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What is a misconception?

Misconceptions are beliefs which contradict current scientific views. We can hold misconceptions about almost any topic – some that get media attention are ideas like the Earth is flat, people never landed on the Moon, or vaccines cause autism. We can also hold misconceptions in exercise and nutrition topics.

These are called misconceptions because we may hold these beliefs in spite of evidence to the contrary. In the examples I just mentioned, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary! And we can also maintain them when presented with evidence from lecturers and teachers.

These types of misconceptions have been looked at in university students before, but not in personal trainers, or fitness students. We also don’t know what role critical thinking ability plays in the forming, or holding, these misconceptions.

With better reasoning and reflection skills can we correct our own misconceptions? Or can these skills even protect us from developing misconceptions in the first place?

What misconceptions in exercise and nutrition are we talking about?

In 2016 we conducted interviews with a number of exercise and nutrition educators. We spoke to exercise science and nutrition experts at a number of universities, and lecturers in Certificate III and IV Fitness courses, on their opinions of popular misconceptions in exercise and nutrition. We also wanted to know what information, and teaching strategies, they would use to correct these.

After these interviews we decided on 10 misconceptions, which you can see in the table below.

Misconceptions in exercise and nutrition

The misconceptions in exercise and nutrition statements used in this research. Some are more controversial than others!

What if some of these are not misconceptions?

There are a couple of reasons you may disagree with some of these, which are perfectly reasonable. It’s possible our wording is unclear in places. We were trying to create a survey that could examine misconceptions in both professionals, and the public. So compromises in language and detail needed to be made. Live and learn…

It’s also possible that changing scientific opinion may cause some of these misconceptions to be out of date. Even the experts we spoke to for this research didn’t agree on all of these. But most did, most of the time.

The one that is most unclear in the research at the moment was, in my opinion, the least likely to cause controversy at the beginning of this project. But some recent research has shows there may be a reduced risk of injury with static stretching before exercise! I was so surprised to find this out that I even wrote about it.

If you disagree that any of these are misconceptions for other reasons, that’s ok! Even if you are disagreeing with a large body of evidence. In fact, I wrote a guide about how to argue against a scientific consensus, to help you out.

The research

Once we decided on our misconceptions, we created a survey that asked whether participants agreed with these statements, and some similar factual statements. We also collected information on the sources of information people used, their trust of those sources, and conducted a simple test of critical thinking ability.

In 2017 we surveyed 1st and 3rd year exercise science students from Curtin University, exercise professionals with degrees. We also surveyed students completing a personal training certificate, and personal trainers with this qualification. For comparison, we found members of the public with no relevant qualifications.

As you would expect, education reduces misconceptions. 3rd year students had fewer misconceptions than 1st year students. Professionals with degrees had fewer again.

Exercise misconceptions in exercise and nutrition in public vs students vs professionals

The difference in misconceptions of exercise and nutrition in the public, students, and degree qualified professionals. * Represents a significant difference to all other groups

But we also see that members of the public had fewer misconceptions than first year students. Why is that?

Why did people hold misconceptions?

There are a couple of factors which were associated with possessing fewer misconceptions. One was critical thinking ability, and another was trust in more reliable sources of information. Another was the level of qualification a person held. But this was any qualification, not just exercise science degrees!

In this case, our general public group was older than our other groups, and a lot of people had high level qualifications in other fields. They also scored highly in our test of critical thinking ability. It’s possible they had more awareness of their lack of knowledge, and did not agree with misconception statements the same way first year students did.

The most common misconceptions were “lactic acid causes fatigue” (half our professional group agreed with this), “a vitamin supplement can improve your well-being…” (over 40% in all groups), “no pain, no gain” (over 50% in all groups except the professionals), and “the more protein, the better”. In this last case, our third year group performed better than the other groups. Perhaps our degree qualified participants were a bit rusty in their knowledge of metabolism!

Misconceptions in personal trainers and vocational fitness students

We studied students in vocational education, and personal trainers with these qualifications too.

As our Certificate III and IV fitness students were completing a shorter qualification, we could assess them at the beginning and the end of their qualification. We wanted to see if their critical thinking ability, or the number of misconceptions they possessed, changed during the course. We then compared these students to practising personal trainers.

Misconceptions in exercise and nutrition in personal trainers

Misconceptions in vocational fitness students, and vocationally qualified personal trainers. The pre-course student group was different to the other two groups

Students possessed fewer misconceptions at the end of the course compared to the beginning, but there was no difference between the post-course students and personal trainers.

In other words, our personal trainers, with an average of 6 years of experience, held the same number of misconceptions as students.

There was also no difference in the number of factual statements they agreed with. This is different to the university students and degree qualified graduates discussed earlier.

How did these results compare to those doing degrees?

There were some similarities with our earlier groups. Again, critical thinking ability and the level of education achieved (any education), was associated with fewer misconceptions. But having a higher level exercise qualification (like a diploma instead of a Certificate IV) did not help. Trust in reliable sources of information was also associated with fewer misconceptions, while trust in less reliable sources (like friends, social media, magazines, and alternative health practitioners) was associated with more misconceptions.

Like previous research into the fitness industry, there was no relationship between the experience of trainers, and agreement with either factual or misconception statements. An experienced trainer may not be a more knowledgeable trainer.

The same misconceptions were popular in these groups as in the previous groups, with the addition of “static stretching reduces injury risk”, which was popular in both pre-course students (76%), and personal trainers (37%), but not post-course students.

How can we correct misconceptions in exercise and nutrition?

Other research shows us that people will interpret information that agrees with their current opinions differently to what they disagree with.

Information they agree with is seen as more reliable and convincing. So just providing good information may not be enough to change someone’s mind. But if we could improve their ability to accurately assess information, and find better evidence (i.e. some of the skills of critical thinking), we may be able to help people correct these misconceptions themselves.

For the last part of this project we designed an online course that aimed to improve the critical thinking skills of personal trainers. We used examples and activities that were specific to fitness and nutrition, as these skills are better learnt and applied in a familiar context.

Two stick figures arguing about misconceptions in exercise and nutrition

A screenshot from Critical Thinking for Fitness Professionals. In this example we were talking about how to have a collaborative argument, rather than an adversarial one. The topic being argued was interval training.

At the end of the course, the personal trainers who took part changed in the following ways:

  • Performance in the critical thinking test improved
  • The number of misconceptions they possessed reduced
  • Trust in reliable sources was increased
  • Trust in less reliable sources was decreased

This is encouraging, as it tells us that instruction in critical thinking may help correct misconceptions in fitness. And this could be useful if someone is stubbornly rejecting information they don’t agree with!

Where to from here?

We’ve found out that misconceptions decrease during the course of exercise qualifications, which is great. But personal trainers do not continue to improve in their knowledge, or reduce the number of misconceptions they possess, once they graduate.

This tells us one of two things. It could be either the professional development trainers take part in is not helping to prevent or correct misconceptions. Or, personal trainers may not be taking part in enough professional development. Given the high turnover of personal trainers in the fitness industry, it may be a little of both.

Some trainers may not see the point in staying up to date because they don’t see a long term future in the industry. Others may make not seek to challenge themselves in their professional development, and selectively expose themselves to information they will already agree with. Or others may attend more diverse training, but reject information they disagree with.

Woman holding ears, face and mouth

Attending professional development when a misconception is challenged may be a little like this. Don’t reject new information immediately. If it’s wrong, find out why. What is the quality of the evidence backing it up?

Long term solutions

We need to include specific instruction in critical thinking in certificate level fitness qualifications. Also, we should also be encouraging personal trainers to seek out higher levels of qualification, like diplomas or degrees, rather than rely on their Certificate IV.

Finally, we need to provide resources to help personal trainers, students, and members of the public to make better decisions about exercise and nutrition information. This could help us all make better choices about our exercise and nutrition habits!

This website is an attempt to address this last point. While we aim to inform people about exercise and nutrition, we also aim to change the way people think about exercise and nutrition, and how to choose to find out more.

Help us spread the word!