Blame Your Friends for Your Devotion to Bogus Fitness Fads

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Over the weekend, Men’s Journal contributing editor Daniel Duane wrote an intriguing piece in the New York Times, positing that while fitness trends are tempting to follow, the science suggests that we’re really best off sticking to the basics: classic exercises like the squat, dead lift, power clean, bench press, and standing press, making sure to increase the weight each time you’re in the gym. 

Duane writes:

If you train for a sport, you already know this, whether you realize it or not. Anybody who has trained for a marathon, for example, knows that regardless of what some TV fitness reporter says about some uncontrolled observational study with 11 elderly subjects somewhere in Finland, the web abounds with straightforward marathon-training plans that go like this: Every week for several months, take a few short runs midweek and a single long run on the weekend. Make sure the long run gets a little bit longer each time. Before you know it, you’ll be able to run 26.2 miles.

He describes how he would slavishly follow the latest studies on exercise science, such as training his core by balancing on wobbly exercise balls to adhere to the latest research on muscle confusion, or limiting the duration of his workouts and upping the effort to embody the findings on high-intensity interval trainings. But he began to suspect that a lot of this was more about marketing than about physical fitness; after all, if personal trainers started teaching their clients the classic-but-effective weight-training methods, their clientele would quickly have no reason to keep paying for their sessions.

It’s hard to resist a new workout fad, even though we instinctively know what works: Do some kind of physical activity you enjoy, whether it’s strength training or something cardio-related or a combination of the two. And as your body gets used to the workout, make it a little harder, every time. So what leads us away from the intuitive, basic methods that Duane rediscovered?

Possibly, one behavioral economist says, it’s down to social contagion, or the idea that it’s harder resist a trend once our friends and family have bought into it, says Harvard Business School behavior scientist Francesca Gino. “In the context of health behavior, there is substantial evidence showing that peers are the single biggest social factor in predicting health behavior,” Gino wrote in an email. “The fact that others are joining these activities make us more motivated to join them, too.”

She nods to research led by Yale social scientist Nicholas Christakis, who has found that things like obesity, smoking, and happiness are “contagious,” and can spread throughout a social network. One idea to overcome this problem in your own life: Instead of heading to SoulCycle or whatever’s surpassed spinning in trendiness now, start telling your friends about this post you read about how squats and other basic exercises are a better route to fitness. Be the change, as they say.