By Alice Domar, PhD, for Sharecare
Recently at a women's wellness weekend I was listening to a well-known nutrition guru touting the health benefits of a daily glass or two of wine. And I was thinking to myself, when is he going to mention the risks of alcohol? Because, sure, wine is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, but also an increased risk of breast cancer. In the same way, sunlight is associated with increasing your levels of vitamin D, which can decrease your risks of all sorts of nasty diseases -- but as we all know, sun exposure can increase your risk of skin cancer too. And exercise can lead to all sorts of physical and mental health improvements, but too much can lead to injuries and possibly impaired fertility.
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The list goes on and on: For every study that comes out and promotes the benefits of something, a counter study says the exact opposite, or so it seems. What's a girl to do? How can you possibly sift through all the info, try to follow all the rules -- and still have a life? The first thing is to learn how to interpret clinical studies. Each time you read about a new study -- especially if it contradicts what you've already heard -- ask yourself these four questions:
- Was the study done on humans? I have deep respect for the creatures that are used in research. But just because a cockroach, mouse or pig responds to a test in a certain way does not necessarily mean the same for humans.
- How many participants were included? A study with hundreds or thousands of research volunteers is far more likely to apply to the rest of us than a study on only a dozen people.
- Was it a randomized study? In other words, did the researchers take a group of people, divide them in half, apply the experiment to one half and have the other half serve as controls? This is the gold standard of research; any other study design might show an association, but it can't show cause and effect.
- Who paid for it? Lots of studies have shown that if the sponsor of the study has a vested interest in the outcome, this not only can affect the results of the study, but also whether or not the study every gets submitted to be published.
Once you understand study basics, how do you apply their advice? Use common sense. What you do over the course of years and years will have far more of an impact on your long-term health than what you do for a day, a week or even a month. Skipping your workout tomorrow isn't going to harm you -- so go ahead and watch a movie or hang with your friends instead. Blowing your good eating habits at a wedding or on vacation won't hurt you, either. As long as you tend to exercise regularly and eat well over the long haul, these minor deviations are simply part of living a full, vibrant -- and healthy -- life.
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Alice Domar, PhD, is executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health and director of Mind/Body Services at Boston IVF.
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