Remember the TV reality series titled “The Biggest Loser”? In this series, contestants who were not just overweight, not just obese, but morbidly obese as a result of weighing 150 to 300+ lbs over their appropriate weight, competed to be the one who lost the most weight hence “The Biggest Loser”.
The original trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels (yes, the Jillian Michaels who is responsible for countless books, titles and articles on weight loss, fitness and health) became famous for their top of the lung “training sessions” where they would scream at their posse of participants to push harder, push longer, push, push and push until they couldn’t push anymore. Harper and Michaels would scream at their participants to conjure up images of their worst fears, of the reality of an early death as a result of their obesity, they yelled and yelled at the contestants to think about their children, their families and their friends who want them to be healthy.
It all sounds good, doesn’t it?
It all sounds so motivational, inspirational, even caring… doesn’t it?
So what happens when… one of the trainers – Bob Harper in this case – suffers the medical emergency of an heart attack that all his training, all his preaching, all his screaming and yelling was supposed to prevent? In 2017, Harper while at the gym of all places… ended up on the ground after suffering a severe heart attack.
So what happens when… a long term study which followed the participants after the reality series ended reveals that the hi intensity training sold as ‘the solution’ to weight loss, fitness, health and so on… isn’t. What if the study also shows that the so-called solution has long term consequences which are far worse than what anyone could have expected, namely that: hi intensity interval training [HiiT] damages health to levels worse than before the training was started?
What if its all wrong? The concepts, the mindset, the attitude… the screaming, the yelling, the puking, the pain, the exhaustion, the emotional manipulation, what if it’s all wrong? What if the foundation to what the entire health & fitness industry is currently standing upon as the indisputable concepts of weight loss, health, fitness, and sport specific training have been built on sand, or worse, ‘science’ that stands on quicksand?
After seasons of “The Biggest Loser” and after years of hi intensity training being force fed to us as the solution to all things health… where are we?
After several resorts were built based on “The Biggest Loser” concept which allowed anyone to book a getaway to lose weight in the manner that was televised through the series, only one resort remains. The TV series turned trainers preaching HiiT into celebrities, with Harper and Michaels becoming superstars and expert educators on losing weight, fitness and wellness which yielded legions of personal trainers aspiring to replicate stardom for themselves by becoming preachers of HiiT. Despite Bob Harper himself having a heart attack as a result of his own hi intensity training, today you cannot pick up a magazine, go online, or walk into a gym without HiiT being forced upon you as if you yourself are a Biggest Loser contestant.
The health & fitness industry has adopted hi intensity routines as the basis of their class line up: bootcamps, AMRAP & Tabata training, spinning classes, and CrossFit all are variations of hi intensity training which are all marketed to deliver results that match those of the reality series.
Sport specific training incorporated hi intensity interval training as the bedrock for training plan development so that today age group and masters athletes have come to believe that training plans based on one single solitary variable – power data or pace/split times – is the means to obtaining performance outcomes.
In the end, the mainstream belief is now that exercise which is healthy and result oriented is exercise that must be performed at the highest levels of effort, at peak intensity, and prolonged for as long as the person can ‘take it’, because the belief is… “no pain, no gain”. Meanwhile, the population results that have been achieved during this obsession with hi intensity training and living are epidemics in obesity, diabetes and a laundry list of other lifestyle diseases.
The Mainstream Approaches for: Weight-Loss, Fitness, Sport Specific Training, & Health are Fatally Flawed because Hi Intensity Interval Training [HiiT] is not the solution that has been hyped for years
Below, are the factors that identify not only where we went wrong, but how we went wrong…
Factor #1 – Short Term Studies with No Long Term Follow Up
Where is the evidence coming from that Hi Intensity Interval Training [HiiT] is appropriate, suitable, healthy training that will yield the results that we seek? The evidence is coming exclusively from short term studies (i.e. 3 week to 12 weeks at the longest). I have yet to read any study that demonstrated with any degree of reliability or validity that HiiT works over the long term.
But aren’t results over 3 weeks or 12 weeks sufficient?
Seriously? Did you not read the excerpt from the article above?
If you watched “The Biggest Loser” series, you will remember that every week at the end of each episode all the participants would ‘weigh in’… they would line up behind their trainer – Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels in the early days of the series – and one by one they would be called down by the host to stand in front of everyone on a massive scale where their weight was shown on an equally massive screen hanging behind them.
Results? Absolutely, there were results… in fact incredible results! Participants in the series would lose 8, 10, sometimes 14 lbs… and that was in a single week. Some participants would lose this sort of weight, week after week. And in the series finale, they would burst through an image of their former self, in a grand reveal of their ‘new’ self… trim, shapely, firm, fit, with hair, nails, and outfit to match their new identity.
Results? Absolutely… review any triathlon, running, cycling or endurance event website and there will be article after article expounding on the benefits of HiiT! From weight loss, to maximizing cycling power, to decreasing risks of cancer… you name it… HiiT is the snake oil con-men and con-women are selling at every opportunity.
Risks? Side-effects? Consequences? Are you kidding…
Who cares about those when you can have “Biggest Loser” weight loss results in days or weeks instead of months & years of training?
Who cares about those when you can set a new FTP/critical power level, or a faster split time in days or weeks instead of months & years of training?
And then an article publishing the results of a long term study of those who participated in “The Biggest Loser” reality series: all the short term gains are lost in time, and in addition the participants are left in far worse condition then before as a result of their physiology being decimated by the hi intensity training/HiiT that Harper and Michaels subjected them. Please also recall if you watched the series, that the reality series was performed while all participants were under the (again, so-called) ‘expert’ guidance and medical supervision of medical doctors.
Take short term scientific research that concludes HiiT yields incredible results, fail to perform any research to see if those results are sustainable, or to evaluate if those results truly lead to lifestyle changes that yield long term results which are healthy, and voila… a con job of epic proportions that convinces the masses that health, fitness, weight loss, et al. is just a handful of painful, puking hi intensity sessions away!
Furthermore, the bias that now exists to protect HiiT as the be-all and end-all form of healthy training is unreal. With teenage age group athletes, and young adult men and women who are pro athletes now consistently being either diagnosed with arrhythmias or ending up dead while training or racing, plus masters athletes dying in marathons, triathlons, and other endurance events its amazing how an alternate explanation is always found… and never ever is the appropriateness nor the safety of HiiT questioned.
The selective blindness is itself a key marker to how effective the marketing of hi intensity training has been. No one wants to accept that so-called experts failed to do the long term research to determine whether or not HiiT was as good as short term studies suggest. No one wants to accept that they have been conned. No one wants to accept that what they have believed, how they have trained, how they have raced, how they have approached health… is wrong.
Not even Jillian Michaels wants to accept that her entire stardom and celebrity status is built upon bull: when replying to questions regarding her former co-star’s heart attack, Michaels found the excuse to be in Bob Harper’s genetics and diet. That Harper has changed his training from hi to moderate intensity… well, that’s conveniently wiped from short term memory.
Factor #2 – The Division of Cognitive Labour Creates Ignorance
Research, scientific advancements, technological change is occurring at a rate that there is no chance for anyone to remain ‘on top’ of everything all the time. Its impossible. Since the Bronze Age, we have divided labour. As an example, if you are an engineer you accept that you are not a medical doctor and thus you seek consultation with a medical doctor when you begin to experience health related problems. Since you are an engineer, there aren’t enough hours in the day to maintain yourself as an expert at the top of your own field, and simultaneously be an expert in all things pertaining to your health, let alone everything else in your life.
We do this across all aspects of life where we respect that there is specific knowledge required in order to solve problems in that domain: we accept ignorance in that domain, and seek expertise when in need. This division of labour works but conditionally: it works only when the experts in a domain are not only professionals who maintain up to date education & experience so as to remain experts, but their expertise is only as valuable as they are trustworthy, integral, and honest. Without these redeeming characteristics, an expert has the opportunity to take advantage of those who are ignorant in their domain of expertise: this is why we ask family and friends to refer us to a mechanic, a dentist, a travel agent, a contractor… because anyone can claim to be an expert, but we know not everyone is trustworthy, integral and honest and we do not want our ignorance to be taken advantage of.
Unfortunately, but this is what has happened in the health & fitness industry: health clubs & fitness gyms have personal trainers claiming them to be ‘experts’ in all things related to health, wellness, weight loss, etc… and they are not. They have no more than a handful of hours of education via seminars with absolutely no education in anything even remotely on the level of college or university level degrees in health sciences, yet are promoted as being able to provide the training that will yield results.
Its no different in sport specific training where self proclaimed coaches profess ‘expertise’ in all things related to health & wellness, to strength & conditioning, even hi performance, meanwhile they have little to no education at any level that one would equate with expertise, and their typical experience encompasses only their own training and racing history when they were athletes (hence they have no insight into the fact that no two athletes are identical, hence no two athletes can be trained identically). These coaches have toolboxes with only one tool as a result of their limited education and experience: all they have is a hammer. As a result of their limited education and experience, to them all athletes are nails and the solution to fixing all athletes is simply a matter of hitting them harder and harder. With these coaches, when their athletes breakdown with injury or illness – be it physical or mental – its never the coach who is at fault, its always the athlete who is made out to be “not National Team member quality”.
Lastly, the fact that the army of trainers and coaches accepted hi intensity training without any individual effort to assess the validity and reliability reveals just how incompetent they are in their so-called roles as experts. True experts question everything, they do not accept anything even if initial results are astounding.
True experts are true scientists and true scientists always test the results of their peers by performing their own experiments to ensure that results are not manufactured outcomes, but truly reproducible. True experts don’t stop questioning. Even if their own testing yields consistent results that support the hypothesis, they continue to question, they continue to poke holes looking for loopholes, looking for failure points in the hypothesis.
Did anyone in the entire health & fitness industry take such an expert approach to hi intensity training? I have not identified anyone. Like lemmings, once Harper and Michaels pushed people to their puke point, then beyond, and then obtained results… the goal was to reproduce the pain without anyone questioning whether the pain and puking was appropriate.
Factor #3 – The Belief That Stress Is Uni-Dimensional
(i.e. that there is no qualitative dimension to stress)
At the root of the attempts to short cut training into minutes instead of hours per day, and into days or weeks instead of months and years of training to achieve true healthy results is the flawed belief that stress is stress.
The excerpt from an article at Bicycling.ca sums it up perfectly: “you can get the same amount of training stress in 90mins as in 3hours”, implies that:
- stress is a uni-dimensional number: where any athlete or coach can simply quantify workouts based on its relative intensity, duration, & frequency (e.g. TrainingPeaks TSS score), hence the corollary is that…
- only stupid athletes/coaches train long and slow because why do that if short and hard (i.e. HiiT) gets results in half or a third of the time?
Indeed, amongst exercise physiologists, personal trainers, and coaches who lack any awareness that stress is multi-dimensional, to them stress is just a number on a spreadsheet that can be manipulated at will with no consequence.
To those who respect that the human being is not a Newtonian/mechanistic robot, instead is a multi-dimensional being with thoughts, feelings and emotions, and moreover, where no two humans are identical in anyway including how they individually perceive, interpret and respond to stress: stress cannot be dumbed-down to a number because stress to one person, is not the same stress to another person. Each of us perceive, thus respond to stress differently, even the exact same person will not perceive, interpret and respond to the exact same stress at different times of the day, or on different days.
Therefore, if one individual does not perceive, interpret and respond to stress identically, how can stress be a one-dimensional number or score? It cannot.
Plus, there are stressors and stresses for which we have no reliable or valid way to measure. Imagine the stress of sitting in your doctors office, waiting and waiting for the moment that the doctor calls you in to reveal the results from a latest round of testing which was performed to determine whether or not a tumour that was recently identified is malignant or benign, and if malignant… then waiting to also learn the stage of the cancer. Show me the TSS number for this stress. There is none! Yet this stress is as relevant to your health, to your well-being, and to your training as every other stress and stressor in your life… from finances, to career or business problems, to issues in relationships with family members, with friends, with coworkers… its all stress.
But here in lies the problem… exercise physiologists, trainers and coaches can only sell training and training plans in bulk if stress is sold as a mere quantitative variable that can be manipulated as easily as data in a spreadsheet file. Only if stress is dumbed-down to one single solitary number (no different than training plans being dumbed-down to one single solitary training variable) and only if you are reduced to a uni-dimensional being does this approach work. So why do they dumb-down training? To take advantage of the ignorance that arises from the division of labour (see factor #2) so that they can sell, sell, sell.
The outcome of this unipolar myopic thinking is exactly what you will find on sport specific websites: training plans for marathons, triathlons including iron-distance events as well as other endurance events promising that the finish line is available simply by training a few hours a week and for a total of only a few weeks. With minimal effort… ta-da… you are a marathoner, a triathlon or better still, an Ironman.
Training is this one-dimensional… if you are willing to be dumbed-down to a one-dimensional being.