This study will ruin online workouts for you

Just a few short months ago coming up with a new excuse to skip the gym was a vital part of millions of peoples’ weekly routines. Oh, how the tables have turned. Predictably, now that gyms all over the country have been closed due to COVID-19, everyone is missing their local fitness center with a burning passion.

Consequently, pretty much everyone has had to do what they can fitness-wise at home. For those among us lucky enough to live in houses complete with stocked home gyms, the transition hasn’t been too bad. But, city dwellers residing in cramped apartments with zero equipment have had a much tougher time meeting their exercise needs. 

So, millions of people have placed their collective fitness faith in online workout guides, videos, and advice articles. While such resources are certainly better than nothing, a new study finds that the vast majority of these guides largely fall flat when it comes to meeting one’s fitness needs.

Researchers from Oregon State University have found that most online guides only focus on superficial exercises centered on the abs or glutes, promise unrealistic results, fall short of guidelines set out by national health organizations, and are only tailored towards people already in good physical shape. For people looking to re-enter the fitness world after years of inactivity, most online advice is going to lead to over-exertion, feelings of inadequacy, and even injuries or accidents in some cases.

“Online exercise advice is incomprehensible for many and incomplete for everybody,” says researcher Brad Cardinal, a kinesiology professor at OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, in a university release. “There wasn’t anything we came across that was a complete message, and for many people, they would be left out of it altogether.”

The study’s authors analyzed 72 different web articles on fitness from four types of organizations; commercial websites, government, voluntary health agencies, and professional associations. All of the information and advice on those platforms were cross-referenced against the national Physical Activity Guidelines as described by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

According to those federal guidelines, a healthy adult should ideally be partaking in 150 to 300 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. Similarly, 75 minutes of intense aerobic activity does the trick as well. Adults should also get in some strength training exercise that involves all muscle groups a couple of times per week. Importantly, all of that exercise should be spread out over various days each week, not squeezed into one session.

The researchers’ analysis showed that professional associations, such as health care providers or nationally accredited groups, were the best of the four studied online exercise advice sources. These platforms usually provide readers with important information like the total minutes they should spend exercising per day, the importance of spreading exercises out over a week, and the need to adjust exercise times depending on the intensity and personal fitness level.

Generally, it was noted that online exercise articles usually give better advice regarding aerobics in comparison to weight training; very few examined online sources had anything beneficial to provide regarding muscle-strengthening exercise.

“For people who are inactive, and even people whose jobs include active labor but are hoping to develop an exercise routine, the online information was generally unhelpful,” Cardinal explains. “The majority of articles focused on those who were already involved in an exercise program.” 

Cardinal had also been involved in earlier research that found online exercise guides and tutorials are typically flooded with “hidden advertising” for expensive workout gear, supplements, or other gimmicks.

It’s never been harder to get in a meaningful, complete workout thanks to COVID-19. If a specific routine or article you’ve found online is helping you through this pandemic, don’t let this study stop you. That being said, it’s also important to understand that most online exercise resources function best as supplementary material. 

“It’s good to reinforce the message for people who are active; it’s good to give them encouragement. But if someone is new to this or has been away from physical activity for a while, the materials aren’t really comprehensive for people,” Cardinal concludes. “They’re going to feel overwhelmed by them, and they’re going to get an incomplete and inaccurate picture of what to do, and they could end up doing things wrong and potentially getting themselves hurt. The online resources might be doing more harm than good.”

The full study can be found here, published in the Translational Journal of American College of Sports Medicine.

John Anderer is a frequent contributor to Ladders News.