The scientists need exposure. The journalists need clicks.
Exercise might kill you? Really? Click
“These stories go viral because they are provocative and counterintuitive,” says Brad Stulberg, a public health professional specializing in ways to change patients’ behavior to be more health conscious.
While 140 character summaries of recent studies proclaiming the mortal dangers of extreme exercise splash around the web, Stulberg meets with patients looking for any excuse not to be active. “When you are trying to get someone to move 10 minutes a day, they are looking for any excuse not to do it,” Stulberg says. “Then they see a headline on a homepage. It’s really frustrating.”
Stulberg sees this recent wave of exercise naysaying studies as a threat to public health. So he teamed up with Michael Joyner M.D., a physiologist at the Mayo Clinic, to write an editorial in the Huffington Post called “The Real Dangers of Too Much Exercise.”
That real danger, they say, is actually proclaiming the danger of too much exercise. The editorial cites mixed results from the studies dredged up by news sources for clickable headlines.
“To date, no large population-based study has supported the ‘too much exercise’ claims,” the article says. “If too much exercise is harmful, then we would expect to see longevity falling and mortality rising with increased volume. However, that is not the case.”
A fact that emerged in a U.S. study which found that out of 650,000 adults, there was “no reduction in longevity or mortality for individuals doing up to four times the minimal recommended (30 minutes five times per week) amount of exercise.”
Beyond finding inconclusive results, Stulberg and Joyner see the troubles of extreme exercise as affecting only a small percentage of the population. According to Running USA, 541,000 people finished a marathon in 2013. Stulberg says that if you use a marathon as a measuring point for extreme exercise, then only .002 percent of the U.S. population would even be affected.
Health journalists pore through studies searching for potential clicks. And according to Joyner, scientists are happy to help spoon feed them by creating over-simplified titles to research papers. “I know because I’ve done it,” he says.
According to Joyner this often is good. It gives the researchers exposure and informs the public. But he says that most of the time you can’t parse a complicated study into a juicy headline.
Which is why Stulberg and Joyner want to clarify the true dangers of exercise.
“The message should be so clear and so simple; exercise is good, so do it,” Stulberg says. “When people are already looking for excuses, any noise outside of that message is bad.”