Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Tranquil Ski Run where The Snow Piles Up

We're getting a lot of snow up here in Vermont, about 50 inches+ in a week. A record number of visitors have come to ski in the Mad River Valley too, so it was time to get off the beaten track and seek some tranquility. That means going off-piste or off the resort proper for some narrow-road and woods skiing.

In general, it's really cool to be able to record the whole run on Alpine Replay and get 3D Google maps afterward.

I got to the resort early and entered the off-piste area named Slide Brook Basin from the top of the North Lynx chair. The picture shows my run, a screen grab from Google Earth 3D via recording the run on Alpine Replay.

My run is the blue line you can just make out by clicking on the map for a larger version, between the two developed mountains. It's great to do that and look at the map afterward. It was also a perfect escape from the crowds, very quiet and peaceful. It's a 2,000+ foot vertical run, about 3.7 miles in length, and it's all I need for a day.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

How Good Are You At The 'Sitting And Rising Test'?

Muscular strength and flexibility matter, beyond having the best pecs, legs, or beach bod in the neighborhood. (Hey, we just told you about the anti-inflammatory effects of weight-lifting!) A recent study out of Brazil used a simple "sit down and get back up" test and found that scoring highly on that routine is closely related to one's fitness and longevity.

If a middle-aged or older man or woman can sit and rise from the floor using just one hand - or even better without the help of a hand - they are not only in the higher quartile of musculo-skeletal fitness but their survival prognosis is probably better than that of those unable to do so.

The studied followed 2,002 people for about six and a half years. 159 of the people had passed away by the study's end, and all but two of them had scored low on the "SRT" test. (It would have been nice to know how many of the 1,843 survivors had also scored low on the test. A study author pointed out in some comments that almost half of people – and they were 51 to 80 years old – scored well on sitting down and popping back up.)

Here's a link to a video describing and showing the test.

Before starting the test, [each of the subjects] were told: "Without worrying about the speed of movement, try to sit and then to rise from the floor, using the minimum support that you believe is needed."

Each of the two basic movements were assessed and scored out of 5, with one point being subtracted from 5 for each support used (hand or knee, for example). Subjects were thus assessed by a composite score of 0 to 10, which, for the sake of the analysis, was ranked as four categories (C1, 0–3; C2, 3.5–5.5; C3, 6–7.5; and C4, 8–10).

The test was also a very accurate predictor from a fine-grained standpoint. Each one-point increment in the score represented a "21% reduction in mortality."

The study's researchers made the point that physical strength and power to weight ratio are core features of survivability.

It is well known that aerobic fitness is strongly related to survival, but our study also shows that maintaining high levels of body flexibility, muscle strength, power-to-body weight ratio and co-ordination are not only good for performing daily activities but have a favourable influence on life expectancy.

The study was initiated in Brazil and published in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The "Hidden Benefit" of Weight Lifting

People lift weights for lots of different reasons, to add lean mass, get stronger for a specific sport, even to mold a buffer beach bod (that's probably numero uno). If you asked someone why they were hoisting iron or chalking up the reps on a machine, however, they would be unlikely to reply, "Oh I'm reducing inflammatory markers of course." Yet this might be one of the most beneficial longterm effects of weight lifting.

An inflammatory marker is a biological signal inside your body for inflammation, which is at the core of most major diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. For example, inflammation causes cell damage and mutates DNA, which can lead to cancer in the longterm. You want to keep inflammation LOW. And weight lifting does it, in ways that other exercise modes do not. In fact hard-pounding cardio type stuff increases inflammation.

A recent study pointed out this benefit rather graphically. They took a group of overweight older women and had them partake in either a resistance-training regimen (3 sets, 10 exercises, 3× per week, 8–12 repetition maximum (RM)) or a "social interaction" regimen that included knitting and stretching, as a control group so that they could have a basis of comparison.

To get the science-y stuff out of the way, they were looking for reductions in C-reactive protein (CRP), IL-6, TNF-α, and leptin (all inflammatory signs), and for whether anti-inflammatory markers like adiponectin and interleukin-10 were augmented by training. Like leptin, adiponectin is a hormone secreted by fat cells.

The results were significant reductions in those inflammatory biomarkers, as well as increases in the "good" biomarkers.

Twelve weeks of moderate–high-intensity RT (8–12 RM) improved whole-body strength (44%) reduced circulating CRP (−33%), leptin (−18%), and TNF-α (−29%) and increased LPS-stimulated IL-10 production (20%) in the absence of detectable changes in body composition.

The body compositions didn't change (even though strength increased a lot, 44 percent), which indicates that the internal effects of weight lifting take place rather efficiently before any evidence of leanness or bigger muscle groups ever occur.

The anti-inflammatory aspects of weight lifting end if you stop training, so you have to keep at it to enjoy the benefits for a lifetime. I know I've kind of shifted from the "endorphin addiction" of running to the post-training benefits of free weights, machines, and bodyweight workouts.


Resistance Training Reduces Subclinical Inflammation in Obese, Postmenopausal Women; Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise

Does Adiponectin Cause Or Prevent Alzheimer's Dementia?;

Thursday, December 13, 2012

How Much Exercise is Too Much?

About two weeks ago the Wall Street Journal published an article that further rocked the world of endurance sports, that is, the one inhabited by millions of people who put in millions of miles running, cycling, rowing, swimming, and otherwise conveying themselves via high mileage across the landscape. The article was called "One Running Shoe in the Grave." It basically expressed the notion that running anything but very low mileage is unhealthy, especially for the heart, and will lower lifespan.

A fast-emerging body of scientific evidence points to a conclusion that's unsettling, to say the least, for a lot of older athletes: Running can take a toll on the heart that essentially eliminates the benefits of exercise.

The article derives its claims partly from a recent British Medical Journal review called "Run for your life…at a comfortable speed and not too far," so I grabbed a copy of that to read and write about.

By the way, although the article refers to running, I think the basic concept of the potential risks posed by long duration, high-heart-rate exercise applies to those other endurance sports as well (e.g., hard cycling).

To put everything into perspective, you may also want to read these two cardiologist's blogs (one a cyclist who races) – here and here – which help you step back from the more inflammatory tone of the WSJ article.

I've looked into this issue about extreme training being bad for you – as in marathons and long triathlons (maybe even as short as two hours, if you do a lot of them) – since at least five years ago when I cut way back on my own mileage and virtually ceased racing.

I'd seen enough evidence, in well-reasoned arguments on the web as well as anecdotely (i.e., really bad things happening to men around my age), to make a change in my own exercise regimen. Because my goal is healthy longevity, not "dying young and leaving a pretty corpse." By the way, that latter approach would be pretty irresponsible considering that I have younger kids.

Although it's only anecdotal, the recent death of the Born To Run ultramarathoner Micah True at age 58 has only raised more eyebrows and added fuel to the fire. I knew a wonderful man here in New England, a coach who was adored by his athletes, who was getting ready to challenge age-60+ long distance running records (he had recently run five miles in 30 minutes) when he dropped dead after a training run at age 63.

This evidence and research for Fitness For Geeks has led me to embrace the conclusion that there is a dose:response relationship to exercise.

This means that if you exercise in the "sweet spot" you're getting healthier (e.g., jogging less than 20 miles per week), but if you push it too much (a heavy dose), you get the heart scarring and calcification of the artieries (essentially, converting your arteries to bone), not to mention the immune suppression (cancer? MS?) that some of these articles and reviews talk about.

But where you do draw the line? What level of running and cycling is healthy? If you look at the comments beneath the WSJ article, you can see how perplexed we all are. Is my routine hurting me? would be the crux of the issue. For example, you can't tell me that a lifelong bicycle commuter (and occasionally racing through that intersection will elevate the heart rate) is putting themselves at risk. Or simply a 5k runner?

I think we can reasonably conclude that years and years of extreme training can shorten your "healthspan" (and probably will). Buit It's impossible to make more fine-grained recommendations than the BMJ article does (see ahead), because all the data and analysis isn't in yet.

Everyone is different and has varying tolerance levels. It also seems reasonable to conclude that nutrition, length of rest periods and patterns, stress management, sleep, and other lifestyle aspects have to play a role in the "survivability" of heavy endurance exercise. For example, are you up to speed on vitamin K, which "takes calcium from where you don't want it" (e.g., your arteries) and puts it where you want it, your bones?

Here's a big quote from the BMJ essay, which seems to conclude that anything more than 40-50 minutes of strenuous exercise in most days has diminishing returns.

Indeed, regular vigorous exercise is probably the single best step a person can take to ensure robust CV health. In a study of 416 000 adults followed for a mean of 8 years, 40–50 min per day of vigorous exercise reduced risk of death by about 40% (figure 1).7

In that study, at about 45 min, a point of diminishing returns is reached whereby longer exercise efforts do not appear to translate into lower death risk. Light to moderate physical activity reduced death rates too, albeit not as strongly, but in this case more physical activity appeared to be better, with no plateau out to 110 min daily.

Indeed, if we had a pill that confers all the benefits of exercise, many physicians might be looking for work. Approximately 30– 45 min of daily vigorous exercise significantly reduces risks for many maladies including early death, Alzheimer’s disease, CHD, diabetes, osteoporosis and depression. 4 5 Yet, as can be expected with any potent drug, an insufficient dose will not confer the optimal benefits, while an excessive dose can cause harm, and even death in extreme overdoses.

In fact, the review claims that there is no health advantage beyond the ability to run eight-minute miles (meaning that if you can go faster, you're doing it for another reason other than health).

There are analogies to make in this area. We think (and my book points out) that one glass of wine at night might confer health, compared with none or multiple glasses. One of the running study directors says, "The relationship appears much like alcohol intakes—mortality is lower in people reporting moderate jogging than in non-joggers or those undertaking extreme levels of exercise."

One reassuring note: although the heart, as an organ, is not particularly great at repairing itself (that would take stem-cell technology) some of the studies show (including with mice) that some of the damage of extreme training is reversible if followed by months of rest and not undertaken anymore.

Another long interesting quote you might ponder (and echoing some of the stuff I wrote about "chair living" and the like in Fitness For Geeks):

Hippocrates, the father of medicine and a contemporary of Phidippides in ancient Greece, taught, ‘The right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too much, not too little, is the safest way to health’.1 If you listen to your body, this is just common sense.

Yet, nothing we have published previously has stirred so much controversy, especially among the general public. Increasingly our culture is one of extremes: during the past 30 years, obesity has tripled in the USA and has increased in much of the Western World, while during the same time the number of people completing a marathon has risen 20-fold.

On one side of the U-curve, the couch loungers/channel surfers embrace this message as justification for continuing their sedentary lifestyle. And, on the far end of the U-curve, the extreme exercise aficionados want to ignore the message and instead kill the messenger. As with many things in life, the safe and comfortable zone at the bottom of the U curve—moderate exercise—is the ‘sweet spot’ for which most should try to aim.

Sitting is the new smoking; a sedentary lifestyle will cause disability and disease, and will shorten life expectancy. We are not so much born to run as born to walk.

Ethnographic research indicates that, in the environment of human evolution, our ancient ancestors walked 4–10 miles a day.

Walking is superior to running for mechanical efficiency and musculoskeletal durability. Indeed, we advise our patients that they can walk or garden hours a day without concern about CV overuse injury. So while it is true that exercise confers powerful health benefits, the common belief that more is better is clearly not true.

The take home message for most is to limit one’s vigorous exercise to 30– 50 min/day. If one really wants to do a marathon or full-distance triathlon etc, it may be best to do just one or a few and then proceed to safer and healthier exercise patterns.

Reference: "Run for your life…at a comfortable speed and not too far," James H O’Keefe, Carl J Lavie; British Medical Journal,

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Gal's Guide To Pullups

Even though there's a kazillion articles on how to do pullups, I impulsively decided to hurl another brief one into cyberspace after spying this New York Times blog "Why Women Can't Do Pullups." Two things ticked me off about that headline: one having to do with the "can't do" part of it (if you knew the women I'm close to, suggesting they can't do something is like waving a red flag at a bull: they'll be doing it toute suite).

The other part of it is that I've seen women in my gym doing multiple pullups, and more than once! I have two eyes. I know that isn't scientific enough, but "anecdotal evidence" can be awfully compelling sometimes. If I was 25 and a young technical writer I'd probably be more cautious about non-scientific evidence and reporting "what I've seen," but now that I'm 30 years beyond that point I know better.

Yes I know that a pullup is hard to do (and consistently spell, sometimes you see pull-up) for the first time for both men and women, and we know that they are both a health progenitor and indicator of overall strength, so how can you work up to doing one?

You build up to pullups sequentially and incrementally, just as you accomplish just about anything fitness and health wise. Here's a rundown of the things gals, and guys, can do to prepare themselves for their first pullup.

(1) Start doing weight exercises that strengthen the arm and upper-back muscles. These are going to help you get stronger and avoid injuries anyways, right? For pullups, you need strong forearms, biceps, shoulder muscles, and upper-back muscles or "lats."

Do the cable pulldown for the upper back; hammer curls for the forearms and bicep, as well as bench presses and push-ups for the shoulders, for example.

(2) Hang from the bar first with your palms facing outward (a traditional pullup grip; the one with palms facing toward you is usually a "chin-up"). Just "hang out" then get down. This gets you used to and strong for hanging from the bar before you do a pullup. Just hang for 20 seconds. Then 40 secs. Then a minute. It's a great stretch anyways.

(3) Do negative pullups, a nifty suggestion from Stew Smith at A negative pullup is basically doing the "let yourself down" part of the exercise, without dong the pulling up part. Grab a bar at shoulder or chin height, palms facing out, with a support beneath you, like a stool. Then slowly let yourself down (after stepping off the stool of course). See, you're breaking a problem into its constituent parts, then tackling each part first.

(4) Do assisted pullups, in which a guy or gal holds on to you by the waste and supports a lot of the weight as you undertake the pullup routine. Let's say you've got another friend who's working on her pullup; well now you can "support" each other through the training process.

(5) Once you can do one or more than one pullup, Smith has another good routine: do a pyramid. Do one pullup, rest, do two pullups, rest, do three...In a pattern like 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1.

Any vigorous climbing activity using the upper body will help pullups. Just like the weights you've been lifting will help you with the vigorous climbing. Like those cargo nets that you have to scramble up during the muddy-run-buddy races.

Any sort of extra south-of-the-border weight on your body is going to make pullups harder, and conversely any weight you add to yourself on purpose as resistance training (like those heavy vests with adjustable weight in the form of little sand bags) will make a "normal" unweighted pullup seem easier later.

For lack of a better concluding phrase I'll just remark (a little tritely, I admit) "go get 'em girl" and let's prove the "experts" wrong.

By the way, geek alert: Runtastic has a pullup training oriented app: