Reviewing health and fitness news on the internet can produce a minefield of misinformation. Anybody can open a social media account, build a polished website with DIY templates and set up shop as a self-appointed health and fitness expert. And people who do this can lend their work an air of authority by mimicking the design and presentation of authoritative health-news sources.
These so-called experts can publish anything they want—and they do. They're not bound by a journalist's professional standards—checking facts, using reliable evidence, providing balanced coverage—much less the demands of peer-reviewed research.
Even those who mean well can go astray online. Professional journalists, longtime bloggers and social media stars can bow to the pressure to publish quickly and consistently, leading to sloppy misinterpretations of the facts or irresponsible misinformation derived from little more than anecdote or opinion.
All this yields a flood of faulty health information online that has surged in the past few years, experts say. Fitness pros are hardly immune. Did you see that clickbait headline suggesting that eating ice cream for breakfast makes you smarter? The story went viral despite its dubious claim and lack of adequate citations pointing back to the research (Letzter 2016). While skeptics may dismiss such a story as unlikely (ice cream? I wish!), others may take it at face value (pass the Häagen-Dazs, please).
Our clients, friends and families expect us to be experts who know how to separate the factual health information from the false. How do you live up to those expectations? For starters, arm yourself with skills and strategies for confronting the fire hose of health and fitness content online. We can't stop the spread of faulty health information all on our own, but we can teach ourselves to get better at spotting it and correcting it whenever possible.
Embrace Critical Thinking
Where to begin?
Step 1: Exercise critical thinking. Ask questions and objectively analyze what you're seeing, whether it's a headline, video, news report, photo or Facebook rant. "The initial move of just asking the question 'Do I trust this?' is a really good first step," says Joel Breakstone, PhD, director at the Stanford History Education Group.
Step 2: Question the source of the information. Asking basic questions is a powerful shift away from what people are often doing now, which is simply accepting information at face value," says Breakstone. Thinking critically does not require an hourlong research project. Do a quick Google search, and surf around the website in question to get a sense of who's behind it. Breakstone recommends looking beyond the website's "About" page, though. "There are lots of sites that are seeking to obscure their identity," he says, "so leave the site you are on, and quickly do a separate Google search to see what other people say about that website or that individual."
On Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, look for a blue verified badge (which looks like a checkmark), confirming that an account—belonging to a media outlet, popular brand or public figure—has been deemed authentic by the social media channel itself. The badge doesn't mean everything posted from that account is true or fact checked, but it does verify that the individuals/associations are who they say they are.
Step 3: Dig deeper. Double-check when articles and studies were first published. People sometimes post what they think is breaking news on social media when in fact the item is many months or years old.
After all that, be ready to investigate further. Yoni Freedhoff, MD, assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa and medical director at the Bariatric Institute, suggests asking these questions to uncover who is promoting the information and why: "Do they have a vested interest, especially if monetary, in a particular outcome or message? Do they have the appropriate background to have evaluated the claims they're making—meaning, is there confidence they've actually read and understood the claim's source?"
Evaluate Credibility Online
Once you understand the information's source, it's time to figure out what the news is trying to convey (and why). Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA, IDEA author, former faculty member at University of California, Santa Barbara, and co-owner of a blog for baby boomers called funandfit.org, reminds us to consider whether new information validates or refutes our knowledge base.
"If it goes against accepted practice or seems too good to be true, or if I simply want the info to be right [because] I agree with it, then I need to trace the links to the primary or original source," she says.
For further help with evaluating online information, including 10 review criteria used by experts, please see “Health News: Fact or Fiction?” in the online IDEA Library or in the July–August 2017 print edition of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at 800-999-4332, ext. 7.