Exercise is good for you, but it is also something that a lot of people enjoy as a way of passing the time. Some people also just like the idea of building their muscles. They are likely to be interested in supplements that can help the process along. Muscle and Fitness magazine have rated them and their top three are whey powder protein, casein protein and creatine. Muscles are made of protein, so the two protein supplements make sense. Creatine is a nitrogenous compound rather similar to an amino acid. It can be converted into a couple of different amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. So you could think of creatine as a sort of concentrated source of protein. So this all makes a sort of a sense. Your muscles are made of protein, so if you dose yourself up with protein or something that can easily be made into protein that should help.
It doesn’t sound on the face of it an unreasonable notion, but science is about data not conjecture. What is the evidence that you can grow your muscles by enriching the protein content of your diet?
A recent paper sets out to investigate this. This something that can be done using a nifty statistical technique called Analysis of Variance, invariably abbreviated to ANOVA. Fully understanding the intricacies of ANOVA requires rather more knowledge of statistics than the average person possesses, but in principle it isn’t too difficult to grasp. You take a group of people and vary some treatment systematically. In this case, a supplement blend and a placebo were the treatments. The effects were measured by some exercises and changes in body fat.
Looking at the results a couple of things leap out. The first is that the placebo was pretty good stuff. Placebo effects can be very striking, and in this case where exercise was involved the benefits of the placebo were impressive. You could convince yourself that the active was doing some good too if you looked at the data quickly. But the whole point of using a statistical design is to assign a value to whether or not the results could simply be a fluke. And all the results with one exception were explainable by chance alone, or only just showed a difference. A generous reading of the data is that the supplements had a small beneficial effect. In reality, I think that what little benefit they demonstrated even if true would not be enough to justify the purchase of the product and the trouble of taking it.
The study was a small one – only twenty participants. A larger study might reveal benefits that this one missed. It is also possible that the study didn’t optimise the way the supplements were used. The results were positive enough to merit further investigation. So I don’t think that I can dismiss the value of supplements entirely as a scientist. But I am not tempted to try them as a consumer. I want clear evidence of a significant boost to performance in the sense of it being something I will notice rather than something that passes muster statistically. So I want to be able to run 5% faster or build muscles in 5% less time. Until I am sure I can get something like that I am going to keep my money in my pocket.