Mythbusters: Breaking down health myths

We're willing to bet you've fallen victim to one of these fallacies
March 20, 2018

Human nature is to generalize and assume results, like, “if I try a fad diet and it works, then it must work for my buddy.” In psychology, these generalizations are called heuristics and act as a mental shortcut.

Sometimes a heuristic can be beneficial, but other times they can lead to false assumptions. For example, if you are looking to try the above-mentioned fad diet, you may think of your friend(s) on Facebook who tried the diet and had promising results. This heuristic makes you think that good results are more common than they are.

Unfortunately, these mental shortcuts can lead to myths, and these myths can lead you to faulty assumptions about your health. An expert from the Texas A&M College of Medicine talks about a few popular misconceptions to which you may have fallen victim.

Vitamin C prevents colds  

We’ve all heard of this one: Vitamin C supplements can help you prevent a cold. However, based on the current research, this is not necessarily true—and that’s one tough pill to swallow.

“There have been multiple studies that found that regular ingestion of Vitamin C doesn’t reduce the incidence, or chance of getting of a cold,” said Mark Faries, PhD, adjunct assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.

The only groups that it can potentially reduce the risk of getting a cold were those under short-term high physical stress—such as marathon runners, military or devoted athletes—because the amount of strain they put on their bodies can affect their immune system

“However, Vitamin C (≥ 0.2 g/day) has been shown to help some reduce the duration of a cold.”

In the end, Faries recommended against depending on Vitamin C supplements to keep a cold away.

“A healthy diet will do more than a Vitamin C supplement, so keep eating your fruits and veggies,” Faries said. “Food functions as a symphony more than a single instrument. Focus on a better overall diet. If you do get a cold, a Vitamin C can possibly help reduce the duration, but it’s a supplement, not a substitute.” 

Jet dryers are more hygienic than paper towels

How about this one: Jet dryers are more hygienic than paper towels. When was the last time you’ve used a restroom that didn’t offer paper towels to dry your hands? If that grocery store, restaurant or movie theater had a jet dryer to warm your hands (before you wiped them on your jeans), you probably just experienced a bacterial nightmare.

“In short, jet dryers spread bacteria around an entire bathroom,” Faries said. “Studies show as much as ten feet in all directions.”

Not only is the dryer spreading bacteria, but the filters could also collect bacteria, and the hot air can go through the contaminated filter and spread onto your hands and across the bathroom.

“If you have the option, dry your hands with a paper towel,” Faries said. “You want your hands dry, because bacteria thrive in the wet environment. So, don’t leave your hands damp.”

In the end, hand dryers are neither faster nor more efficient, and they only spread bacteria. The friction of the paper towel on the hands can also help get excess bacteria off.

Faries said to use soap, and scrub for 20 seconds (long enough to sing “Happy Birthday” twice or the first verse of “Ice Ice Baby” once), then rinse and dry with friction.

Being healthy requires exercise

In some of best news you’ll hear today, is the debunking of the myth that “being healthy requires exercise.” In fact, being healthy doesn’t require much exercise, but it does require physical activity (always read the fine print).

“The reason this myth came up years ago is because people tend to equate exercise and physical activity as the same thing,” Faries said. “Physical activity is an umbrella term that includes any activity that raises energy expenditure significantly above rest. Exercise is a type of physical activity that is more structured towards a specific goal, such as aerobic fitness or muscle strength. The two terms are not necessarily interchangeable.”

The general physical activity recommendations for health (for adults under age 65) is:

  1. Moderate intensity cardio activity 30 minutes a day, five days a week (150 minutes per week),

OR 

  1. Vigorous intense cardio activity 20 minutes a day, three days a week, AND 8-10 weight training exercises at 8-12 repetitions of each exercise twice a week (major muscle groups: legs, back, chest, shoulders, arms)

Faries described moderate intensity activity is defined by as “working hard enough to raise your heart rate, but still able to carry a conversation – like a brisk walk.”

If that sounds vague, it’s because it’s supposed to be. Physical activity can be whatever you want it to be, as long as it gets you moving—from gardening to dancing to maple syrup collecting. As long as it has a metabolic equivalent of task (MET) value of three or more.

A MET is simply just an easy way of saying how much energy it takes to do an activity. If you’re doing an activity that takes between 3 to 6 METs, that is considered moderate intensity cardio activity. Examples of physical activities can be found here along with their MET values.

As you can see, health myths are more prominent than we may have realized, and when it comes to your health, the best approach is the scientific literature and avoiding the fiction.

— Dominic Hernandez

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