Science and Pragmatism

Matt Perryman over at Myosynthesis has been running an incredibly interesting series (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV) that he completed this week. The series dwells on some of his views on skepticism, scientific thinking and reductionism in fitness circles. I felt like taking a stab at the topic myself.

Reliance on abstracts

The problem to me isn’t the fact that science is used as a tool, but rather the reverence for, and certainty given to, the findings of published research with no further context.

Matt Perryman

When I started getting into fitness and nutrition research, I found it very hard to digest abstracts as is. Yet they were, and still are, thrown around as a form of justification. I was lucky enough to stumble on Alan Aragon who took the time to dissect and digest some of the relevant literature and explain it simply. It eventually spawned AARR which I have subscribed to for a few years now.

Abstracts are meant as summaries only. You miss out on a lot of information if you consider them as is. You can miss fundamental issues with the research itself such poor methodology which can range from how you perform your tests to the population used (e.g. using athletes from research meant for the general population). Commonly, you can also run into conflict of interests especially in nutrition research where the supplement company are funding their own research.

Let us remember what science is about

I won’t say too much about this here as I’ve previously written about complexity, but it’s helpful to think of your body as more like the weather than a precision-engineered mechanical device.

Matt Perryman

The scientific method is meant to assess cause and effect in a controlled environment. While sports and nutrition research try with various degrees of success to do so, it is currently not an exact science at the same level physics or chemistry. That is why having context is critical because it is what allows you to judge the relevancy of the findings and ultimately their application.

A case for engineering

Engineering is the discipline, skill, and profession of acquiring and applying scientific, economic, social, and practical knowledge, in order to design and build structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes.


I am an engineer by trade and what made me passionate about it was that you are converting theoretical knowledge into something that can be applied in a very pragmatic way. While I wouldn’t say we need a “Fitness Engineering” discipline (We have biomedical after all). There is surprisingly little done to “translate” the increasing body of exercise, sports, nutrition and psychology research and applying them in a practical way. It also doesn’t seem to occur in people’s mind that this could (or maybe should) be done or this is possible.

It’s not impossible either. Arthur Jones was able to do it when he invented the modern exercise machine. However, there’s been little else since then and most of it has been gimmicks. One of the reasons I really liked the 4-hour body by Tim Ferris was that, regardless if you agreed with his conclusions or what he had done, it was the first real attempt I had seen to take nutrition and exercise research and develop it into a practical framework of use for everyone.

It is getting better

Regardless of these issues, there are more and more people who take an interest in all of this and that is good for us all. We need more people looking into the science and how to apply it.

That is how progress happens.

A Self-Motivation Primer

I have spent a lot of time over the last month studying exercise adherence research and other sports psychology topics. One of the more interesting topics I have come across has been self-motivation. Like a most of the core topics related to sports psychology, this one has implication in our daily lives beyond just sport and exercise. I plan on covering self-motivation in the context of exercise adherence in a future article.

Self-motivation is the ability to persevere without outside help.

Self-motivation is the ability to persevere without outside help and, what is really interesting, is that it is the only psychological construct I have found so far that is enduring and trait-like1. Other traits, such as personality type, introverted, extroverted and degrees of vigor, were evaluated in the context of exercise adherence, but only self-motivation was found to have a noticeable impact1,2. While a lot of this research was done around exercise, there seems to be link between self-motivation and other medical treatments3.

The other interesting element of self motivation is that you can easily evaluate1 how likely someone is to persevere in a new behavior or activity before they have even started it. For anyone that has to help others change their behavior (Counsellors, Dietitians, Trainers, etc.) this can be valuable in tailoring the amount of support and self-management assistance needed for their client in order for them to achieve the success they seek.

While the research I have read so far seems to point at the enduring nature of self-motivation1. Anecdotally, I seem to feel that self-motivation can evolve over time. This is because motivation is related to high self-efficacy4 according to social cognitive theory. While self-efficacy is generally evaluated on a per behavior basis (also known as task self-efficacy), an overall increase in self-efficacy in multiple behaviors could have a positive change on self-motivation. Due to lack of material on the subject, I can’t really expand on it further than that.

Regardless of this, the assessment of someones’ self-motivation should be an integral part of any behavioral intervention.

1 Dishman RK, Ickes W. 1981. Self-motivation and adherence to therapeutic exercise. J Behav Med 4:421-38. PubMed
2 Adherence to physical activity. Dishman, Rod K.; Buckworth, Janet Morgan, William P. (Ed), (1997). Physical activity and mental health.Series in health psychology and behavioral medicine., (pp. 63-80). Philadelphia, PA, US: Taylor & Francis, xv, 286 pp.
3 Baekeland, F., and Lundwall, L. (1975). Dropping out of treatment: A critical review. Psychol. Bull. 82: 738-783. PubMed
4 Bandura A. Self-efficacy: the exercise of control. New York: Freeman; 1997.