Wednesday, June 11, 2014

KT Tape: Does It Work, Or Is It A Placebo?

Like many, I first noticed the kinesiology or "kinesio" tape on the various limbs of olympic athletes during the 2012 London games.  The "KT Tape" is almost picturesque, like dabs of paint on athletic forms. The product has definitely taken the pro to everyday banged-up athlete by storm. But is this just another pretty gimmick? We're used to those in the fitness and nutrition world. Does KT really work?

I know what doesn't always work, and that's my right knee, victim of a torn MCL from soccer years ago and much wear and tear. Knees don't "heal"; it'll never really be the same. Still, I do everything on it, weightlifting, hiking, mountainbiking, light soccer (or futbal!), skiing…So I decided to try the tape on the knee, to see if it worked in place of a bulky old neoprene knee pad.

I put a strip over the old MCL and another across the knee. Then I went off to play a little soccer and the next morning, lift weights. I was pleasantly surprised with the results. No swelling, pain, or anything, and I have even kept it on. It seems to be a very subtle, almost weightless form of support.

It's very easy to cut up into strips and apply yourself, despite the creative forms bordering on fashion statements. It turns out that the tape and technique was developed in Japan during the 1980s.

The specific issue I used KT Tape for is not a muscle or tendon tear, but a dysfunctional joint that is easily irritated due to loss of cartilage. So maybe Kinesio Taping isn't optimally designed for my knee, leading me to think that it feels great due to the many wonders of the Placebo Effect. Or, the strong belief that the measures you are taking will heal you.

Here are the scientific rationale, and at least the basic concepts and claims behind KT Tape:

Supporting the muscle -- Proper taping improves the muscle's ability to contract even when it's weakened, reduces a feeling of pain and fatigue, and protects the muscle from cramping, over-extension and over-contraction.

Removing congestion to the flow of body fluids -- Kinesiology tape improves blood and lymphatic circulation and reduces inflammation and excess chemical buildup in the tissue.

Activating the endogenous analgesic system -- "Endogenous" refers to something that is self-originating, and calling something "analgesic" means that it can relieve pain in a conscious person. So, this requirement means that the tape must facilitate the body's own healing mechanisms, a central focus in chiropractic medicine.

Correcting joint problems -- The goal is improving range of motion and adjusting misalignments that result from tightened muscles.

My issue seems to fall into the latter category, so I'm sticking to KT Tape (no pun intended) for now. It seems like a keeper.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Digital Body Fat Scales Are Run By Algorithms More Than Anything Else

I've used digital weight and body-fat scales for years now, but I really wonder about their efficacy. I've obviously thought it's important to have one around, since your level of lean mass v. body fat is so closely linked with health, particularly among males.

You want some kind of accurate barometer of whether you are actually building and maintaining muscle, beyond a mirror (which is the acid test for most of us, isn't it?).

There's also a cachet among fit males and bodybuilders along the lines of whether they have body fat far under 10 percent or not, but I've leave that discussion for another time.

Ultimately, behind the scenes, these "electrical impedance" scales use algorithms to estimate your body fat percentage. Many of them claim an accuracy of about 2.5% on either side of the reading; for example, if it says 10 percent, then your body fat probably falls somewhere between 7.5% and 12.5%.

But here's the wrinkle: much of the reading is going to be determined by the preferences you set before you even step on the scale, such as whether you're male or female, your age, and whether you have an athletically cut body or not (I suppose, the classic X shape). When I set up my last scale, my body fat went from something like 16% to 11% based purely on the latter setting, whether I was built like an athlete or not.

The internal software is basically estimating your body compostion based more on settings than any contact with your body.

And that's not all: I've noticed that the ambient air temperature makes a huge difference.  I always get a lower body-fat reading with a room temperature of 70 or greater. I always get the lowest readings during the summer, regardless of my weight at the time.

For some reason, when I weigh more, the scale counts that as predominantly more muscle (how flattering!). Especially when the room is warm. And when you're wet, the BF reading also goes down significantly. The list goes on.

Your body composition does not change significantly week by week. So that when you step on the scale and the day-by-day fluctuations are four percent or more, you know the scale itself is a bit topsy-turvy. My sense is that most people who rely on scales get a big surprise when they test their body fat % in the most accurate manner in a performance lab, using calipers and pools, etc.

The next time you are pondering whether to deploy the plastic for a fancy "electrical impedance" machine, you might reconsider whether the full-length mirror is a more effective and affordable substitute.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Cold Water Diving Part II: 4 Ways To Motivate Yourself

Today I dived into a river that was a touch over 50 degrees fahrenheit, 10 centigrade. I did three different dives for only about 10-second immersions each. I feel like I am becoming more cold adapted.

By now we've determined that cold-water immersion (CWI) has beneficial health effects. It is an anti-inflammatory activity that has positive metabolic effects over time (you burn more calories and stimulate BAT–see Part 1 of this article), at the very least. It also counts as hormesis, meaning it "hardens" the cells against other insults or "bad things" such as infections. CWI might even have a strong placebo effect, which means in essence you are fooling yourself into a healthy state (better than deluding yourself into an ill state!).

So how do you motivate yourself to do it?

Keep personal records, your P.R.: Keep track of the coldest water you ever dived into, or the longest time you spent in water less than 60 F. or 15 C., so that it becomes an internal competition, a self challenge. This is human nature; the longest you ever swam, the tallest mountain you hiked, the longest you ever threw a frizbee, etc. This factor may appeal to more competitive personality types, but everyone has used the technique of setting or seeking a memorable goal as the simplest form of motivation. Keep a diary or log of your cold-water swims and dive-ins.

I have a kind of index that I track that combines the ambient air temperature with the water temperature. For example, my record is 100 for the combined cold-water immersion and air temperature (which involved diving into 50 degree waters when the air was 50 F., too). It's another P.R. that you can track. for example, today was a sunny 59, and the water was just over 50, making it a 109-110.

Notify your tribe. Share what you did with your friends and fellow CW swim fanatics or health buffs, such as via email or Twitter.  This gives the event more meaning to you than internal gratification, and can motivate others to choose a new healthy activity.

Along the same lines, join a cold water swim or "polar plunge" club, which makes CWI more of a fun social event. It also makes it less likely that you dip your feet in the water and do the old 180 ("Not today…").

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Cold Water Swimming 2014, Redux

I earned a pat on the back today, by doing the 30-yard swim to "the rock" in 53-degree river water. I felt good about it because I had stood in the river for several minutes, getting psyched, and entertaining the notion of actually not doing it. 

The nice thing about this routine is that the swim forces about a 30-second immersion through a mild river current, involves a little scramble on to the rock (which is warm), then forces me to swim back to shore, so I get two cold-water dips.

The river was 46 degrees fahrenheit a couple of weeks ago and I only stood up to my thigh. Then I took two dive-ins this week at 52 degrees, so I feel like I am gradually becoming cold-water adapted again. A man came down to the riverside with his dog the last time, and expressed skepticism (re: fear) about getting into the water ("Gee, only young people do that…"). I've heard this bias against cold water expressed many times.

The "hazards" of cold-water dips, based on the temperature alone, are greatly exaggerated, and derive from an overly pampered population that spends too much time in artificial environments.

The human body can adapt to both cold-water immersion and hot weather. Ancestral peoples of different cultures have used cold river swims, and hot springs, for health reasons for many centuries. Cold thermogenesis, the fancy, science-y term for swimming or immersion in waters of less than about 68 degrees F., is so good at reducing inflammation and tuning the body, that it's now used as an advanced athletic routine (not just after events, but before them too).

Among other effects, cold immersions spur the recruitment and generation of "brown fat" or brown adipose tissue (BAT). This is a kind of fat, unlike white fat which is a storage tissue, that actually has metabolic activity and burns calories, somewhat like muscle or lean mass. BAT is more vascular, thus explaining the brownish color.

When you become cold adapted, you increase body-heat production via non-shivering thermogenesis, which means you burn more calories at rest by means other than shivering. This is called "adaptive thermogenesis." In other words, don't get FAT get BAT!

I'm going to try to swim the cold river five times per week, and to go as late into the year in Vermont as I can. That's the goal, anyway. The next chapter is to spend at least 15 minutes at a stretch in waters less than 60 degrees.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Compulsion: The Third Karl Standt Crime Novel Now Available As Ebook

Manhattan is locked into a bitter winter, and gripped by gruesome crimes. Someone is killing people through an online dating agency called EliteAirs, in the new crime novel on Kindle, Compulsion.

Months after the Kauai episode, and still healing from his psychic and physical wounds, Karl Standt finds out about the case from his New York Post crime reporter friend, who uses a lurid Twitter feed to keep his followers up to date on felony and mayhem. Standt pursues the killer, with a segue into Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, along with his brave young crew of colleagues, including Church, a hacker, Katie, a Slate reporter, and iz, a goth poet with a taste for nightclub dancing and MMA moves.

Standt also teams up with Vlad, a Russian emigre with a taste for Stoli Elit and a current job with the Detective Bureau.

Compulsion is the third book in the Karl Standt series,  after Barbarous Coasts and the equatorial noir novel, Gone On Kauai.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Montana Postscript 2014: Lone Peak, Mon Amour

In any other culture, say India or Japan,  Lone Peak might be a holy place. A reverent place that is the subject of meditation, paintings, and woodcuts. I like to stare at it, about as much as ski it.

It's not the tallest mountain around (11,160 feet); there are plenty of taller Rockies, particularly south of it in Colorado. But the peak has a perfect conical shape and is covered, now and for much of the spring (given that it still has a snowpack of about 8 to 10 feet), with creamy, flawlessly white snow.

It has a Mt. Fuji-like prominence and vibe.

I took one of the tamer runs off of it on April 9. I've skied from the top every year since 2011, except for one when the tram to the peak was temporarily out of order (I'm only there for a few days, but try not to miss a year). It's one of the places I use to keep me honest as I get older, and I try to do something a little harder every year.

But I also realize, and upon moments of reflection disapprove of, using grand mountains primarly for Type A-ish, competitive proving grounds. As in all high mountains, Lone Peak can be a hazardous place. You wake up in the morning and hear charges going off, as ski patrollers do Avy (avalanche) control.

They do this so that inbounds skiers don't trigger their own avalanches. The ski patrol released one a couple of years ago that roared down the Marx (named trail) flank of the mountain and wiped out a chairlift shed. In commemoration, they've left a toboggan up in a tree to show the power of the avalanche. The mountain, and nature, is always in control.

I always feel better in the winter after skiing, and I always feel better after skiing Lone Peak, so I think this is a physical/spiritual dynamic. If you want to stay fitter and healthier in body and mind, consider taking up downhill skiing, and paying homage to Big Sky. Just don't forget to meditate, or if so inclined, pray.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Big Sky, Montana: April Tidbits

On here my fourth and second to last day, I had a great run in the Headwaters Bowl. I took the Challenger lift up, then skied over the top to the Headwaters area of Moonlight Basin. One of the nice topographical touches on that part of Big Sky is the access to the Headwaters Bowl and lift from the top of the Challenger lift.

Very few people were around, and it was peaceful and windswept and sunny enough for a low-visibility day. It's very steep but the snow was soft and deep (Western Montana has a huge snowpack for April). I made some turns and went through some trees to the skier's right of Alder Gulch, then went faster down the Bowl where the pitch flattens out somewhat.

I've always had my eye on a trail called bonecrusher, which is a bootpack or hike through some woods and up a slope several hundred meters. Coming up not long after my Headwaters run, I saw an opening (the ski patrol had literally opened the bonecrusher trail). So I took my skis off and started hiking.

I was lugging kind of heavy resort skis, not backcountry boots or skis, so it was a reasonably hard workout. Can't beat the view though of the surrounding Montana Rockies and 11,160 foot Lone Peak looming overhead. I used the trail made by two cheerful young lasses with snowboards, who were the only other people plus me who did it that day.

They got most of the way up and made a snowman, while I was grimly stomping uphill like I was finishing Everest or something. I was doing the classic two-step shuffle, then stop to catch your breath. It's very blown off on top and mostly rocks through the otherwise deep snow.  I would guess the top is at least 9500 feet in elevation, hopefully higher for the purposes of bragging rights!

The two ladies eventually stepped into their snowboards and blithely headed off, making wavy marks in the snow. Then came the hardest part for me, which was putting on my skis.

Try it sometime, standing at a fairly steep angle in  deep snow. I dug a little trench for the skis, knocked the sticky snow off my boots, and finally succeeded in clicking in, after imagining how awkward and energy-wasting it would have been to hike down with all that stuff.

The picture on the left shows our bootpack or trail, a little line above the trees.

Then I had my own powder run down after "earning my turns"; very satisfying.

As for a tram run off the top of the peak, there's always tomorrow!