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.