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[Why survivorship bias is the fitness industry’s dirty little secret.]

Humans are smart. Our intelligence and problem-solving skills have gotten us to where we are, sitting in our ezy chairs at the top of the food chain.

But that doesn’t make us infallible. In fact, because we are so smart and adept at finding shortcuts, we’re also susceptible to errors in thinking. Sometimes we see something one way, when really it’s another. Sometimes, we’re convinced two things are connected, when really it’s random chance. What you’ve seen, heard or experienced has created a personal ‘bias’ - a skewed way of seeing the world - that feels rational and objective, but could be entirely wrong.

For example, some people say ‘My uncle smoked a pack-a-day for fifty years and lived till he was 100!’ to justify their habit.

Or, if you once watched a compelling documentary about vegetarianism and decided to stop eating animals, it’ll be harder to think objectively about that choice - even if you’re given updated or alternative information.

There are so many biases alive in our brains that it would be impossible to identify them all.

Each of us has them, and they aren’t all bad. In fact, these subtle scripts or judgements can be useful, allowing us to make quick decisions with limited information. They help us ‘find our tribe’ and scan for similarities, or avoid threatening situations by recognising danger from the smallest of signals.

But in the world of fitness and health, biases can be especially problematic - one in particular.

It’s called survivorship bias, the name given to our human tendency to focus on the success stories over the failures.

Here’s how it shows up: one person gets great results with a program, and pretty soon everyone wants to do that program. In reality, the successful person may have just gotten lucky, have a particular genetic tendency, be doing something else not disclosed, or any number of advantages or personal quirks that set him or her up to succeed. (Sometimes, they may have gotten results despite the program, which is rarely discussed.)

Hundreds of people may have participated, with only a few achieving great (and marketable) results. Comparing ourselves to that small percentage while neglecting the less-than-successful majority, gives us both a false sense of security and unrealistic expectations.

So, we get inspired to start said program based on the promise of dramatic results… only to ‘fail’ yet again, gain rebound weight, lose motivation and never learn what our bodies need on an individual level. This represents a waste of time, money, and a very real risk of hurting our health in the long run, all thanks to some shiny success stories.

Survivorship bias (fuelled by those shiny success stories) is rife in fitness and health advertising, and you might recognise it in these common scenarios:

A magazine cover highlighting a ‘miraculous new workout routine’ that got Kim Kardashian her bangin’ pre-baby body back - that you can do too!

A before and after photo contrasting a frumpy-looking man with his new and svelte self - after just three months of [insert name of expensive program here].

A post in your newsfeed that shares the #1 secret for 6-pack abs, with a ripped chick doing one-handed pull-ups while sipping kombucha.

We put these successful individuals on a pedestal and see their actions as a template. We believe that their results can be ours too, if we just copy exactly what they did. But the truth is, behind every success story are leagues of people who: 

Gave up in the first week.

Got sick.

Got injured.

Couldn’t sustain the lifestyle because it was fundamentally at odds with their family, work and hobbies.

Failed to get help when they needed it.

Completed the program but saw no results.

Gained rebound weight.

And so on.

They’re the real story; proof that there never has been and never will be one recommendation to suit everybody.

So, what does this have to do with your fitness and health? Everything.

Understanding your own psychology and challenging inbuilt biases and beliefs is liberating, helping you avoid marketing deception.

Acknowledging the role of survivorship bias means you can stop comparing yourself to others, and start working with your own unique body, lifestyle and priorities.

By seeing fitness and health fads for what they are, you’ll avoid spending time and money on programs that aren’t designed for you and seek out sustainable, personalised alternatives.

And by letting go of the search for a secret method, diet or hack to make you ‘hot and happy’, you might just start enjoying yourself right now.

 


 

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To your health,

Michael Wilson

Director

Senior Exercise Practitioner

Holistic Health & Nutritional Coach

Manual Therapist

Functional Movement Specialist

Rehab Trainer

Posture Trainer

Personal Trainer

 



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