Monthly Archives: June 2014

Dancing and joggling genes?

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I sometimes say that anyone can learn to joggle. While this may not be entirely accurate, what I’m really trying to say is that it is not as difficult or as incredible as it looks.

What people see is the result of a ton of training. It has taken me many years to get the point where I am at now. I have joggled for thousands of miles, and just recently joggled my first 1,000 miles for the year.

What level am I at now? Last week, I did a 20 mile joggling run while it was in the mid 80s and humid. Several of those miles were on rocky, hilly, curvy forest trails. Surprisingly, I didn’t drop the balls even once, though I had to take 2 short breaks to cool off and drink some Gatorade. I even did a lot of tricks, especially in the first half. I was actually expecting to drop because of the heat, and how much I was sweating, and because of the rockiness of the trails. But it looks like my muscle memory didn’t fail me even in these extreme conditions. This isn’t the first time I’ve run 20 miles without dropping, but it was the first in mid 80s weather. I also did a 12 mile run last week, much of which involved joggling up the steepest hills ever(for me), and didn’t drop during the entire run. I was shocked, to be honest.

As much as I know this is the result of training, I can’t help but wonder if my genes give me an edge somehow. Alright, that sounds ridiculous even to me and those who know me best. I don’t come from a long line of gifted athletes, nor have I ever displayed any athletic ability before I took up joggling. Nor have I ever been a good dancer, which is similar to juggling and joggling.

While my research hasn’t lead to anything specifically focusing on juggling and genes, I did find an interesting study done on creative dancers which shows an interesting correlation between creative dance performance and certain genes. According to:
Gene Polymorphisms Are Associated with Creative Dance Performance:

The association between AVPR1a and SLC6A4 polymorphisms and creative dancing does not exclude the presence of the same polymorphisms in nondancing groups of subjects. Almost all of us dance and almost all of us have engaged in sports. What the current study suggests is that the combination of polymorphic variants contributing to creative dancing is overrepresented in the dancers. There is no reason to suggest that the nondancer athletes or the control group of nondancers/nonathletes are devoid of these polymorphisms, but the current study provides evidence that these variants are relatively scarce in other groups not specifically selected for the creative dancing phenotype. Importantly, we not only compared creative dancers to performing athletes but also validated the case-control design using a family-based study that avoids the conundrum of a comparison control group that might be “contaminated” with polymorphisms contributing to creative dancing. As for most complex traits, the effect size of these two genes is small and in Risch’s terminology will have small displacement.

These “dance” genes may play a role in coordination, but also show links with spirituality, and artistic creativity. They also seem to be linked with serotonin and brain anatomy. Serotonin plays an important role in the central nervous system. It affects mood and behavior, and many mind-altering drugs strongly influence our serotonin pathways.

It is difficult to disentangle what is really going on here, since genetics is very complicated and I lack expertise in it. I often claim that joggling is just like dancing, so it is possible these “dance” genes may influence a person’s joggling ability, though this is speculation on my part. Obviously, no matter how much a person trains, not everyone can reach the same level of joggling ability, just as not everyone can reach the same level of dance ability or martial arts ability. I do wonder sometimes if all the people I know who can’t even learn how to juggle may be genetically disadvantaged somehow.

However, none of this means that if you are trying to learn to joggle you should give up if you aren’t a good dancer or lack coordination. Keep in mind my background as a lousy dancer and even worse athlete, and how I started juggling and joggling while recovering from a car accident. The brain is very plastic; even if you lack these genes(assuming they give an edge to pursuits requiring coordination), it may still be possible to become a skilled joggler with enough practice.

 

 

Dr. Oz finally humbled

It should go without saying that I am not a fan of Dr. Oz. I’ve never actually talked about him on this blog before, but I have alluded to him many times. Dr. Oz sold out a long time ago, and this isn’t surprising for an Oprah protégé. Dr. Oz has long preyed on the gullible and scientifically illiterate; indeed, I believe he contributes to this nation’s scientific illiteracy.

Dr. Oz has long been America’s leading promoter of all sorts of weight loss scams, and many other forms of quackery/alternative medicine. The fact that he is a highly accomplished physician and cardiothoracic surgeon means he should know better. Whether or not he really believes in what he promotes on his show is beside the point. Only Dr. Oz knows what he really believes deep down inside.

When I first heard that Dr. Oz was going to testify at a congressional hearing about weight-loss scams, I wasn’t expecting much. So I was thrilled when Senator McCaskill asked him a lot of tough questions, and even went so far as to accuse him of being a liar! It was fun watching him squirm! I don’t think Dr. Oz was expecting this. In the words of Senator McCaskill:

I don’t get why you need to say this stuff because you know it’s not true. So why, when you have this amazing megaphone, and this amazing ability to communicate, why would you cheapen your show?

How many times I’ve thought of asking him questions like that! I’m sure many of you know what the “Dr. Oz effect” is. Dr. Oz mentions a new weight loss “miracle” on his show, and weight loss pill manufacturers immediately start cashing in. While Dr. Oz doesn’t make money from these pills, these types of programs certainly help boost his ratings. His audience probably wouldn’t be as big if all he ever promoted was diet and exercise for weight-loss, which is the only safe and effective weight-loss strategy. Of course, he does often mention exercising more and eating less, but it is still irresponsible of him to promote ineffective weight-loss pills to his audience. Many people watching his show get the idea that if they take these magic pills, they can eat all the bacon, cake, cookies, and ice cream they want(there’s even a sick phenomenon called “Bacon Mania“).

I find it interesting that the thing that bothers Dr. Oz the most is that his name and image are being used without his permission by unscrupulous supplement manufacturers, which makes him a “victim”. This is a legitimate concern, but what about all the people getting taken advantage of? Dr. Oz also insists that he believes in these pills, and if he was irresponsible in any way(besides using “flowery” language and being “passionate”), it was because he never told his audience to purchase pills from companies he finds reputable(I’m not sure if he will ever produce this list). This of course misses the entire point that if something doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, regardless of what company it comes from. Besides this, I hardly see Dr. Oz as a “victim”.

No one held a gun to Dr. Oz’s head and forced him to push weight-loss scams and other quackery on his show. He is not a victim. The real victims are the people who have wasted their money on the ineffective pills he’s promoted. Dr. Oz may not directly financially benefit from the pills, but he is as much a part of the problem as the pill manufacturers. Meanwhile, America continues to get fatter.

As a result of these hearings, I’m pretty sure Dr. Oz will tone things down a bit on his show to slip below the radar, but this will almost certainly hurt his ratings. I also don’t think these hearings have damaged his reputation, at least not with fans. He still has his cult-following, and I don’t believe any amount of information will sway them. For the conspiracy-minded, the fact that he was called in for questioning and asked all these tough questions is just more evidence(to them) of some vast, evil conspiracy that is trying to discredit quackery.

It’s been said so many times before, but it has to be said again: Weight loss does not come in a pill. It can only be achieved through exercise and eating less/eating more low calorie foods. Fitness is a lifestyle, not an activity.

Some great, in-depth articles about Dr. Oz:

Dr. Oz and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

The Great and powerful Dr. Oz: humbled by Senator Claire McCaskill

I got interviewed by the Victoria Vegan Fest!

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In case you’ve been outside of the Galaxy for the past year, you almost certainly know that Victoria, British Columbia is having its annual Victoria Vegan Fest on July 1st. Their promotional website features the “This is what a vegan looks like” campaign, in which they interview some awesome vegans and ask what being vegan means to them among other things. So 2 days ago, I was contacted by one of the organizers, David M Kong, who said he would like to interview me for their campaign. After thinking it over, I agreed, and here it is: This is What a Vegan Looks Like. David, you rock, you do so much for the vegan movement!

Don’t just read my interview, be sure to read all the interviews with all the other inspirational vegans. It truly is an honor to be featured there with terrific people like Krystle Charlton, Ryan Canty, Emily von Euw, and Hayley Zedel.

I would definitely go to this event if I lived closer. If you live anywhere near British Columbia be sure to drop by. It sounds like it is going to be one big extraveganza, with tons of delicious vegan food, entertainment, contests, and many speakers/performers who are doing amazing things for veganism.

Enough with the self-promotion. If you can’t make it to this event, whatever you do this summer, have fun, and live like every day is a vegan fest!

 

 

 

One legged exercising for balance

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Many runners and other athletes don’t often think about balance. Runners, in particular, are mainly concerned with speed and endurance, not balance. Yet doing some balance training may help improve your proprioception, which is the perception of your body’s position and movement. This may make you a better runner, especially in difficult terrain, and may decrease your risk of falling and injury.

Most of the balance training(besides joggling) I do involves juggling while standing on one foot. I really believe this has helped improve my balance, and my joggling ability. I’ll sometimes spin around on one leg(while juggling), to make it more challenging and to improve my balance further. This is also a great reason to learn to juggle, since this kind of training improves both coordination and balance. I can juggle up to 4 balls on 1 leg, and I am working on 5. Doing high throws can make this extra challenging – I usually drop the balls.

I often do this at home for a few minutes every day, but I prefer doing this when going on hikes in the woods, often on a narrow or pointed section of a big rock outcropping. This can make it even more fun, as well as more challenging. I’ll do this after joggling around for several miles, or on days when I’m not joggling. As I often say, the great outdoors is my gym. If I bring my resistance bands with me on a hike, I can do a total body workout in the middle of the woods! This is especially wonderful if I’m on top of a big hill with a spectacular view of the countryside.

For beginners though, I recommend doing this at home or on flat surfaces. If you can’t juggle, try shadow-boxing or doing arm exercises on one leg. Even some strength-training can be done on one leg, but be careful if you have a bad knee. Don’t start doing anything crazy on rocks. Work up to it gradually; slipping and banging your knee against a big rock doesn’t feel gneiss.

As I said before, doing some balance training may help prevent falls. In fact, among the elderly, not being able to balance yourself on one leg predicts injuries from falls. So people of all ages can benefit from this. For a more detailed look at this, check out: The Benefits of Balance Training for Runners, at RunnersConnect. There are many different types of balance training, and this just scratches the surface.

If you are learning to joggle and are making slow progress, some balance training may help improve your joggling ability.

What kind of balance training do you do, if any?

 

Hypnosis and sports performance

Hypnosis is the process of artificially putting a person into a sleep-like state, making them more open to the power of suggestion. It is usually regarded as an “alternative” kind of practice. Most medical doctors and mainstream medical organizations do not recommend it. Though we sometimes hear stories about people quitting smoking or overcoming phobias due to hypnotherapy, there is a lack of reliable evidence for efficacy. Besides this, hypnotherapy is notoriously difficult to study in a controlled setting. As R. Barker Bausell put it:

Hypnosis and the placebo effect are “so heavily reliant upon the effects of suggestion and belief that it would be hard to imagine how a credible placebo control could ever be devised for a hypnotism study”.

These complications aside, I did find an interesting study on hypnotherapy and soccer wall-volley performance: Assessing the immediate and maintained effects of hypnosis on self-efficacy and soccer wall-volley performance:

This study evaluated the effects of hypnosis on self-efficacy and soccer performance. Fifty-nine collegiate soccer players were randomly allocated to either a hypnosis (n = 30) or video attention-control group (n = 29). A pretest-posttest design with an additional 4-week follow-up was used. Self-efficacy was measured via a task-specific questionnaire comprising 10 items relating to good performance on a soccer wall-volley task. The hypnotic intervention comprised three sessions using ego-strengthening suggestions. The control group watched edited videos of professional soccer games. Results indicated that, following the intervention, the hypnosis group were more efficacious and performed better than the control group. These differences were also seen at the 4-week follow-up stage. Although changes in self-efficacy were associated with changes in performance, the effect of hypnosis on performance was not mediated by changes in self-efficacy. The study demonstrates that hypnosis can be used to enhance and maintain self-efficacy and soccer wall-volley performance.

So it does appear to have “worked”, though the “video attention” control group seems like a very strange, probably unsatisfactory method for controlling. Again, it is very difficult to placebo control for hypnosis since hypnosis is all about suggestion and so are placebos. I don’t think anyone argues against the benefits of “ego strengthening” or thinking positive, though this can be done without hypnosis(though overconfidence can be a problem for some). All we may be seeing here with this study are the generic benefits of positive thinking, not anything specific from the hypnosis.

It would be great if researchers could figure out a better way to study this. In the mean time, I’ll try to think more positively.

 

New research on juggling

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As I’m sure many of you already know, learning to juggle is associated with greater gray matter density in parts of the brain that control motion perception and hand-eye coordination. Not juggling for a long time tends to lead to the brain reverting back to “normal”(though some evidence suggests some brain changes are retained).

I’ve long wondered though if skill level when it comes to juggling is correlated with more gray matter. Earlier research has shown that even lousy jugglers have more gray matter in certain parts of the brain when compared to controls. Now more recent research shows that expert juggling is in fact correlated with higher gray matter density, compared to less skilled juggling. According to Juggling revisited – A voxel-based morphometry study with expert jugglers:

Juggling is a highly interesting tool to investigate neuroplasticity associated with motor-learning. Several brain-imaging studies have reported changes in regional brain morphology in visual association cortices in individuals learning how to juggle a three-ball cascade. However, to our knowledge there are no studies that investigated expert jugglers, looking for specific features in regional brain morphology related to this highly specialized skill. Using T1-weighted images and voxel-based morphometry we investigated in a cross-sectional study design 16 expert jugglers, able to juggle at least five balls and an age- and gender-matched group of non-jugglers. We hypothesized that expert jugglers would show higher gray matter density in regions involved in visual motion perception and eye-hand coordination. Images were pre-processed and analyzed using SPM8. Age was included in the analyses as covariate of no interest. As compared to controls jugglers displayed several clusters of higher, regional gray matter density in the occipital and parietal lobes including the secondary visual cortex, the hMT+/V5 area bilaterally and the intraparietal sulcus bilaterally. Within the jugglers group we also found a correlation between performance and regional gray matter density in the right hMT+/V5 area. Our study provides evidence that expert jugglers show increased gray matter density in brain regions involved in visual motion perception and eye-hand coordination, i.e. brain areas that have previously been shown to undergo dynamic changes in terms of gray matter increases in subjects learning a basic three-ball cascade. The extent to which transient increases in beginners and the differences in experts and non-experts are based on the same neurobiological correlates remains to be fully elucidated.

This isn’t that surprising. Similar brain changes can result from learning to play an instrument or learning to dance. Now if only they would do some research on joggling!

Upper body exercise versus lower body in terms of inflammation

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Like a lot of fitness fanatics, I do a lot of reading. I am always looking for new information to help me and my readers and friends improve their athletic performance and overall health. One area in particular I love exploring are the differences between upper body exercise and lower body exercise.

So I was very excited when I found this- The inflammatory response to upper and lower limb exercise and the effects of exercise training in patients with claudication.I have cited some studies that contrast upper body with lower body exercise before, but they weren’t about the amount of inflammation in response to upper body versus lower body exercise. I’ve been curious about this for some time. To make the long story short, inflammation can be a good thing at a moderate level, while chronic inflammation is associated with, and may play a role in causing many serious diseases.

Too much inflammation may also hinder exercise recovery and performance. The study I mentioned above, from the University of Sheffield, U.K is of particular interest since it found that:

RESULTS:

An acute bout of sustained lower limb exercise significantly increased the intensity of CD11b and CD66b(these are markers for inflammation) expression by peripheral blood neutrophils in all groups, whereas upper limb exercise had no effect. Resting neutrophil expression of CD11b and CD66b and circulating von Willebrand factor levels were unaffected by the training program, as were the inflammatory responses to an acute bout of sustained upper and lower limb muscular work, despite the fact that both training programs significantly increased walking distances.

CONCLUSIONS:

These findings indicate that upper limb exercise training programs may offer certain advantages over currently prescribed lower limb programs. Our results show that exercising nonischemic muscles in a way that promotes improved cardiorespiratory function and walking capacity can avoid the potentially deleterious systemic inflammatory responses associated with lower limb exertion in patients with stable intermittent claudication.

(Bold is mine)

So in essence, the lesson here is that lower body exercise produces a lot of inflammation, while upper body produces none(based on the specific markers used). This makes sense in a way since lower body exercise is generally weight-bearing, compared to most upper body exercise, and the leg muscles are generally larger. This isn’t really that surprising.

So upper body cardio probably wouldn’t be as exhausting, obviously. And as far as joggling is concerned, most of the inflammation is due to the running(most of the effort/calories burned is due to the running), not the juggling, so if you are afraid that adding juggling to your running will be problematic for you, there is little reason to be concerned.

Unlike regular running, joggling helps improve posture and coordination, with little to no drawbacks.

Can vitamin supplementation prevent lung injury in runners?

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Hot, hazy conditions can make running more difficult for some people due to all the ozone in the air. Source: Wikipedia.

There’s a mountain of evidence that running is good for you. However, there are some some adverse conditions, like polluted air, that can cause lung injury and/or hinder performance. During the summer months, air in and around large cities often gets polluted with ozone, especially during heat waves, which can cause respiratory problems or even permanent lung damage.

But is there a way to prevent this without having to curtail outdoor fitness activities? Can vitamin supplementation, in particular, antioxidants like vitamin C or vitamin E help? According to: Effect of vitamin supplementation on lung injury and running performance in a hot, humid, and ozone-polluted environment:

These findings suggest that antioxidant supplementation might help to decrease the lung injury response of runners when exercising in adverse conditions, but has little effect on performance.

According to this study, it looks like these particular supplements may be helpful for decreasing the risk of lung injury(but almost no performance improvement), but it would be foolish for runners to start supplementing based on one small study. We need more research, and supplements aren’t without risks. If you want extra vitamins for their possible protective effects, eat more fruit. If there is an ozone alert in your area, it may be necessary to stay home instead of going out for a run, or to do a shorter run, especially if you have a pre-existing respiratory condition or lung disease.