Cal Poly Study Finds Online Exercise Information Often Inaccurate

Much of the free advice online doesn’t follow national guidelines

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — The shelter-at-home order has turned many fitness-minded people into their own personal trainers, scouring the internet for the best information on how to stay physically fit. However, a new Cal Poly study finds that much of the online advice could be more helpful if it adhered more closely to national physical activity guidelines.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, nearly three out of every four U.S. adults searched online for advice about physical activity. The numbers may be even greater now. Unfortunately, many online resources are hard to read and understand and often offer incorrect information.

“Advice that does not match national guidelines is common, no matter which group is presenting it,” said Jafrā D. Thomas, a professor in the Kinesiology and Public Health Department at Cal Poly and one of the lead authors of the study.

In a paper published in the Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, Thomas and co-author Bradley J. Cardinal of Oregon State University’s Kinesiology Program found that those with the greatest need may be more likely to locate bad advice. National guidelines differ for those who are already exercising and those who are trying to change from a sedentary lifestyle to a more active one. Online resources often don’t reflect these differences. A sedentary lifestyle is when physical activity has not been part of a person’s leisure activity over the past two weeks.

“Presenting information that is suitable to different groups is the responsibility of the folks creating or selecting resources to share with the public,” Thomas said. “It’s too much for individuals to keep track of every time they look for advice.”

Thomas and Cardinal recommend that people or groups creating fitness resources keep them simple and free of jargon. They recommend the use of checklists in order to help ensure the resources are easy to read and understand and that the advice is in line with national guidelines. 

For those who want to double check the exercise resources they find online, Thomas offers this advice: “Be aware of the general guidelines for health and fitness. There are general guidelines for heart health and muscular health. This will help you determine if the resource meets the basic need of supporting health.”

Thomas and Cardinal include a checklist in their study that can be used to check the accuracy of information against the latest national physical activity guidelines, published in 2018. They also advise checking the 2018 guidelines directly as minor updates have been made since publication.

Links:
Original journal article, How Credible Is Online Physical Activity Advice? The Accuracy of Free Adult Educational Materials: https://journals.lww.com/acsm-tj/Fulltext/2020/05010/How_Credible_Is_Online_Physical_Activity_Advice_.1.aspx

Department of Health and Human Services Guidelines: https://health.gov/our-work/physical-activity/current-guidelines

Contact: Jafrā Thomas
805-756-5636; jthoma84@calpoly.edu

May 14, 2020

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