The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Fitness

Brain Gains: Exercise If You Want To Remember

No matter how smart you think you are, getting some exercise might just make you a bit sharper. Researchers at Michigan State University have found that being out of shape could mess with your long-term memory.

Most research into aerobic exercise and memory has focused on children and the elderly, but Kimberly Fenn, assistant professor of psychology, and Matthew Pontifex, assistant professor of kinesiology, wanted to investigate how it affects healthy young adults. To test college-age long-term memory retention—long term is defined as anything longer than 30 seconds—they rounded up 75 students and had them memorize sets of two-word pairs, like “pants-zipper,” and “oxygen-air.”

They also evaluated each student’s fitness level based on factors including oxygen consumption during a treadmill test, participants' weight, percent body fat, age and sex. “About half of the students fell below what would be considered average for their age and sex,” Pontifax says.

The next day when the students returned, they were tested on the word pairs. Pontifex and Fenn found that students who were less fit had a harder time remembering the pairs they’d memorized the day before. “This suggests that avoiding sedentary behaviors is important even for high-functioning adults,” Fenn says.

Though test only spanned a 24-hour interval, it’s likely that the results would be the same if they brought the same subjects in six-months later. “Although we cannot speak to intervals longer than this, performance after one day is highly correlated with performance at longer intervals.”

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Sticking It to Diets: An Interview with Matt Fitzgerald

In his new book Diet Cults, Matt Fitzgerald argues against the idea that there is any one "best" way to eat. Along the way, he covers popular diets such as Atkins, the raw-food movement, and the Paleo Diet, each time exploring the dangers of excluding an entire food group. By the end of the book, Fitzgerald replaces the dogma of dieting with a proposal he calls "agnostic healthy eating." In time for the release of his new book, we caught up with Fitzgerald to discuss what belongs on the modern athlete's plate. 

OUTSIDE: What led you to write Diet Cults?
FITZGERALD: Mainstream science is on one side, saying there’s no single ideal diet for humans. But all around us, popular diets are claiming that they are the healthiest diet for all. It’s a fundamental contradiction. My gut instinct was that it was not rational to say any one diet is the best way to eat. I wanted to offer an alternative.

Why are people so passionate about diets?
Food is such a basic symbol of identity. We become emotionally invested. Even three-month-old infants show dislike for puppets who don’t like the food they like. I think we are all susceptible to the mythology that one diet is best.

Have you ever fallen for a diet cult?
Maybe supplements in some cases. I am becoming much more skeptical toward initial positive research on supplements, because if you wait long enough, some negative research comes out too.

In your book, you propose we embrace agnostic healthy eating. How do people eat like this?
They don’t demonize any nutrients. No entire food categories are eliminated. They have fruits and vegetables with almost every meal. There aren’t a lot of fried foods or sweets. It’s pretty basic stuff, but can fuel the best athletes and weekend warriors like us. 

Do a lot of people already embrace agnostic healthy eating?
The silent majority of health conscious eaters out there want to eat healthy and are turned off by diet cults. In my exposure to world-class endurance athletes, very few Olympic-caliber athletes do any kind of diet with a name. They don’t demonize any nutrient. My personal instinct is that I don’t want to trust fear mongering salesmen who vilify a lot of the food people eat.

So elite endurance athletes are less likely to embrace diet cults. What about recreational athletes?
My perception is that amateur athletes are quite a bit more likely to go for diet cults. I have two theories on this. One is the sour grapes theory: That when competitive people find they can’t win races, the point of the sport switches from winning to doing it correctly. Barefoot running, Crossfit Endurance, and a lot of diets fall into that. Athletes who can win races don’t want to mess with the formula that works because a lot is at stake. The other part of it is that in today’s world, it can be hard to eat healthy. You have to swim against the stream. The diet cult does the work of how to eat healthy for you.

{%{"quote":"“The [Paleo Diet] doctrine is absurd. It is a fantasy.”"}%}

Diet cults tend to be trendy. That happened with the Atkins diet a decade ago, and the Paleo Diet in recent years. Are all diet cults destined to fade away eventually?
In the broader context, I believe diet cults have always been with us and always be. The Kosher eating of the Jews is a diet cult. The pleasure eating of the Food Network shows is an ongoing phenomenon. Vegetarianism has ancient pedigree. I’d guess some version of Paleo will persist because there’s something so fundamental in the idea of going back to our early paradise.

You devote a section in your book to the Paleo Diet. What’s your take on it?
The doctrine is absurd. It is a fantasy. The diet is based on a 19th-century misunderstanding that evolutionary adaptation moves at a glacial pace. The Paleo idea that no animal should eat anything it hasn’t eaten before is silly. There was the moment when chimps leapt out of trees and had to adapt their diet. Radical changes came. We started eating meat, cooking food, and traveling all over the planet. There’s also epigenetic adaptation, where genes you already have are switched on and off. Diet adaptation can happen very quickly. As for whether the diet is healthy: It can be very healthy, but the way a lot of people do it, with indiscriminate heavy meat eating, is not very healthy. I think people should eat a lot more fish and high quality meat. I see a lot of Paleo followers gobbling huge amounts of bacon. 

Another chapter in your book talks about the controversy over hydrating with sugary sports drinks. What do you think about this?
People have this premise that sugar and carbs are always bad and try to explain away 50 years of research. You don’t want a lot of sugar in your diet when you aren’t exercising, but sugar is a performance enhancer. When you’re exercising, you want the fastest fuel you can get, and sugar is the highest octane stuff. I’m a big believer in fueling for performance.

A number of athletes have tried low-carb approaches in recent years. Is this diet cult effective?
If there’s any nutrient an athlete should go out of their way for, it’s carbohydrates. We know athletes in heavy training on high-carb diets are better able to absorb that training. Very few Olympic-caliber athletes mess around with this.

What about all the people who don’t care about athletic performance, but just want a diet that helps them lose weight?
I call it the suck-it-up diet. The secret to successful weight loss is motivation. Get out of the mindset of finding one way that works, and realize a lot of ways work. You still have to choose something specific. Anyone who loses weight and keeps it off doesn’t just wing it. They have rules and stick to them, but they’re not necessarily the specific rules of a diet cult.

How would you rate your own diet?
It’s much better than average. My diet looks pretty normal, but is high quality on two levels. The first is that it’s weighed heavily toward the highest quality food types, such as fruits and vegetables. I have very few fried foods and sweets, and not a lot of refined grains. I eat more fish than any other kind of meat. It’s also quality in that I buy high quality food, such as organic food, and grass fed beef, and try to pay a lot of attention to ingredient quality. But I still have at least one beer a day. My wife and I like to eat out. We celebrated my birthday on Saturday and I had French fries at a restaurant, and I almost never eat them.

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Performance-Enhanced and Sex-Driven

Probiotics are back (yes, they were once a thing) and a growing number of companies claim that by adding live microorganisms, bacteria does the body good. Dannon’s Activia yogurt touts probiotics as a way to regulate the digestive system. Powerful Yogurt and Naked Pizza serve up similar health claims. The brisk business in beneficial bacteria brings in around $28 billion a year. With names like Lactobaccili, Streptococci, and Bifidobacteria, these microorganisms have been linked to lower rates of constipation, ulcerative colitis, and chronic diarrhea. Consult with Dr. Google and you might find that probiotics are the next Prozac, the cure for acne, and a surefire boost to your sex appeal.

Despite nearly a century of research—first on “scientifically soured milk” and life-prolonging yogurts—the concept remains largely under-researched and oversold. At the same time, scientists are finding that the trillions of microorganisms, as many as 10,000 different species, or about 160 species per person, flourish in our warm, wet intestines. Microbes influence our health, sometimes far beyond the gut itself. If the human microbiota, as it’s known, is an integral part of overall health and physical fitness, could microbes serve as performance-enhancing microorganisms?

One study—known, in some circles, as the “Great Balls of Fire”—claimed that probiotic yogurt imbued male mice with bigger balls and a behavior the researchers called swagger. The lead investigator, Susan Erdman, a cancer biologist at MIT in Cambridge, Mass, is a researcher with an unflagging enthusiasm for her work (and also a dedicated athlete). Three years ago, quite by chance, she told me, a colleague had noticed that the female mice in her lab colony were becoming so unbelievably shiny, they looked almost opalescent.

“I have dogs at home,” Erdman says. “Some of them go after the yogurt containers and lick them out when we’re done. I remember thinking, ‘Zappy is a black dog who glows like crazy.’” Back in the lab, colleagues began to notice that male mice had large, protruding testicles. (She showed one video of a mouse strutting around his cage like overeager stud at an oonts-oonts nightclub.) The animals exhibited slim physiques and had little abdominal fat. What gave them a youthful edge: yogurt.

Erdman suspects that bacteria confer a “glow of health” in aging animals, essentially mimicking the peak health of younger animals. In a series of recently published studies, she examined mice fed an isolated strain of bacteria called Lactobacillus reuteri, a microorganism originally isolated from human breast milk. Drinking the probiotic infusions halved a mouse’s body weight, no matter how much gooey “fast-food” chow they ate. The bacteria sped the healing of superficial skin wounds. In males, it led to heavier testes. “We ended up with a triad of features that we affectionately call shiny, skinny, and sexy,” she says. “These are indications of supreme physical fitness.”

{%{"quote":"“We should be able to harness probiotic microbes just as we’ve harnessed microbes to make our bread and brew our beer.”"}%}

Probiotic bacteria, which tend to number in the billions, don’t stick around with the tens of trillions of microorganisms already living in the gut. Yet, just passing through appears to shake things up and the ingested microbes stimulate the body’s immune cells, though the exact mechanism behind the effect remains unknown.

The strain Erdman studied, for example, ushered in a cascade of hormonal changes connected with an animal’s thyroid, adrenals, and gonads. “When we started feeding them microbes, the mice suddenly became more active,” she says. “How would that translate into people? You would presume that they would suddenly have more desire to get up and move around—increased energy levels, changes in metabolism, that’s mostly a good thing, right?”

So far, despite any speculation, there’s only tantalizing hints for how research in mice might translate into healthy humans. In one 2011 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers examined 1.6 million years of data to determine what factors caused Americans to gain weight as we age. Potato chips, processed meats, and sugary drinks were the worst for lean body mass. People who ate yogurt, on average, lost about one pound every four years. Today, the U.S. National Institutes of Health lists hundreds of trials on probiotics—from dental health to weight loss—and most of the commercially available Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria strains target gastrointestinal disorders.

If a particular active ingredient, or cocktails of organisms, treats diarrhea, then another set of organisms may better stave off post-marathon fatigue. (After all, you don’t grab any random pill when you’re sick.) Perhaps probiotics altering digestion also give athletes a boost by contributing to good overall health. In the few small studies thus far—hinting at longer run-to-exhaustion times and improved immune response of fatigued athletes—the existing concoctions do not appear to be a performance panacea. Moreover, because people may carry genes that make them more or less responsive to probiotics, physicians may need to get a sense of who you are as an individual before recommending a microbial cocktail that would be particularly good for bringing out the best you that you could be.

Today, there’s still a substantial gap between the lab incubator and your mouth. But looking around, you might never notice that. In the U.S., there’s no standard of labeling for probiotics. Marketing claims go largely unregulated. “If you go to your local pharmacy or supermarket, you will see shelves with compounds labelled as probiotics,” says Martin J. Blaser, a microbiologist at New York University and author of the book Missing Microbes. “Each of them has different claims for what they can do. They represent many different organisms. What I can say for sure is that almost none of them has been well tested—with respect to any of the claims.”

Not that scientists doubt the importance of these microorganisms. Far from it. Are the most important microbes may be the ones we evolved with for millions of years and acquire early in life? Blaser worries that we’re eradicating these species through the indiscriminate use of antibiotics. (Populations such as the Swedes, using far fewer antibiotics per capita, he says, are at least as healthy or healthier as we are.) Once we better know what’s missing, he says, we can expect to deliberately add them back in. “At some point in the future, we will have scientifically based, well-tested probiotics that will have specific uses to improve human health. We should be able to harness specific microbes to use them for our advantage just as we’ve harnessed microbes make our bread and brew our beer.”

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Marathoners Chase Round-Number Finishes

The sun beats down on your head. Sweat drips from the tip of your nose, and your legs and feet beg for a reprieve. As you cross the finish line at your latest marathon, you squeeze every last ounce of energy from your body because, damn it, you will crack three hours this time around.

And then you see your time: three hours, one minute, twelve seconds. You feel stupid for the thought, however fleeting, that it was all for naught.

Your love of round numbers—and their implied significance—isn’t unique. In fact, as Runner’s World reports, a new study by economists at UC–Berkeley and the University of Chicago crunched data from more than nine million marathon finishes since 1970 and found that chasing elusive round marks is the norm for athletes of all stripes.

Of course, completing a marathon with a slightly slower time doesn’t mean much in the long run. Puns aside, you still accomplished a physical feat many people couldn’t.

So, if the arbitrary goals we give ourselves while training don’t really matter to our health, why do we fixate on them? As the study’s authors explain, the phenomenon of “bunching”—spikes in finishes just before hour, half-hour, and even ten-minute milestones—“cannot be explained by explicit rewards (e.g., qualifying for the Boston Marathon), peer effects, or institutional features (e.g., pacesetters).” The answer, instead, lies in the psychology of goal setting. Although the physical benefits are negligible, the psychological ones are very real, and when we fail to meet the goals we’ve set for ourselves, that failure stings.

As with any data involving more than nine million points, these scientists had a lot of information to parse, and the thing is worth a read—if you’ve got the time and the patience—but some key points should be highlighted anyway.

For one, in the final two miles of marathons, participants generally slowed down by 5 to 14 percent. That is, unless they were close to a round-number barrier, in which case, the study found, they often sped up. In other words, these arbitrary goals really can lead athletes to tap into the depths of their energy reserves.

But there’s a limit to this seemingly superhuman psychological strength. At faster marathon times, the ability to speed up in pursuit of breaking a round number declined: only 30 percent of runners trying to crack the three-hour mark could accelerate on their push to the finish, compared with more than 40 percent trying to finish in under five hours.

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The Runner's Ticking Time Bomb?

Long-distance racers have a history of dying. Pheidippides, the first marathoner of us all, croaked at the finish line. Recently, two runners, both under the age of 40, collapsed near the finish line of a half marathon in Raleigh, North Carolina. Though the race’s organizers said that the men’s deaths appeared to be from natural causes, the frequency of racing-death headlines is not so natural.

Studies published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology say that about one in 200,000 runners will experience sudden cardiac arrest, and one in 50,000 will experience a heart attack from coronary artery disease during a marathon. According to the Heart Foundation, 250,000 Americans suffer sudden cardiac death annually. Many of these incidents can be linked to preexisting conditions. It has been calculated that one in 500 U.S. high school athletes has a usually trivial and identifiable cardiac “abnormality,” such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM, a thickening of the muscle wall around the heart.

The American Heart Association has linked HCM to a third of the 1,866 recorded athlete deaths over the past three decades. Of that number, many are runners like Micah True, star of the national bestseller Born to Run, as well as athletes such as University of Southern Indiana basketball player Jeron Lewis and Chicago Bears defensive end Gaines Adams. But these are rare and high-profile cases. Still, if the probability of experiencing cardiac arrest during physical activity is seemingly so low, and if knowledge about the problem is at an all-time high, then why are athletes dying so frequently?

Maybe because you don’t know you are dying. “The symptoms of a heart attack are the same as the side effects of exercise,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietitian who appears regularly on Good Morning America. “Your heart is racing, you are sweating, your chest hurts, and it’s hard to breathe.”

In a report on Fox News, Gordon Tomaselli, a cardiologist at the Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center, explained an athlete’s ability to run right through all the warning signs. “In order to have symptoms, it’s a supply-demand situation. You only get chest pains when the demand on the heart outstrips its ability to supply blood and nutrients to other organs,” he says. “So you can be totally asymptomatic, and your first symptom is sudden death.”

While the symptoms may be hard to pick up on, underlying conditions are not—as long as you look for them. ECG tests are the best method for pinpointing any preexisting heart problems, and while the idea of making tests mandatory for race participants has been tossed around, event directors and runners alike know that wouldn’t be practical. Beyond testing, knowing what your body is saying, and when to stop during the miles logged, is even more important. “Moderation is the key to everything,” says Taub-Dix. “Running and exercise are great for your health, but there is such a thing as too much of anything.” 

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