March 31, 2014

Online Health Research Tips

The Good Ol' Days.

Doing health research online is crazy-making enough, even when you manage to find reliable and credible sources. There are so many bickering experts and contradictory findings to sort out!

But most people don't even manage to GET to the reputable sources in the first place. Typing in a random google query can quickly lead to quacks and crackpots, sponsored ads, and forums full of blathering no-nothings repeating something they read "somewhere."

So this next guest post by Dr. Tiffany Reiss, an actual professor with a background in exercise physiology, offers some tips for navigating the interwebs when you have a question about health and fitness.

Say hi to Tiffany!

Dr. Tiffany Reiss serves as an adjunct faculty member for Seattle University, Lake Washington Institute of Technology, American Public University and Walden University. She received her PhD from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in Health Promotion at Virginia Tech and holds a MS degree in Exercise Physiology from Appalachian State University. She is a contributor for the Sports and Fitness Network and is the co-founder of TheHubEdu: A Learning Library. (More about that later; it's pretty cool and right now it's FREE!)

As for Crabby, she's still off on her South African Adventure and hopes to pop in at some point when there's internet. In the meantime, please welcome Tiffany Reiss .--Crabby

If It Sounds Too Good To Be True....

We live in the information age.  We have more information available to us at our fingertips than any individual can manage to keep up with on a daily basis.  We think because we have access to all of this information, we are better informed.  The problem is, we aren't.

Yes, we have access to quick sources of information; the problem is vetting all the resources of information readily available to us.  How do we know which sources of information are valid and which ones are not?

As a college professor teaching health and fitness concepts, I deal with this with my students as well. I knew my role was changing when about 6 years ago I had just finished "professing" a concept in class when a student with a laptop in the back of room raised their hand and said "but I Googled it and this website says just the opposite"!  My students are still learning and often lack context which makes being able to filter the information a much needed skill.  I talk to them about the importance of this because when they graduate, they are the professionals society will look to in order to get the correct information.  Being able to critically evaluate information is vital these days because the internet, for all of the great information available, is also loaded with inaccurate information that sounds legitimate and unfortunately the health and fitness industry is one of the most difficult to filter because we want so badly for some of it to be true.

Here are some thoughts on better filtering all of the health and fitness information out there:

1) If it sounds too good to be true, it is!  No question.  There are no magic pills, diets, exercise routines or devices that are the panacea for all of our health and fitness issues. Yet we spend billions on these products annually.

2) Don't just believe one resource of information on anything, engage in due diligence. We tend to have what is commonly referred to as confirmation bias.  Meaning, when something validates our current belief sets, we embrace that information without doing our due diligence. When something calls to question our belief sets, we tend to dismiss it, also without doing any due diligence. The internet can be a great resource, but it still requires some digging to get to some sense of what is legitimate and what isn't.

3) Everything is relative.  Are eggs good or bad?  It depends on the context.  Watching fat or cholesterol intake, probably not the best choice.  Need a high quality protein, excellent choice.  What about Omega 3 Fish Oil supplements?  Careful here, there is a lot of information it can have many positive health benefits, but there is also some more recent information that large doses are potentially dangerous. Just look at these 3 sources:

Good or bad?  Depends.  A couple of quick points here.  We haven't been studying fish oils for that long so really the jury is still out on the overall benefits and risks. There is also a big difference in taking supplements and getting the source from natural food sources and be careful of the supplements, these are not regulated by the FDA.

So where to turn for the reliable health information on the internet?

Any site with a .gov, .edu or .org or popular sites such as: WebMD, NYTimes and of course, Cranky Fitness.  These sites are often non-profit and aren't trying to sell you something in the process, just provide the most up to date consensus on the information.  If you are seeking more thorough research on a topic, using sites such as:

1)    Google Scholar

2)    PLOS One

3)    PubMed

4)    Science Daily

5)    Local Public Library or University/College Library: some of it is digital and some of it might be free.

What about paid sites?  Some health research sources that require a subscription for unlimited access still have free content available on a more limited or temporary basis. Look for free trials if you can find them if you're trying to avoid subscription costs.

Now the question is, what do you do with all of these great resources and how do you keep them organized?  If you are looking for a tool that can help  you might want to check out TheHubEdu as an organizational tool.

I co-founded this site as a place for lifelong learners to go who want to organize and keep up with all of these great (and often contradictory) pieces of information. I have actually built my own library of vetted resources pertinent to my classes and my own learning interests and share this with students and peers.  This is also a space to dialogue around these topics to further our understanding.  A social learning network, and believe me, there is a lot to share and discuss!

Do you guys do much roaming around the web in search of answers to health or fitness questions?


  1. Yes, i do look at the web -- and then i do more research, and i ask my dad, the doctor, for his opinion (he's retired but still reads the journals and keeps up, he's an inspiration as a lifelong learner). Of course, i run it by my own doc as well.

    Another thing i keep in mind, as well as the "if it sounds to good to be true, it is" axiom, is that just as not everyone benefits from the same medicine (the drug that works for a husband's blood pressure might not work for his wife, or his brother), not everyone gets the same benefits from the same supplements. After asking your doc, try it. If it works for you, great! If not, try something else.

  2. This is so topical for me. This morning I was chatting with a group of university professors at my gym and we discussed what was the best procedure when an instructor or other professor supplies information in your area of expertise and the information is incorrect. From there we discussed inaccuracies and the presentation of opinion as fact on Wikipedia.
    I find the area of health particularly frustrating when I am trying to research.

  3. Ah, you've pushed one of my buttons. We should actually start teaching critical thinking in elementary schools and make it a required course component in almost every high school course. English--how does the writer's background affect what he or she is saying? How can you analyze the arguments. Sciences--understand the scientific method, valid experiments, etc.. Math--Has to include statistics, including probability theory. Social sciences--how to understand communications and persuasion methods, how to learn from history. Okay, rant over.

    When you do a Google search, you can actually require that the search return only results from certain domains. For example

    "fish oil"

    pulls up only articles from college/university sites. I really like that when I want to see a range of vetted information. Technically it adds a bias towards United States sites, but in virtually every case, that won't affect the validity of what you're looking for.

    I'd add the Mayo Clinic as another reliable site to search for health info.

  4. Death Ride GrandmaApril 3, 2014 at 4:17 PM

    Hi Tiffany! Thanks for the article. I only wish people would listen to you more consistently. I have a history (I am one of the few lucky ones - my history is over 15 years long & uneventful since the original surgery) of brain cancer, and you can imagine what sorts of scary ideas show up on the various forums I have participated in. People just want so badly to believe there is an answer, they will go along with extreme diets, massive doses of supplements of all sorts, off-label prescriptions - almost anything that will allow them to believe there is hope.

    How I wish there was a way to help people see how to sped that money and energy on things that would truly improve the quality of their lives! How I wish our government would take back the authority to regulate supplements!

    This is such an important message. I will do my best to pass it along.

  5. Anyone want to buy the hundreds of dollars of books I have on my shelves? Always tempted by the next latest greatest answer to the weight battle and always it comes back to common sense. WHY do we resist common sense????

  6. Honestly, I don't think common sense sells very well! The "truth" is not very marketable!

  7. Interesting - a website for all my bookmarks!!!

    AnnF is right on the mark - critical thinking, even plain old thinking, has gone by the wayside and needs to be resurrected in our schools. I'm a very math-oriented person and it drives me crazy how innumerate we've become.

    Hopefully, we can overcome some of the misinformation as peer-reviewed research becomes more accessible (meaning "free'") to folks. I also think crowdsourcing will be useful too - but could be a can of worms as well.

  8. [applause from the former librarian]

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

    1. Another round of applause from a current librarian!
      I would also like to point out that a lot of public libraries offer online research resources for free. Anybody who is my age or older can remember having to go to the library, wade thru tons of Indexes and then wade thru shelves and shelves of journals and magazines - you can still do that but these are a great alternative. Please please please check your local library or visit your library's webpage to see how you can access them from anywhere - home, office, and/or your smart phone.
      Remember this: “If television's a babysitter, the Internet is a drunk librarian who won't shut up.”


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