Friday, May 20, 2016

What's Wrong with this New York Times Headline?

I recently came across this headline from an article published in the health section of the New York Times a few months ago: Which Type of Exercise Is Best for the Brain? My interest was piqued. Below the headline there were pictures of people lifting weights and sprinting. "Oh goody! I'm going to find out where I should be focusing my workouts so I will maintain my brain power" I thought. But the first sentence dashed my hopes into a million little neurons:  "Some forms of exercise may be much more effective than others at bulking up the brain, according to a remarkable new study in rats."  In rats belonged in the headline, although, at least it was in the first sentence. Many journalists don't reveal that the study they're dazzling their readers with was with animals until several paragraphs in. This article belonged in the science section, not the health section.

So, let's review why animal studies often don't translate to humans: Humans aren't giant rodents! The journalist did describe, in excellent detail, how the researchers attempted to mimic human activity in the study: little rodents climbed walls with teeny tiny weights attached to their tails or trotted on miniature treadmills. So maybe the next time I go to the gym, I should attempt the climbing wall that terrifies me with a weight attached to my yoga pants? Luckily for me, the moderate running on the treadmill turned out to be best for increasing the number of brain cells (in rats). But did the rats remember where they put their car keys?

The journalist does clearly point all of this out towards the end of the article but by that time you're ready to give up your weight training to run like a rat on the treadmill.

Could this study eventually be confirmed in humans? Sure. And I hope it is. But for now, I'm not giving up my weight training or my running - but I am staying away from the climbing wall. 

Beth Kitchin, PhD, RDN
Assistant Professor of Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham