From Jenn

Why Don’t We Study Healthy People More?

Let's look at the cells of more healthy people to focus on what's going right---not always just wrong! Credit: V&A Steamworks

Let’s look at the cells of more healthy people to focus on what’s going right—not always just wrong! Credit: V&A Steamworks

Here’s a little something I’ve been kicking around in my brain lately: Why don’t we study healthy people more? And by “we,” I mean researchers and the medical community.

While I keep up on fitness trends and major studies, I do not claim to know every single research study out there, but it seems to me like everything I read is about studying the polarized ends of the spectrum. When it comes to weight-loss, we study the overweight and obese. When it comes to sports performance, we study the elite or professional athletes. But what about the everyday healthy people? Where is the research on them?

This question really formed in my head after watching the HBO documentary Weight of the Nation, which was awesome. It brought so many issues to light in regards to the obesity epidemic, and it did touch on some of the studies that have been done on people who have been successful at losing weight (namely, The National Weight Control Registry, which is pretty darn amazing). It focused on both the problems and the answers. And, I guess as I think about what we should be studying, I’d like to see a better understanding of the answers—and not just the problems.

I may be way too Pollyanna in my thinking and, gosh knows I’m a huge proponent of preventive medicine (another reason why working out and eating right is so darn awesome!), but what if we took healthy everyday people and studied more closely how they act, what their bodies do, what they eat, and how they move? What if we studied the norm? Focused on the good and how to encourage that instead of just fixing the bad? What if the secrets to health have already been figured out, and we just need someone to show us the way?

Obviously, I’m not trying to oversimplify the issue—there are serious medical conditions that need cures and treatments. But when it comes to weight-loss and fitness and nutrition, why not look to those who seem to have it figured out?

Know of any good studies on healthy people? Agree? Think what I’m saying is total bunk? Let’s discuss in the comments! —Jenn

Comments

  1. Jennifer says

    I think many scientists would love to study healthy people more, but doing research requires money. And in order to get money in current times, you have to direct your science towards cures, health issues, etc. Scientists also have to publish articles to get research money, and unfortunately few journals will happily accept articles showing what is going on in normal people. This isn’t always the case, but it’s becoming much more of the norm in my opinion. Basic science and results just exploring what’s going on normally aren’t what gets people research money and publications.

    If you read research articles about non-healthy people, you might be able to find some results out from healthy people. In many studies, they will try to include control subjects of some sort, and in some cases this may mean healthy people (not always, of course). If there is a particular topic you are interested in, you could try contacting authors of research papers- maybe they included healthy subjects at some point but didn’t include them in the final publication.

  2. Cindy says

    Hi Jenn, I think your so right. While doing research for one of my reviews I was alarmed to learn the level of obesity in many countries around the world. Worse still the research sources I found all suggested that the level of overweight or obese people will continue to grow in the coming years. Soooo alarming. I think your so right in saying we need to educate and change peoples mindset about diet, exercise and living healthy. Your right in saying lets focus on what works not on the problem. In Australia we have an old saying “accentuate the positive.”
    Perhaps people find it easier to talk about the bad because if you talk about the good you might be compelled to do something about it.

  3. DeeDee says

    This is such and interesting topic. I think maybe the studies go towards obese because that end of the spectrum is where all the health concerns are. But you make a great point, let’s find out what the average Jane or Joe is doing that keeps them from getting over weight and unhealthy.

  4. Kathy says

    Hi Jennifer,
    I couldn’t agree with you more! We are a society that focuses on the bad and what was done to get there or we go in the complete opposite and look at the elite’s elite and what they do to keep the lifestyle they have. There are so many men and women who are a wonderful example of healthy living. I’m sure there are studies done on this particular segment of people. I don’t think it sells copies though. What looks more compelling? A woman who lost 100 pounds through a healthy balanced diet and exercise or the woman who lost 20 pounds of fat and gained 10 pounds of muscle with a healthy balanced diet and exercise? The second doesn’t sound as spectacular, even though it’s more common place.

  5. Rachele says

    Hi Jenn! I am a scientist that does research on how exercise and nutrition affect the body. While Jennifer (above) is right that much of our funding comes from looking at disease states, their causes, and how to cure them, there is a TON of research on normal healthy adults. Unfortunately, it rarely gets published in the popular media because it’s just not sexy enough for a headline. Here are a few examples from our lab. This one looks at how metabolic biomarkers in normal healthy adults could be used to determine aerobic capacity http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23184236. This second one uses a healthy younger population as a baseline, and then compares their power output to that of older healthy people, and older mobility limited people: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22626972. So, you can see that “normal healthy” people are often used as a comparison for the diseased states. Emerging technologies or biomarkers are often looked at first in “normal” people alone (as in the first paper above) so that we can later see what’s going wrong with the unhealthy people. A last comment that I would make is that when you do “intervention” kind of trial (i.e. vitamin supplementation, exercise regimes, etc), you have to do them on an extreme population so that you can see a change. If you give a healthy person vitamins…they’re just going to be healthy at the end of the study. While they may have benefited somewhat from the intervention, it’s usually such a small change that it’s almost impossible to measure (which is why we use them as a comparison to the diseased states, who will most likely show a marked change). So, as you can see, the data is certainly out there for healthy people, you just have to know where to look! Best, Rachele (www.strong-process.com)

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