Keeping on top of the research is really important for any Health or Fitness Professional. Our knowledge of the body is changing all the time and we have only just started exploring how exercise can help with our health. So, it is more important than ever that we try to keep abreast of all these changes. Many entry level courses don't cover how to read research and as a result you may be tempted to believe that everything you read is correct. Before you go rushing off to try the new technique on your clients, just pause for a moment and ask a few questions. 🤔
Research comes in many different forms and it can get quite complicated to break it all down and understand it all. After all, that is what a Masters Degree is for, so what if you don't have one of these. Don't despair, we will be going through the absolute basics here so you can read research with a more critical eye.
The first thing you see when you read a piece of research is the Abstract. This is literally a summary of the study. Great if you are in a hurry, but don't take this at face value. If you are trying to get a quick overview of the research in an area, reading this is a good start, but only if you read lots of other abstracts as well so you start to get a feel for the area and what the research is saying. Never read an abstract and assume the findings are correct or suitable for you.... Why? Well, there are many great studies out there but also plenty of poor ones with flaws that render it fairly useless. You won't know whether the paper you are reading is good or bad from just reading the abstract.
Next you will get the Introduction. This is great to read as it tells you a lot about the subject area and what other papers have found from their research, but it also tells you what they are trying to test and why they are testing it. This is important to know as you can then check they have actually tested what they set out to when you read on.
Next comes the Method. This is where the authors talk through exactly what they did and this is really important. They will describe their participants, now many there were and what their demographic is. Take a look at this and see whether their participants fit what they are trying to test. For example, if I wanted to test how long it took for the chicken to cross the road, but couldn’t find enough chickens so used rabbits instead! It would still be an interesting study but it wouldn’t answer the question they set out to answer, so would render the paper invalid.
Next how many did they use? This is important, if you don't use enough participants you won't be able to assume these findings will work the same way on a wider population. This became apparent when they initially developed the polio vaccination. They had tested it on a reasonable number of people and concluded it worked, but when they rolled it out across the whole population, they found it didn't work in most and actually caused polio. 😲 This highlighted how important it was to test enough people to ensure you can assume the rest of the population will react in the same way. Nowadays complicated mathematical equations work out how many people are needed to get a valid result, but for now use your common sense when reading a paper. If we were testing chickens and only tested 30 of them, it probably isn't going to be very indicative of the chicken population. If we tested a million, it probably would be.
Next take a look at the test they used, it is valid? Simply put, does it test what it should. In the introduction they stated what they wanted to test, so check that the test they have done will actually test this. So back to the chicken analogy. They wanted to test how long it would take for the chicken to cross the road. So what size road are they using, how wide is it? Is it a motorway, or a country lane? Did they use a road at all or did they put the chickens in a field and see how long it took them to move the distance representative of an average road width? This is important, as if the environment is different, the chickens may behave differently. If they used a field, they might run off into the bush to forage for food and therefore take longer than they would on an actual road. Is there traffic on this road and therefore how long did it take in different traffic conditions? You get the idea. 😀 So check out the test, be critical, don't worry authors won't mind. The whole point of publishing research is for others to take a look at it with a critical eye.
Finally we look at the results. Now you do need a bit of specialist knowledge here as we need to check that the statistical test they used is correct for what they are trying to test. I won't go into this here... we would be here forever... but look up the different statistical tests and see what they do. There are some great books on the subject such as Andy Field's book "Discovering Statistics" that go through it simply.
Then you can read the discussion and see what the researchers concluded, do you agree with them?
So to recap.... ask yourself the following questions while you read a piece of research.
1. What are the authors tying to test in this paper? 2. Why do they think this question needs answering? 3. How are they planning to test their question? 4. Is this test valid – so does it test what they it want to? 5. What type of participants have they chosen and why? 6. Are their participants valid?
7. What statistical test did they use and was it the correct one?
8. What were their findings and do you agree with them.
Then take this information and go and read every paper you can find on the subject. You are looking to find consensus, so lots of papers that test similar things and come up with similar results. Then you can be fairly sure their findings are correct and use them on your clients.
Or of course you can just read the review papers on the area, where others have done this for you, 😉 but still keep a critical eye out and go back to the original research if you are not sure.
So if you are using this for CPD, grab a paper and have a go at answering the questions above, then write it all down in your CPD log....
Remember you can get your FREE Reinge Education CPD logbook here by subscribing to our website.