|Understanding and Translating Research
Len Kravitz, Ph.D.
With research studies so readily attained on the internet, fitness professionals are regularly bombarded by clients asking them for interpretations. Unfortunately, reading and interpreting some scientific articles becomes frustrating due to the profuse, awkward writing style and unfamiliar terminology (See Table 1) used in research studies. The purpose of scientific journals is to communicate the findings as clear as possible, in a highly stylized, distinctive fashion. This often makes it difficult for the applied professional to grasp the meaning of the study. Here are some tools fitness professionals can utilize to help bridge the gap in understanding scientific writing.
What does Significant Mean in Research?
The term significant, or more correctly statistical significance in a research study refers to the likelihood of the test scores to occur. For instance, in exercise science research statistical significance levels commonly used are at two probability (P) levels: P&Mac178;0.05 or P&Mac178;0.01 levels. Think of P&Mac178;0.05 as another way of saying 95 out of a 100 times you will get this result (and 5 times out of a 100 it could be a chance result). Statistical significance tells the researcher the results are highly reliable.
What is a Primary and Secondary Research Article?
Primary research is a type of study that has a research question(s) (i.e., an unsolved problem the researcher is trying to unravel) which follows with a detailed methodological process (i.e, the scientific method). With primary research the researcher will develop a hypothesis (supposition about the answer to the research question) and then plan and administer an experiment to test (See Figure 1). Before publication in a journal the study will go through a strict peer-review, where two or more specialists in the field of study critically review the article and recommend whether it should be accepted or rejected for publication. Many primary research journals now include a practical applications section, where the author synthesizes the usefulness to be gained from the study. This is usually found at the end of the article.
By contrast, a secondary research study, such as a literature review or meta-analysis involves the collation, summary and analysis of existing research. This type of research also goes through a peer-review for publication in a scientific journal.
Starts with a title and abstract of the study
Has an introduction where researchers introduce the study research question(s) and hypothesis
Has detailed methods and procedures which state who and how many subjects, how and why they were selected, how they were tested, what equipment was used, what type of statistical design was employed
Includes a results section, which is a straight-forward recounting of the statistical results
Flows right into the discussion and conclusion section which explain, mdiscuss and conclude the meaning of the study findings
Published in a peer-review journal
Figure 1. Anatomy of a Primary Research Study
Read the Study Title and Abstract First
Researchers often spend an exorbitant amount of time on the title of the article. It often is a great glimpse to what the study is all about. However, beware of clickbait titles in your internet searches. Clickbait is a term describing web content that is aimed at generating online advertising revenue, especially at the expense of quality research. Be on guard of these sensational headlines as you do you internet research searches.
Most research journals begin each article with an abstract. The abstract is brief summary of the entire research article, with a sole purpose to share to the reader the purpose, methods, results and main conclusions of the study. The abstract is a stand-alone synthesis of the entire full paper.
What are the Classifications of Research?
Research can be differentiated into five categories. The following explanations provide a brief overview of each kind so that you can determine the type of research you are reading.
Historical research involves understanding, studying, and explaining past events. Its purpose is to arrive at some conclusions concerning past occurrences that may help to anticipate or explain present or future events. Understanding past research from high-intensity exercise injuries has helped our fitness industry design safe and effecting high-intensity programs for special populations.
Descriptive research often involves collecting information through data review, surveys, interviews, or observation. This type of research best describes the way things are. A review paper of previously reported research is descriptive research. The Health Benefits of Exercise in the January 2015 IFJ is an example of this type of research. Often new ideas and theories are discovered and presented from this descriptive process.
Correlational research attempts to determine the relationship of two or more variables. This degree of relation is expressed as a correlation coefficient. For example, a researcher may way to wish to determine the relationship between cardiorespiratory fitness and self-esteem in college females. If the variables are highly related, a correlation is near +1.00 (range is 0.0 to ±1.0), meaning the variables are positively related. If the two variables are not related, a correlation near 0.0 will be obtained. If the correlation is near -1.00, the variables are inversely related.
Causal-comparative research attempts to identify a cause-effect relationship between two or more groups. Causal-comparative studies involve comparison of two or more variables. For instance, a researcher may wish to compare the body composition of persons who have only trained with free weights versus persons who have only trained with exercise machines. In this case the researcher is not manipulating any variables, only investigating the effect of training with free weights versus exercise machines on body composition. Obviously, since other factors such as diet, training program, aerobic conditioning could effect body composition, casual-comparative research must be reviewed scrupulously to see how these other factors were controlled.
Experimental research is guided by a hypothesis (or several), which is an educated guess about how things work. An experiment is conducted to support or disconfirm this hypothesis. For instance, much of this author's current research has been involved with the physiological effects of high intensity interval training (HIIT). With this type of experimental research, I am randomly selecting the study group from a population of healthy active male and female subjects, deciding upon the exercise programs to be tested (different work-to-rest intervals in HIIT), trying to control all relevant factors (e.g., no other exercise programs during the testing, no change in diet, no supplements, similar health/fitness levels of subjects, etc.), and then measuring the effect of the different work-to-rest HIIT programs by analyzing specific variables such as: Kilocalorie expenditure, oxygen consumption, fat utilization, excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, heart rate, blood pressure and post-exercise lactate levels of the programs. Experimental research, although very demanding of time and resources, often produces the soundest evidence concerning hypothesized cause-effect relationships. Alas, experimental research should have a control group (i.e, group of subjects that do not get the treatment being studied in the study). For example, in the HIIT training example one of the trials is steady state exercise. This is the control trial, which serves as benchmark against which the test results are measured.
Table 1: Definition of Common Research Terms
Some common terms you may see when reading and evaluating research are as follows:
The dependent variable is often referred to as the outcome variable. It is the change or difference in this variable that the researcher is investigating. In the HIIT study example in this article, an example of one dependent variable would be Kilocalorie expenditure.
The independent (or manipulated) variable is also referred to as the experimental variable. In the HIIT study example, the different work-to-rest interval protocols are the independent variable.
Internal validity refers to how well a researcher designs the study. This involves very detailed methods, so other researchers are able to replicate and validate the findings.
External validity refers to how generalizable the results of the study are, or how the results can be applied to groups outside the experimental setting.
A Fitness Instructors Checklist for Interpreting Research
Lets conclude this column with a 10-pt question checklist for fitness professionals to use when interpreting research created by Smith (2015).
1) Is the study published in a peer-review journal?
2) Who is the study population (e.g., men, women, age, fitness level, etc.)?
3) How big is the sample size? Note, experimental studies are very timely and thus researchers of complete a statistical Power Analysis to verify the authenticity of the study.
4) Did the researchers control variables (as explained in internal validity) in the study methods?
5) Was there a control group?
6) What type of research is the study? (Refer to classifications of research.)
7) Is the researcher overstating the result? Research results SUPPORT a hypothesis, but they rarely PROVE the hypothesis.
8) Did an outside group with a vested interest to the research fund the stuy? This doesnt mean the research is biased, but it suggests reading more studies on the topic.
9) Does the researcher seem to have an agenda? Some researchers are biased due to personal preferences, and this may be observed in the writing.
10) Does the researcher acknowledge the limitations to the study (found in the discussion section)?
@bio:Len Kravitz, PhD, is the program coordinator of exercise science and a researcher at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, where he won the Outstanding Teacher of the Year award. He has received the prestigious Can-Fit-Pro Lifetime Achievement Award and American Council on Exercise Fitness Educator of the Year.