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Battling Big Media

If you’ve worked in the fitness industry for any length of time, you’ve probably been caught off-guard once or twice by client questions regarding mainstream media articles on the latest health and fitness findings. It first happened to me late last summer when a client asked, “Did you see that article in the Times about how exercise doesn’t really help you lose weight?”

After a moment of mild panic that I hoped wasn’t evident, I asked for more details. It turned out she was referring to a “Well” blog post titled “Dieting
vs. Exercise for Weight Loss” by New York Times blogger Gretchen Reynolds (Reynolds 2012). It also turned out that the data Reynolds was reviewing didn’t actually say exercise doesn’t help people lose weight. Rather, it suggested that diet had been shown to be more effective than exercise, owing primarily to our default exercise and eating habits. It then went on to say that exercise is very important for other reasons, but what my client had taken away from the article was something closer to “Exercise is a waste of time.” Since I hadn’t read the article, I wasn’t prepared to discuss it with her there and then. I had missed the opportunity to make a meaningful impact.

In my postsession notes that day, I jotted down her questions and set myself a reminder to contact her after I’d read the article. I also promised myself that I would be better prepared the next time a client sprung such a question on me. Over the months that followed, I noticed a number of even more shocking headlines, from a New York Times article proclaiming, “No Benefit Seen in Sharp Limits on Salt in Diet” (Kolata 2013), to a headline in the U.K. online daily The Independent that blared, “Recipe for a Long Life: Overweight People Have LOWER Death Risk” (Laurance 2013).”

The frustrating thing about these headlines is that, to the letter, they are not untrue. To date, there have not been any large, randomized studies that have shown that reducing sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams per day (as is advised for certain special populations) has a positive outcome. But it is clear that the majority of Americans are getting far more than the 2,300 mg per day that has been found to correspond with certain disease risk factors. Will people read the whole article to find out that, yes, they are still getting much more sodium than is good for them, and that this study applied to only a very small percentage of people who were trying to cut their sodium intake to extremely low levels? Probably not.

The same was true of the article on overweight and longevity; in a few credible studies, a slight decline in all-cause mortality was noted for individuals with a body mass index in the 25–30 range, compared with those of normal weight. But the headline did not emphatically declare that individuals who are obese have much higher mortality rates than normal-weight or simply overweight individuals. So which message is the obese one-third of the population going to take away from a headline like this?

The heart of the problem is that newspaper companies want to sell newspapers—and people want to hear what they want to hear. An attention-grabbing headline that tells someone who is laboring to lose weight that she might as well not bother may be all it takes to get her to throw in the towel, giving up healthy habits that are likely conferring a number of other positive benefits.

Realizing I was up against a force much larger than myself, I put together a Media Awareness Plan. You can use these same steps, not only to prepare for questions your clients are likely to ask, but also to use those questions as a chance to educate clients and provide top-notch service.

Creating a Media Awareness Plan

Follow these steps to become media savvy:

  1. Be well-read and well-informed. Your
    clients are likely to get their information from a handful of popular print and online publications. Know what those sources are, and scan their health or wellness sections at least weekly.
  2. Be an active listener. Use good communication techniques to probe your clients for more detail without putting them on the defensive. Get their take on what they read, and ask how they feel the information applies to them. Use the opportunity to learn more about a client’s level of knowledge and where his or her line of thinking is on the subject at hand.
  3. Practice your response. Have a short, rehearsed script you can use with clients to discuss the widely varying quality and trustworthiness of media sources. Use the guidelines in the sidebar “Evaluating Research” to vet articles, and pass these criteria on to clients, so they can more closely scrutinize the reports they read.
  4. Be proactive. Stay in regular contact with clients through a variety of sources (Facebook/Twitter posts; blogs; email newsletters; in person) and preemptively address controversial topics when they first hit the presses, rather than waiting for clients to ask.
  5. Follow up. If you do get caught off-guard, do your research, get up to speed and, most importantly, follow up! Send your client an email, or call and answer his or her questions. It lets the client know you care, and it leaves one more person better educated.
  6. Be objective. Finally, be willing to agree with the research when it is sound—even if it doesn’t mesh with your personal philosophy. For example, I adhere to a vegan diet for ethical reasons, but it would be irresponsible of me to downplay or put a negative spin on new research that found health benefits from consuming animal products if those benefits were pertinent to my clients’ goals. Similarly, we all know by now that diet is, in fact, a more important component of weight loss than exercise. It does no one any good to gloss over this fact with clients. Our duty is to our clients—first, last and always.

Required Reading

To be able to address what your clients are reading, keep up with the publications they read. How do you do this?

Know your clients. Different clients have different goals and are therefore likely to tune their antennae to different media sources. Women wanting to lose weight or tone up are probably reading magazines like Shape, Self and Oxygen, while men who want to get ripped are likely to be reading Men’s Health or Muscle & Fitness. The best way to take the guesswork out of it is simply to ask your clients!

Know your media sources. Magazines that cater to the fitness crowd are much less likely to write headlines proclaiming
that exercise or healthy eating is a waste of time—doing so hurts their bottom line. But traditional news publications are looking for attention-grabbing headlines that will play to the widest audience possible. So it’s important for you to keep abreast of what those newspapers and magazines are printing, too. Time Magazine, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are some of the most widely read publications in the nation, and they all regularly publish articles or blogs related to health, fitness and wellness.

Go local. Don’t ignore your local media sources! Even if you live in a smaller city, chances are the paper prints at least a biweekly column on health-related topics. Also look for local lifestyle magazines with wide readership in your area. And don’t worry about having to subscribe to a host of different publications; almost all of them have an online version that is free.

Know where to turn for backup. Use available resources to help you craft your responses to clients about potentially damaging articles. The ACE and IDEA websites often publish statements on big-news stories that don’t tell the whole story.

Remember that you’re in a position to help your clients sift through the true meaning of the research out there. Keep yourself in the know and you won’t be caught off-guard when a client mentions a specific study.

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