The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Science

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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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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Bringing Home Your Own Bacon with Fitness Expert Ben Greenfield

Fitness and nutrition expert, Ben Greenfield takes his food seriously.

The author, speaker, podcast producer, and coach has made a career of advising athletes on how to train and maintain good health habits. To practice what he preaches, Greenfield has transformed the kitchen in his Spokane, Washington, home into a living example of to eat locally and produce your own food. There, he gardens, hunts, and ferments—and plans to have his own chickens and goat before long.

“I love that we have a real connection with our food, and that our kids can identify the plants in our garden,” he says.

He hopes his habits will convince his clients and followers to overcome the intimidation factor in growing and sourcing food. By following some of the Greenfield family’s simple habits, anyone can take a more active role in deciding what foods to eat.         

“People are out of their comfort zone,” Greenfield explains. “They don’t know where to start.”

Many of his culinary strategies are easy for novices to adopt, while others require more work, skills, and space. One of the most basic ways to start producing your own food is by gardening. City dwellers with no yards of their own can seek out a plot in a local community garden.

And because some plants require less maintenance and care than others, Greenfield suggests starting with fast-growing crops like arugula and radishes. Another quickly flourishing plant is kale, which Greenfield suggests as a staple in an athlete’s diet because of its high iron content. Zucchini and summer squash are also easy to grow, he says, adding that they can serve as an alternative to pasta for athletes looking to limit their carbs.

At Greenfield’s house in Spokane, he and his wife, Jessa, have turned their backyard into a garden, where they grow all these vegetables. Most mornings, Greenfield heads to the garden to pick kale or other dark, leafy greens for his daily smoothie, which, he swears, tastes more robust as a result. The family also grows cucumbers, berries, corn, tomatoes, herbs, and other crops.

Aside from fresh produce, the Greenfields preserve food by canning and fermenting it. They take cucumbers from the garden and brine them to make pickles. They ferment carrots, cabbage, and peppers to make kimchi, and also make their own yogurt and kefir. Anyone can ferment or can food, Greenfield explains—and they don’t even need their own garden to do so.

Greenfield suggests that fermenting novices start with his family’s pickle recipe. Not only is the process easy, but pickle juice can help athletes replace electrolytes after a long run or ride. The Greenfields place cucumbers in an ice bath for two hours, then transfer them to a glass jar with a tablespoon of mustard seed, two fresh heads of dill, two heads of garlic, one tablespoon of salt, and four tablespoons of whey. (You can get whey from a yogurt container by simply scooping out the liquid that settles at the top.) They fill the jar with water to cover the cucumbers and let it sit on the counter at room temperature for three days. During that time, they shake the jar vigorously for 30 seconds two to three times a day and briefly open the lid after each shaking to release the gases that accumulate. The pickles are then ready to put in the refrigerator and eat.

In addition to gardening and preserving, Greenfield supplies much of the household meat by hunting, bringing home 50 to 60 pounds of white tail deer each season. He plans to start hunting turkeys as well. Since Greenfield doesn’t have to travel far to hunt, he spends little on the endeavor, paying only for a license and a butcher, who parcels the meat into freezer-friendly cuts.

If hunting isn’t an option, Greenfield suggests buying a portion of a grass-fed cow from a local company, as he does every year. The Greenfields save money by purchasing the meat in bulk, supporting a local rancher in the process.

Down the road, the Greenfields plan to continue expanding on the ways they can produce their own food. They’re building new digs on a larger plot of land so they can cultivate a bigger garden, raise ducks or chickens for fresh eggs, keep a goat for milk, and possibly even build a greenhouse for growing crops that normally wouldn’t survive Spokane’s northern climate.

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Until the Teeth Fall Out of Your Head

One day, during your struggles, you look down at your thigh. You should see a familiar scar from an old childhood wound. But now that scar has begun to pull apart, skin separating, as if the stitched seam in a pair of jeans has started to unravel.

Meanwhile, your teeth have grown so loose in your skull that, if you had the strength in your hands, you could pluck them out with your own fingers. The hair follicules on your legs have turned purplish. You bruise at the slightest touch.

As one description puts it, if this malady continues on its course, “the body will degenerate into a bleeding pulp for which death is a blessing.”

This is not some rare and frightening disease recently emerged from primate populations in Central African jungles. Rather, it is one of the oldest human maladies known. For four hundred years, it had a profound effect in shaping world history, and yet is almost forgotten today.

This “bleeding pulp” of the human body represents the end stages of scurvy.

A Disease as Old as Us

Scurvy has probably been around as long as humans existed—Hippocrates made note of it in Classical times—but it wasn’t until about 500 years ago that it threatened the balance of emerging world powers. Basically, scurvy is caused by the lack of what we now call Vitamin C (or ascorbic acid). Most animals need Vitamin C to survive, but most of them can manufacture it in their own bodies, with the exception of certain primates, bats, and guinea pigs.

To describe its role in the human body, I think of it as a kind of atomic welder in the body’s foundries that make proteins. One of the most important proteins the body manufactures is collagen, which helps form the tough, connective tissues—ligaments, tendons, skin, blood vessel walls. Scurvy sets in when there is no vitamin C to weld together the collagen protein in these tissues.

“The Explorers’ Disease”

This became glaringly obvious starting in the late 1400s when sea-going European explorers made epic voyages in search of new lands. They sailed for months without fresh food that contains Vitamin C. Scurvy typically appeared among the crew after ten or twelve weeks at sea, but sometimes sooner. Vasco da Gama’s expedition around Africa to India in 1497 suffered mightily from it, saved by an Arabian trader who happened by with a boatland of oranges. A French expedition led by Jacques Cartier, his ship trapped in the ice in the frozen St. Lawrence River in the 1530s while looking for a Northwest Passage, lost 25 out of 110 men.  

Cartier ordered an autopsy on one 22-year-old victim to try to understand what this curious malady was.

“It was discovered,” according to the expedition’s journal, “that his heart was completely white and shriveled up, with more than a jugful of red date-coloured water about it.”

(One of my favorite scientific books of all time, which describes some of these events, is Kenneth J. Carpenter’s “The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C.”)

Once European nations developed navies to colonize and defend distant lands far across the seas, the death toll from scurvy skyrocketed. By one calculation based on nautical records, between 1500 and 1800, scurvy appears to have claimed around two million sailors.

What’s bizarre is that it took so long, literally centuries, for European powers to figure out a reliable cure such as the famous British Navy lemon juice, which was instituted around 1800. Countless cures were lying under the noses of every expedition and were long known to native peoples. Cartier’s expedition was saved from utter decimation through the knowledge of the local Indians, who, in the depths of frozen winter, showed the clueless Frenchmen how to brew tea from the needles and bark of a tree called the anneda, much later identified as the white cedar, or arborvitae. This happened to be very high in Vitamin C.

Other native peoples in cold regions throughout the world—where there are no fresh fruits or vegetables available in winter—had figured out over the millenia what herbs or barks or animals to consume that happened to be high in Vitamin C and would keep them healthy during the long frozen months. The Inuit of the Arctic, for example, chewed on whaleskin, extraoridnarily high in vitamin C, while the Yukon Indians knew that the adrenal glands of field mice would keep them healthy in the winter.

Collapse of the Overland Expedition

In my book, Astoria, I’ve written about the possible effects of scurvy on Wilson Price Hunt’s Overland Party in the winter of 1811-12. They were trapped in a huge canyon (unmapped then but known today as Hell’s Canyon of the Snake River) with little or no food. I suspect at least some members, such as the collapsing Scottish fur trader Ramsay Crooks and American hunter John Day, were succumbing both to hunger while also severely weakened by scurvy.

The Shoshone Indians saved Hunt’s Overland Party from this fate. When a group of Hunt’s party finally escaped Hell’s Canyon and reached some Shoshone villages, the Shoshone fed them, among other things, dried, pounded “wild cherries.” It’s not clear just what type of cherries these were, but some cherries (or cherry-like fruits) are extraordinarily high in Vitamin C. The acerola, or West Indian cherry, contains about 1700 mg of Vitamin C per handful, or 170 times what the human body needs daily to recover from scurvy. Experiments on conscientious objectors during World War II showed that 10 mg per day of Vitamin C cleared up the symptoms of scurvy within a few weeks.

Whatever kinds of cherries, it is almost certain that the Shoshone Indians ate rosehips, either dried and infused in teas or mixed with other foods. Rosehips are another power pill when it comes to Vitamin C (each cup of fresh rosehips contains close to 1,000 percent of the human daily requirement for Vitamin C). With pounded wild cherries, and rosehip tea or rosehips mixed in stews or in pounded meat, Hunt and his Overland Party were restored from their possible scurvy and debilitating nutritional weakness. With these mega-doses of Vitamin C from ancient, traditional sources, the Overland Party continued on its way to the Pacific to start the first American colony on the West Coast.

The Hardest Way West

In this exclusive excerpt from the new book, Astoria, the legendary Overland Party attempts to establish America's first commercial colony on the wild and unclaimed Northwest coast—provided, of course, they survive the journey.

Peter Stark is a full-time freelance writer of non-fiction books and articles specializing in adventure and exploration history. His most recent book, Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire; a Story of Wealth, Ambition and Survival, tells the harrowing tale of the quest to settle a Jamestown-like colony on the Pacific Coast and will be published in March 2014 by Ecco/HarperCollins.

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