It’s magic?

If there is one thing in the exercise, sport, physical activity and health world that gets my 10th man activated, it’s unsubstantiated gimmicks. I could throw a whole lot of products into that gimmick basket – nutritional supplements, garments, gadgets, training methods – you name it and it’s probably going in my doubtful basket.

These gimmicks are often the result of some pretty good thinking – someone has thought through a possible link between A and B and from that link speculated that maybe that A-B link will result in C, some kind of improvement of health, performance, weight loss or wellbeing. One of my favorite words describes that kind of thinking – syllogism – see how that rolls off the tongue and sounds incredibly intelligent! Syllogism is a form of reasoning that links two seemingly related thoughts or principles and draws a seemingly reasonable conclusion. We can come up with extreme examples to demonstrate that syllogistic (really deductive reasoning), can be flawed if we don’t understand the principles and the context of a situation. A bizarre example I often use is; if A some penguins are black and white and B old television programmes are black and white, then C some penguins must be old TV programmes!!

Pure nonsense I know, but this deductive reasoning often carries over into our everyday lives. For example we know from our studies of physiology and muscle metabolism that magnesium is an important element in the skeletal muscle contraction and relaxation sequence. The presence of magnesium allows the muscle cross bridges to detach and muscle relaxation to occur. So some whizz has syllogistically reasoned that if we give people magnesium supplements we will help facilitate muscle relaxation and maybe that will help with cramps and help those people who can’t relax when it’s time for sleep.

All logical, but the possible flaw in the thinking of course is the assumption that muscle needs more magnesium access and cannot ‘normally’ get enough magnesium to enable muscle relaxation – it also assumes that by consuming more magnesium that will result in more being available in the muscle. Hopefully what you can see here is that there are important bits missing when we syllogistically connect things. Sure human physiology has to have certain elements and minerals but there is generally a fairly generous tolerance for what constitutes low (or in fact high) and the bioavailability (how much is absorbed and actually able to be used by our systems) of many supplements remains individual and uncertain.

But here’s the thing; many of us readily succumb to the promises of these gadgets and gimmicks. The logic of the sales pitch is plausible enough to draw us in and that ‘wishful thinking syndrome’ helps us believe that the gimmick offers a simple solution and pathway to that outcome that we really, really want – and we lay our money down. Who wouldn’t want to develop gluteals of steel simply by wearing shape up shoes? Why wouldn’t I wear a power band and become faster and stronger without having to lift weights? If I can recover better just by wearing fashionable looking Lycra tights, surely that has to be giving me an edge over everyone who doesn’t!

When things appear to be too good to be true, it’s time to unleash your inner 10th person. There are enough pitches telling you why this supplement or gadget is a can’t miss, so listen to that barely audible voice that’s asking the tough questions. Gimmicks don’t usually have any real research backing up there claims.Why not? Ok the gimmick is so new and innovative, they had to rush it to market so we all can benefit from its use. In fact, these things are usually promising something that is difficult to actually measure or improve (like energy levels from your power band, or how well you recovered after that supplement or from wearing those compression tights!). But likewise these things are usually equally difficult to disprove – how do we know you are not better recovered or more energetic? So we are left with the lure that maybe, just maybe, this thing will work and I will get the rapid and dramatic results that I want. As an exercise professional that mindset hurts! Most people won’t give my exercise advice a chance – most won’t follow the programme I prescribe, and yet these are things that have been shown to be effective (not always I know) for most people.

Aren’t we humans odd?


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