Monthly Archives: May 2013

Can playing the didgeridoo help treat sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing or periods of very low breathing during sleep. Even if a person gets enough sleep, sleep apnea can negatively effect the quality of sleep. A person with this condition will very often feel unrefreshed upon waking in the morning.

Sleep apnea is more common in overweight people, but anyone can have this condition. There are many ways to treat it, but among the more unconventional is the didgeridoo. The didgeridoo is a wind instrument from Australia, invented by the aboriginal Australians over a thousand years ago. You will often hear the didgeridoo playing in movies or documentaries that feature the Australian outback.

According to the British Medical Journal(2006) in Didgeridoo playing as alternative treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome: randomised controlled trial:

CONCLUSION:

Regular didgeridoo playing is an effective treatment alternative well accepted by patients with moderate obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome.

Fascinating how this ancient flute-like instrument may help sleep apnea patients. It seems that to play the didgeridoo requires blowing into the instrument in a manner that is different from blowing into other wind instruments, and this may strengthen the muscles used for breathing. However, the evidence is preliminary and this kind of study has inherent flaws, the most obvious being “what kind of control group do we use?”. A control group of flute-players? A control group of people playing defective didgeridoos?

Another thing I would like to know is if a person with sleep apnea is already doing vigorous exercise on a regular basis, does the didgeridoo provide additional benefits on top of the respiratory benefits from exercise? After all, exercise shows some efficacy for treating sleep apnea as well, according to Sleep. 2011 Dec 1, The effect of exercise training on obstructive sleep apnea and sleep quality: a randomized controlled trial.

Still, even if playing the didgeridoo doesn’t help with sleep apnea, learning to play a new instrument can be a very rewarding experience. If you are planning a trip to Australia, you may even impress the natives.

2 common fitness myths

Screenshot from 2013-05-29 14:22:03There are so many fitness myths out there that it would require an encyclopedia to refute them all. Since I don’t have the time to write an encyclopedia, it makes a lot more sense to refute some of the most common fitness myths:

1) Junk miles – This is a common myth among many competitive runners. “Junk” miles are basically when a runner runs significantly slower than usual, which can be very disappointing for many runners. Some runners believe these miles don’t really count or they might as well just take a day off from running if all they are capable of is running “junk” miles.

However, running at any speed can help maintain your edge or your level of cardiovascular fitness. You don’t have to run fast every time you are out there. It’s perfectly normal to find yourself in a rut of under-performance every now and then, especially after very long runs or races. If the slowness lasts more than a week though, it could indicate a problem, especially if it is accompanied by soreness or an injury. “Junk” miles are often used an an excuse to not run outside in hot, or wet weather -“Why bother running in the rain if I will only be running junk miles?”

2) Running and cardio will cause you to lose muscle – This is a myth that is common among body-builders. Some are absolutely cardio-phobic. This myth prevents many people from having a more well-rounded fitness routine.

However, as long you eat enough, get enough rest, recover properly, and don’t overdo it, cardio won’t cause you to lose a significant amount of muscle. A good rule of thumb is to do strength-training first, and do cardio after. Doing strength-training first programs the body to prioritize muscle building for that day; doing cardio first will cause the body to prioritize cardiovascular fitness.

There are still a lot of areas of fitness where there aren’t clear cut answers, but not when it comes to these two common myths.

Electrolytes for summer exercise

Summer will soon be upon us. It will soon be crazy hot. The heat can make outdoor endurance exercise a lot more challenging as well as potentially dangerous if you are not prepared for it. Ensuring you are getting enough electrolytes before exercise and replacing them through food or electrolyte-enriched fluids during or after exercise is of utmost importance since we can lose a lot through sweating.

Electrolytes are absolutely essential for proper functioning of the nerves, and muscles, especially the heart muscle. Drinking too much pure water that does not contain electrolytes after vigorous exercise can cause your electrolytes to become very diluted. In extreme cases, this can lead to hyponatremia, which means the blood sodium level is critically low. This condition can result in death. Every now and then, some marathoners die from this.

Fortunately, these problems are easy to avoid if you drink sports drinks or fruit/vegetable juices. If you have a blender or juicer to make vegetable juice or smoothies, this is even better. Nuts are also a great source of electrolytes.

If you are an endurance athlete, one particular mineral that you may need to pay extra attention to during the summer months is magnesium. You very likely need more than the average person. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, Update on the relationship between magnesium and exercise:

Magnesium is involved in numerous processes that affect muscle function including oxygen uptake, energy production and electrolyte balance. Thus, the relationship between magnesium status and exercise has received significant research attention. This research has shown that exercise induces a redistribution of magnesium in the body to accommodate metabolic needs. There is evidence that marginal magnesium deficiency impairs exercise performance and amplifies the negative consequences of strenuous exercise (e.g., oxidative stress). Strenuous exercise apparently increases urinary and sweat losses that may increase magnesium requirements by 10-20%. Based on dietary surveys and recent human experiments, a magnesium intake less than 260 mg/day for male and 220 mg/day for female athletes may result in a magnesium-deficient status. Recent surveys also indicate that a significant number of individuals routinely have magnesium intakes that may result in a deficient status. Athletes participating in sports requiring weight control (e.g., wrestling, gymnastics) are apparently especially vulnerable to an inadequate magnesium status. Magnesium supplementation or increased dietary intake of magnesium will have beneficial effects on exercise performance in magnesium-deficient individuals. Magnesium supplementation of physically active individuals with adequate magnesium status has not been shown to enhance physical performance. An activity-linked RNI or RDA based on long-term balance data from well-controlled human experiments should be determined so that physically active individuals can ascertain whether they have a magnesium intake that may affect their performance or enhance their risk to adverse health consequences (e.g., immunosuppression, oxidative damage, arrhythmias).

Pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of both magnesium and zinc. Some people may even take multi-mineral supplements or salt in the extreme heat. Do all you can to make sure you are getting your electrolytes, along with proper hydration, when exercising in the extreme heat. Slow down, and drink a lot of fluid(with electrolytes) every 20 to 30 minutes if you are sweating profusely.

Joggling 15 miles in a thunderstorm

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I hope everyone is is having a wonderful spring so far, and that you all have a terrific Memorial day weekend.

Today I managed to joggle for nearly 15 miles, much of the time in a thunderstorm. The above map of western Westchester county, New York, shows my crazy journey from the “start” at the bottom, following the magenta line(the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail) 7.6 miles north to Tarrytown, then back to Yonkers(I started and ended at the Lenoir Preserve). The first 45 minutes or so were pleasant enough since the weather was still mostly dry. It got worse a lot later. It eventually got so bad that I had to go inside a pharmacy for nearly an hour because of the frequency of the lightning, with one lightning bolt striking about 50 feet in front of me. It was really scary! Besides this, I was completely soaked, so my return journey took me a lot longer. The rain also made my smart-phone malfunction, so I don’t even know what my exact timing was.

Not only was I soaked due to the extremely heavy rain, but I slipped on some mud in a hilly area and scrapped my hand. It got a little bloody, but there were no vampires around so I had little to worry about. This didn’t compromise my juggling ability though. The mud, huge puddles, and rushing water(there was a flash flood alert for the area) made me stop juggling in some areas so I ended up running or skipping briefly. Still, I managed to joggle about 85% to 90% of the time. I did drop the balls a few times, ironically near the beginning of the run when conditions were still mostly dry. It’s funny how the lightning bolts, thunder, and heavy rain later on didn’t make me drop for the most part.

Why do I do these crazy kinds of things? I guess I just love the challenge. I love to experiment. I like having nature as an adversary. Some of my best ideas come to me in difficult situations like this, so it is hard to resist. But just because I do it, doesn’t mean I am recommending it. You don’t need to do crazy things like me to stay fit. There is nothing “heroic” about what I do. I am under no illusion that I am some kind of “hero” – the coming Memorial Day is for remembering the real America heroes who risk their lives to keep us safe.

I mostly had a spectacular time, though at times I did regret being out there during the worst of it. Sure, I am crazy, but don’t worry, you won’t be seeing any “Joggling 12 miles in Syria” posts any time soon.

Screenshot from 2013-05-24 13:27:44

The big river that the trail runs mostly parallel with is the Hudson river. The run started in the lower right hand side of the map in Yonkers and went north to Tarrytown, then I turned around and ran back to north Yonkers.

Screenshot from 2013-05-24 14:23:02

Showing the trail from even higher up. The red line in the middle was the trail run. This shows that the trail is just a little north of New York City.

What kind of music do you listen to while joggling?

I am sometimes asked what kind of music I listen to while joggling and if it helps. Now while I never run or joggle with an MP3 player or any music-playing device, I still often listen to music playing in my head, and sometimes hum along to it.

My musical tastes are eclectic. While joggling I often listen to Bach, bebop jazz, or heavy metal. When I am not joggling, I usually listen to classic rock or classical music.

Because of the supreme importance of maintaining a rhythm while joggling, my mind is often searching for music that fits the joggling rhythm. This isn’t always easy. Sometimes I’ll ever make up music in my head while joggling to accompany and perhaps even enhance the rhythmic/musical aspect of joggling; going up and down hills and spinning around a lot make for some exciting music. Sometimes it is like conducting a symphony while running and juggling.

Like I have often said before, I often think of joggling as more of a form of dance than a form of running. I think the conceptual framework of dance helps prepare your mind better for the rhythm of joggling. The “running” is just an illusion. Music is a very important part of dance, and becoming one with the music is important to becoming a skilled dancer.

This isn’t meant to obsfuscate matters. Joggling involves a lot of science and art, but I think more art. Without art, without that human touch and human emotion, science becomes meaningless.

Through knowledge gained by science, we can improve our art, and the art of living. Live a healthy life, and you can do more amazing things, like joggling, or dancing or climbing mountains or traveling to a lot of different places and absorbing the culture.

So bask in music while running, your own music or other peoples music. Make sure it is inspiring.

What kind of music do you listen to while exercising? I’m always looking for new ideas!

Strengthen your abs to run faster

Do you want to run faster? I know, stupid question, though there may be a few runners who don’t care about their running speed. Whether or not these people are even real “runners” or not is a question for another time.

Fortunately, science continues to reveal new ways to improve speed. Besides interval training, and strength-training the leg and hip muscles(don’t forget your hips!), strengthening your ab muscles may also help improve your running speed.

According to the Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Barry University, Miami Shores, Florida, Florida:

Although strong core muscles are believed to help athletic performance, few scientific studies have been conducted to identify the effectiveness of core strength training (CST) on improving athletic performance. The aim of this study was to determine the effects of 6 weeks of CST on ground reaction forces (GRFs), stability of the lower extremity, and overall running performance in recreational and competitive runners. After a screening process, 28 healthy adults (age, 36.9 +/- 9.4 years; height, 168.4 +/- 9.6 cm; mass, 70.1 +/- 15.3 kg) volunteered and were divided randomly into 2 groups (n = 14 in each group). A test-retest design was used to assess the differences between CST (experimental) and no CST (control) on GRF measures, lower-extremity stability scores, and running performance. The GRF variables were determined by calculating peak impact, active vertical GRFs (vGRFs), and duration of the 2 horizontal GRFs (hGRFs), as measured while running across a force plate. Lower-extremity stability was assessed using the Star Excursion Balance Test. Running performance was determined by 5000-m run time measured on outdoor tracks. Six 2 (pre, post) x 2 (CST, control) mixed-design analyses of variance were used to determine the influence of CST on each dependent variable, p < 0.05. Twenty subjects completed the study (nexp = 12 and ncon = 8). A significant interaction occurred, with the CST group showing faster times in the 5000-m run after 6 weeks. However, CST did not significantly influence GRF variables and lower-leg stability. Core strength training may be an effective training method for improving performance in runners.

Emphasis mine.

So don’t forget to strength train your legs, hips, and ab muscles 2 to 3 times a week to improve your running speed. Strongers hips and abs will also help you deal with hills. The best ab exercise is the bicycle maneuver, which doesn’t require any equipment. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to work your abs, just as you don’t need to spend a lot of money to eat healthy if you live in an area with a lot of wild edible plants(see my previous post), or you buy grains and legumes in bulk. It also doesn’t require a lot of time either.

As a joggler, I find that joggling with very heavy balls for half a mile seems to help exercise the abs, and build stamina and muscle memory for juggling(and help with balance), but I do not recommend this to novice jogglers. You may hit someone with one or more of the balls, and that someone may be you!

Wild greens with pasta

IMG_1191One of the best ways to incorporate more vegetables into your diet is to go wild. Wild vegetables are not only free but are as nutritious if not more nutritious than store bought vegetables. Foraging for food also makes hiking a lot more fun.

The wild vegetable pictured above is called Garlic Mustard(Alliaria petiolata), since it is a type of mustard with a garlicy kind of taste to it. Since it is a member of the totally awesome brassicaceae family(sometimes called the “cruciferous”, “mustard”, or “cabbage” family), it is closely related to kale, cabbage, and broccoli and likely has similar health benefits. Like other members of the cruciferous vegetable group, its small flowers are in the shape of a cross, which is why they are called cruciferous. Cruciferous vegetables are well-known for their naturally occurring anti-cancer chemicals. It’s like getting free cabbage!

The leaves of Garlic Mustard, also known as Jack-by-the-hedge, are triangular to heart-shaped and 10cm to 15 cm long. The entire plant generally grows to 30cm to 100 cm. It grows in moist soil in woodlands, on the edges of woodlands, in fields, and especially in or near floodplains. It often grows near skunk cabbage and jewelweed, though usually on slightly higher ground. Garlic Mustard is common throughout eastern North America. Since it is an invasive species from Eurasia, you can harvest it without guilt.

Like its cousins broccoli and kale, it is loaded with health-promoting phyto-chemicals and minerals. If you want to harvest some, make sure you do it in an area far away from busy highways and also make sure there were never any toxic waste dumps nearby.

mustard85I grabbed about half a bag’s worth of the mustard from the woods near me, brought it home and washed a small portion of it thoroughly in the sink. I boiled it very briefly and mixed it with marinara sauce. It sure does shrink from cooking! It was so delicious with the spaghetti and soy protein(TVP). It really adds a lot of taste and nutrition. You can also use it as a salad green. I highly recommend it!

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Golf, Juggling and neural plasticity

The process of learning a new skill often results in subtle changes in brain structure, roughly analogous to muscle growth in response to strength-training. This happens in response to learning how to juggle, but this also appears to happen in response to learning to play golf, and, in my opinion, also happens in response to other sports.

According to Training-induced neural plasticity in golf novices, by the University of Zurich:

Previous neuroimaging studies in the field of motor learning have shown that learning a new skill induces specific changes of neural gray and white matter in human brain areas necessary to control the practiced task. Former longitudinal studies investigating motor skill learning have used strict training protocols with little ecological validity rather than physical leisure activities, although there are several retrospective and cross-sectional studies suggesting neuroprotective effects of physical leisure activities. In the present longitudinal MRI study, we used voxel-based morphometry to investigate training-induced gray matter changes in golf novices between the age of 40 and 60 years, an age period when an active life style is assumed to counteract cognitive decline. As a main result, we demonstrate that 40 h of golf practice, performed as a leisure activity with highly individual training protocols, are associated with gray matter increases in a task-relevant cortical network encompassing sensorimotor regions and areas belonging to the dorsal stream. A new and striking result is the relationship between training intensity (time needed to complete the 40 training hours) and structural changes observed in the parieto-occipital junction. Thus, we demonstrate that a physical leisure activity induces training-dependent changes in gray matter and assume that a strict and controlled training protocol is not mandatory for training-induced adaptations of gray matter.

Not earth-shattering news by any means, except for the part at the end about the relationship between training intensity and brain changes. This study simply reinforces what we already know, that playing sports and staying active can help the brain(I know, some people don’t consider golf to be a sport, but it does require skill). It would be great to compare the results of playing golf with juggling, but as far as I am concerned, no one has done this.

As for me, I never play golf since I find it boring and it is not intense enough. But that’s just me. I prefer juggling, joggling and hiking. An advantage of juggling is you can do it almost anywhere, even while running.

Whatever you do, if you want to protect your brain from aging, learn a new athletic skill. Try as many different sports or activities as possible until you find something that you love doing. The journey is as important as the destination. If you can’t find something you like, invent a new sport!

Can exercise help overcome drug addiction?

Drug addiction is a public health crisis of epic proportions. Besides this, the illegal drug trade is closely associated with violent crime, and family breakdown. Many communities around the country are devastated by rampant drug addiction(which includes alcoholism) and violent crime. Virtually all of us know someone who is an addict or has someone in their family who is an addict.

The South Bronx in the 1970s. Drug abuse was a big contributor to the extreme urban decay of the South Bronx during this period. Drugs and crime are still a problem here. Photo by Mel Rosenthal, Duke University

The South Bronx in the 1970s. Drug abuse was a big contributor to the extreme urban decay of the South Bronx during this period. Drugs and crime are still a problem here. Photo by Mel Rosenthal, Duke University

Drug rehabilitation is rarely successful in the long-term, since most addicts relapse within a year or leave early. If the addict is poor, and/or has no family to support them, they all too often end up living on the streets, or in jail, or back in rehab. They are one of the most marginalized groups of people in the country, especially if they also suffer from mental illness, and are almost always unemployable. Needless to say, drug rehabilitation could use some serious improvement.

Now I am no expert on drug addiction, I have never used drugs, but not being an expert in something hasn’t stopped me from talking about it before. I often like to say that the best way to overcome a health-destroying addiction is to replace it with a good addiction. In my experience, this does appear to be work to some degree, although it is easier said than done.

Can exercise play this role, and should it be incorporated into drug treatment programs? We all know about the mood-enhancing effects of exercise, but let’s look at what our Danish friends at the Institute for Sports Science and Clinical Biomechanics, University of Southern Denmark, have to say in the study Exercise treatment for drug abuse–a Danish pilot study:

CONCLUSIONS:

The results show that physical exercise can provide important support in the treatment of drug abuse and that the main problem is maintaining change in behaviour and peer group influence to ensure long-term change.

A small study, but this sounds good to me. Even if it doesn’t help overcome addiction, exercise helps improve health in so many ways it should be included whenever possible.

I also found this very inspiring: Running for her life – Dedication carries woman beyond addiction, crime, and homelessness:

Kenyon is a recovering drug addict, a formerly homeless woman who stole from stores on Newbury Street to fund her habit, a child of alcoholic parents, a victim of domestic abuse, a convicted criminal who spent nine years bouncing between jails in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. And she is a marathon runner.

This is simply amazing. To go from being a homeless drug addict to peak physical condition to allow her to run marathons. That is resilience. Incredible resilience. I think all of us have this kind of resilience in us. It is beautiful thing, and almost magical.

So if you are out of shape, what is stopping you?

Cardinal in my neighborhood

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Not only are they gorgeous birds, they also make some beautiful music. The best music soundtrack to run to. This one was especially musical.