Tuesday 22 August 2017

Is There An Athletic Bias In Our Health Research?

I sat down for a conversation on health research with some friends and colleagues. We were looking at various topics regarding nutrition, exercise recovery, and weight-control, but throughout our discussions, one thing stuck out to me.

An incredible amount of our information pertaining to exercise, recovery and nutrition comes from research sources looking exclusively at athletes!

This occurred in the back of my mind a few months ago when I researching static stretching. I was trying to find information regarding the effects of stretching on injury rates and recovery. Using a research database, the first page consisted of 14 relevant articles on the topic.

TEN of these articles involved athletes or otherwise-healthy, young and active individuals.
Only three articles actually involved injured subjects.
Finally, one sole experiment looked specifically at non-athletic individuals.

This struck a chord which I revisited this week during our health nerd brainstorming research session. While trying to discuss proper nutrition for recovery after exercise, including for individuals attempting to lose weight, the majority of the information we were pulling kept using science from athletic populations.

What's more, a lot of the research tends to observe the effects of different stimuli on performance. Let's be frank; there's a BIG difference between athletic sport performance and health. This is why things like the female athlete triad exist.

I'm not saying that research on non-athletes is non-existent, or even hard to find, but there does seem to be a heavy bias on the test subjects for any topics that approach exercise science. There is some sense to be made of why this happens, however. Plus, athlete researcher is, by nature, very popular.

We need to remember that the general population will have different physiology and needs than an Olympic athlete. While many people may strive to have athletic and active lifestyles, the demands of a high-performance marathon runner don't necessarily apply to a weekend-warrior or everyday gym-goer who are just beginning the journey to shed some inches.

So is this a problem with health science, per se? I don't believe so. High-level athletes are one of the most readily available groups who are able to withstand extensive testing and endure some of the more-invasive methods of research. The data we collect from this population is valid for the sake of science. The thing to be careful of is how we apply this data. As researches and health professionals, we need to be responsible in the way that we relay information to the public and not use data from athletes to make sweeping generalizations for the public.

For example, Usain Bolt's body and chemistry not only varies from the average person, but also is going to be quite different from an elite level endurance runner or basketball player.  It is important to recognize that what may work for one person, may not be the best approach for another. Therefore it is important to learn from the research that exists, but recognize the limitations and that it can’t be applied to everyone.

What works for one does not work for all.

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