Sloppy Work, Sensational Titles–What’s Wrong with Fitness Articles

Cue eye rolling. These are actual titles from a daily blog digest I subscribe to. Google them if they grab you, because I’m not linking.

“Top 10 Things You Worry About When Working Out”

“18 Moves to Terrifically Toned Inner Thighs”

“Don’t Waste Calories at a Bar: 5 Low-Calorie Cocktails to Order at Happy Hour”

“This Hourly Habit Can Benefit Your Health in Surprising Ways”

“11 Ways to Lose Weight (and Still Have Fun) This Weekend”

“10 Critical Lessons I Learned from Having a Binge-Eating Disorder”

“12 No-Cook Breakfasts that Support Your Weight-Loss Goals”

The Hook Gone Wrong

In October 2014, I attended a great professional event, the Women Communicators of Austin’s Get Smart Conference. The theme was “The Power of Your Voice; The Power of Your Message,” and the keynote speaker was Michael Pranikoff, who is the Global Director of Emerging Media for PR Newswire. Pranikoff was delightful, informative, and polished in his presentation, which was all about getting people to connect with and read your stuff (I’m simplifying…).

screenshot of slide show on How To Elevate Your Content Today
This SlideShare presentation by Michael Pranikoff is very similar to the one given at WCA’s Get Smart Conference (click link below to view)

One of the many tips Pranikoff mentioned was that titles with numbers in them had better click-rate success.

Now, go back to that list of titles and count how many include a number. All but one. Those titles contain a number because we’ve all been told that more people will click on a piece when there’s a number included. Hence the rise of the list. Does it really matter if it’s 9, 10, or 11 things learned in the course of suffering from a binge-eating disorder? Is it more important to have 18 thigh-toning moves than, oh, 8 (or none)? No; it’s just a number for the sake of having a number.

It’s sloppy, lazy writing.

The one title that didn’t include a number? It’s guilty of the other big sin — the sensational title that tells you nothing. You’ll never believe #4!

Why So Much Crap?

Health and wellness articles are particularly prone to this schlocky prose. Why? It’s easy to make lists out of exercises, foods to eat/not eat, and problem areas to target. Studies and research suddenly get sexy when you’ll be “surprised” or “shocked” or “amazed” by their unnamed and unknown findings (which are usually not surprising, shocking, or particularly amazing).

It’s also an unimaginative way of dressing up some fairly lackluster material.

Sometimes, it’s the writer’s fault. I’ve done it — just check out my post 4 Tips for Editor, Writer Working Success. Yes, I chose that title on purpose, hoping that including the magic number would lure readers to what would otherwise merely be “Tips for Editor, Writer Working Success.” Did it work? You tell me.

Sometimes, crappy, sensational titles are the editor’s fault. Having been an editor, I know the pitfalls: you’re being pushed to produce pieces that look and feel a certain way, there’s space that suddenly needs to be filled, and some uptick in the click rate would verify all the hard work you’ve been doing. That snazzy title will transform a mundane filler into a price performer. And EVERYBODY else is doing it…

Unfortunately, those pressures combined with following a formula often result in material that is misrepresented or simply sloppily worked in order to fit the pattern.

Case In Point

Why this diatribe? I came across an article that stopped me in my tracks. The title: “Injuries Are Good For You.”

Ponder that for a moment.

Steve Sisson is a local business owner, coach, and former athlete (though I think he still runs around Austin’s trails a fair bit). In January 2014, he participated in a seminar I put on that was about overcoming injuries. Sisson’s advice made the audience think. When asked, he said, “The best way to prevent injuries is to not get injured.”

Sisson’s point was that by carefully monitoring your body while you train and work out, problems shouldn’t progress to the point of injury. An injury is a set-back, and the best way to progress as an athlete is to never have set-backs. Genius. And simple.

Ask any trainer and s/he will emphasize how important responsible body monitoring is. Don’t leave that sore point to blossom into a problem; be aware; take care of yourself. Our bodies are like cars — regular oil changes, tire rotations, keeping the radiator filled, and providing general care prevent expensive breakdowns in the future. Don’t wait until the brakes fail; get them fixed when you notice the squeaking.

And so we come back to this article, titled “Injuries Are Good For You.”

Some might argue that an in-your-face title of this nature is provocative and grabs the reader’s attention. Before I ever got to the content, I was turned off and loathe to read any more. For me, the title was so off-putting that I questioned whether the content would be worthwhile. But I persevered in the hope that things got better.

The subtitle: “Those posters hanging in the gym locker room are true. Pain really is weakness leaving the body.”

Pardon my language, but bullshit.

Pain is an alarm system, our body’s way of telling us that something is wrong. While being uncomfortable is often necessary for growth, pain is not.

Before anyone starts calling me out as a wuss or someone who’s never worked out hard, let me disabuse you of that notion. I’ve pushed workouts hard enough that I’ve thrown up, peed and pooped myself, and fainted. I’ve finished a race in a medical tent. I know pain. And I’ve had injuries — a partially torn hamstring, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, and a broken ankle.

The article goes on to discuss how injuries are defined, what causes most injuries, and then lists some positive results that can occur through dealing with an injury. THAT is actually the heart of the piece — that injuries, when dealt with and treated correctly, can often result in benefits in improved form and function for recovered athletes. THAT I can agree with. The sensational title with its cliched subtitle? Nope.

It turns out that the piece was actually repurposed from a business blog. A quick look at the website revealed omission of a crucial word from the original title, “When Injuries Are Good For You.”

That one word makes a world of difference.

What happened here is unfortunate title editing and not enough guidance for a contributor. Some rewriting would have made a much better article; the author should’ve been steered away from going for grabby sensationalism to focus on information that could reinforce good practices and benefit athletes.

The article ends with this: “View your injuries as an opportunity to learn more about the amazing ‘soft machine’ you’ve been born into. With a little bit of additional effort, you can learn how to maintain it and get more high-performaning mileage out of it. I guarantee you’ll be happy with your investment.”

With a little bit of additional effort, this could’ve been a piece to share. After all, few would argue that “Breakdowns Are Good For Cars” — even if they do lead to a freshly rebuilt engine, replaced tires, and a new set of brakes.

Like Sisson says: We’re just better off not going there in the first place.

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Published by Leah Nyfeler

I'm a writer, editor, runner, and adventurer who is always looking for the next new story, exciting adventure, and good meal/book/movie. My focus is on helping people find their best, healthiest self through sharing what I know and how I've come to learn it. In addition to my blog "Enjoying the Journey: Observations on the Fit Life" at, my articles have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines. You can hear me as part of the 2015 Austin cast of Listen To Your Mother.

0 thoughts on “Sloppy Work, Sensational Titles–What’s Wrong with Fitness Articles

  1. I, too, am so tired of articles with titles like \”Foods you should NEVER eat!\” and \”Shred calories with this one simple move.\” This shoddy journalism not only contributes to the ongoing devaluation of the writing profession as a whole (don\’t even get me started down that path) but it also perpetuates our crazy obsession with finding some quick fix to finally get that \”perfect\” body—whatever that even means. It also does a great job of instilling the fear that if you eat X, Y, or Z, or don\’t do this particular workout on the second night of the new moon, you\’ll die a fat, lonely, miserable person. In other words—it\’s harmful (to women in particular, in my opinion).

    The title of that injury article lies in the same vein for me as well: \”Push yourself so hard that your body gives out, because that\’s the only way exercise counts! .\” I guess the title ultimately worked, though, because I clicked on the bait. In reading the article, I realized the content was not exactly what the headline insinuated, but what you said is pure gold: \”…few would argue that \’Breakdowns Are Good For Cars\’–even if they do lead to a freshly rebuilt engine, replaced tires, and a new set of brakes.\”

    Thanks for being courageous enough to call this kind of garbage out. I wish more people would do the same.

  2. Reblogged this on Swim, Court, Swim! and commented:
    Love this takedown of shoddy journalism in the fitness industry by Leah Nyfeler. Clickbait obviously works, but at a cost. It quietly perpetuates unrealistic obsessions and diet/fitness pseudoscience, which are already so rampant in an industry intent on profiting from people\’s insecurities.

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