Something Men’s Health & Women’s Health magazines do well is hear out new voices on the fitness scene and keep their contacts book well up to date.]
Similarly, this piece on the rising numbers of women lifting weights takes a rather wishy washy stance.
First they celebrate the many benefits of strength training and the positive effect on physical health and body confidence, then they slip in a few firm jabs at those who take it to the extreme and enter bodybuilding competitions. To celebrate weight lifting, then throw in loads of pictures of spray tanned, supplement-pumped bikini models, is not exactly showcasing the vast majority of women who incorporate strength training into their balanced fitness regimes. Those women, naturally, look a lot more like you and me.
Rewind to late 2016 and the moment that this very rant began to brew. The Times did it again, coaching readers to lose a dress size by Christmas. Are we still measuring health by the label we wear?
Thankfully the advice is quite sensible and achievable – no radical unsustainable diets or unrealistic exercise expectations, but ultimately no number-based goal is going to inspire people to adopt a long-term healthy lifestyle or even feel good about themselves when they do hit their short-term targets (the nature of numbers is that the press, the brands and the influencers keep changing the marker). What happens when you get to that dress size? To continue dropping would be dangerous, but you get comfortable so you slip into old habits. Make your goals performance driven and there is always somewhere better, further, stronger to take your body (and, more importantly, your mind).
How to be a vigilant reader
Now clearly there are plenty of other titles out there that publish boundary-pushing content. I’ve stuck with The Times to showcase some of the inconsistencies we’re seeing within the same set of pages over the space of just a few months. Mind you, I am still an avid Times subscriber, and a voracious reader of many other titles I respect including Women’s Health magazine, ELLE magazine, RED Online, and other supplements such as Daily Mail’s You magazine. So far be it for me to say read with scepticism. But there are a few tricks you can adopt to put the latest news in context and take care when adopting the advice you read in broadsheets, tabloids or glossies.
- Suggestion not prescription: Do not take advice directed at the masses as gospel for your own personal lifestyle. Always check in with an expert, or at least a trusted friend, before diving into an extreme lifestyle change just because you read good things in the press.
- Beware of headline grabbing: As a former full-time journalist myself, I know how much pressure journalists face to write a compelling headline, and how easy it is to twist studies and quotes to retrofit a story that will please the editor. If a headline sounds particularly sexy or controversial, be extra attentive to the quality of the facts and sources used to make that headline possible. That study that says eating 3 purple sweet potatoes a day will make you lose a stone? It may simply give you severe diarrhea for a week.
- Treat case studies with caution: Case studies can be inspiring. They can be heartwarming. They can also be downright misleading. You are not that person in the press. Your circumstances are not theirs. And their prescription may not be yours. So someone ran 4 marathons in a year and fell in love with their body. You hate running, but that smiling person staring back to you did it and loved it so you should probably try it too, right? No. No. No. What you like and what your body likes will probably be very different, so please bear that in mind. Besides, it’s far more interesting to write your own case study with something that actually does make you feel awesome.
- Keep the most compelling stories: Hold onto the pages that really resonate with you, or perhaps the ones that do the opposite and make you question what you read. Keep hold of those stories for 6-12 months. Then take a flick through all the articles you’ve saved and notice how much a publication’s stance may vary on a particular line of thinking. Notice how quickly the trends change and how they go in and out of vogue. Then remember that the one constant thing you can absolutely count on is you. Your training. Your commitment. Your consistency.
Press, trends, other people’s views and case studies aside, you are a constant, and a pretty damn wonderful one at that. So do what you makes you feel strong and let your voice reign true above the voices of the publications you read or the programmes you listen to/watch. Do it consistently. Do it with love. If the things you read or see inspire you to fall deeper in love with you or to discover classes and fitness plans that do, wonderful. If you try boxing and hate it, don’t feel guilty that you’re not loving the movement of the moment. If you just want to lift your weights, practice your yoga, twirl a hula hoop, dance around like a maniac, hit the trails, juggle bananas, etc, etc, then do that. No doubt banana juggling is next in line for the spotlight anyway.
No offence is intended in writing this piece. I have so much respect for the freelance and staff journalists at all the titles mentioned and hope only for this post to help my clients and readers trust in their own voices to make smart and informed training decisions. If you have any personal experience with media influence, positive or negative, that you’d like to share with me, I always welcome conversation and debate around topical wellness. Thanks for reading. xx