Fitness Folly

[Notable New Media]

by Kenneth W. Krause.

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer.  Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well.  He may be contacted at krausekc@msn.com.

Chances are that your local personal trainers, or self-styled “fitness professionals,” read (or at least peruse the pictures and headlines in) the IDEA Fitness Journal (IFJ), which characterizes itself as “the professional voice of the fitness and wellness industry.”  Trouble is, personal trainers seldom possess the education, insight, or life experience necessary to recognize pseudoscientific nonsense, let alone to responsibly interpret genuine fitness science.

I’m frequently struck by the IFJ’s soft-headed approach to what should be a candid and at least somewhat intellectually rigorous exploration into exercise science.  But an article in the current, September 2015 issue, titled “Mapping Emotions in the Body” (“knowledge” of which can earn a certified trainer continuing education credits) almost knocked me completely over.

The author, IDEA’s “mind-body-spirit spokesperson,” begins by suggesting that “you can identify where you feel particular emotions in your body.”  She doesn’t bother to tell us how she “knows” this, of course, or how it might occur.   But she does refer to a Finnish study that sought to “address this question scientifically.”  Hey, that would be great!  Right?

Maybe not so much.  In one experiment, the article’s author reports, subjects exposed to “stories, movies, and facial expressions” painted on blank human silhouettes the location where they “felt bodily sensations in response to different emotions,” like fear, anger, love, and depression.  A second experiment asked subjects to examine human silhouette “heat maps,” depicting vaguely bordered blobs of color over the head, chest, abdominal, and even appendage regions of the body, and to “identify which emotion they thought triggered that specific bodily reaction.”

But of course even casual consumers of serious science literature know that subject self-reports are inherently unreliable regardless of subject matter.  But self-reports of emotions, or perceptions while experiencing emotions?  Forget it.  How do we know, for instance, that one subject’s anger isn’t another’s fear or depression?  Indeed, how do we know whether the subjects actually felt the emotions at all, instead of merely thinking about them?  As reported, the study’s protocols seem to ask far more questions than they answer.

In any case, the article’s author decided not to ask such questions.  In the end, she merely aped the researchers’ claims that “different emotions are represented in distinct bodily patterns and that these experiences are universally human.”  Apparently, the “fitness professionals” responsible for your performance, health, and safety don’t need to know anything more than that.  For one, I feel deeply embarrassed for the fitness industry.  Strangely, however, my head, chest, fingers, and toes remain unaffected.

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4 thoughts on “Fitness Folly

  1. Kelly L.

    Around my gym, I’ve noticed that middle-aged women are far more likely than men to hire young trainers (male or female) who obviously have no idea what it’s like to be older and suffer from age-related limitations. What in the world are they thinking?

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  2. Beverly

    I take slight exception to Kelly’s “observation” of middle-aged women. Yes, we probably go with young trainers, and sometimes for the wrong reasons maybe. But for some reason, there are no more mature adult trainers wherever I’ve lived. I don’t think they make it that far very often.

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