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Dispatches : Science

A Fitness Center That Takes Your Breath Away

Athletes can take their workout to new heights at an altitude training room in the Bay Area.

The recently opened Air Fit, run by fitness company Leisure Sports, is a 1,100-square-foot room equipped with a massive compressor and air tank that reduce oxygen levels in the room. In theory, this allows athletes to improve fitness without having to increase exercise time, potentially lessening the muscle and joint strain that comes with longer sessions.

“The idea of hypoxic training is that the body has to work harder to do the same amount of activity,” says Matt Formato, business development director at Hypoxico Altitude Training Systems. The equipment manufacturer, known for its altitude sleep tents and workout masks, helped Leisure Sports develop Air Fit. The two companies first teamed up fall 2011 to create The Summit Training Studio, a 400-square-foot altitude workout room at ClubSport in Tigard, Oregon.

Beyond the increased calorie burn, Formato, along with Dennis Dumas, director of wellness at Leisure Sports, says that training at altitude can improve lactate thresholds, oxygen utilization, and metabolic rates, possibly increasing red blood cell counts as well, which can afford athletes a competitive edge both at altitude and sea level.

Despite such claims, most altitude training research focuses on the effects of living in the mountains and training at lower elevations, rather than on interval training in hypoxic environments. The live-high-train-low approach is the preferred altitude training program for elite athletes, explains Jay Kearney, a former physiologist with the United States Olympic Committee who works with Osprey Leadership Consulting as a performance adviser.

Some sports physiologists are not quite convinced that hypoxic interval training can provide all the same physical changes.

“The bottom line is that one cannot expect to see an increase in red blood cells or an improvement in lactic acid metabolism when the ‘dose’ is based on a two-hour workout, even if that workout is done three to five times a week,” says Randy Wilber, senior sports physiologist with the United States Olympic Committee.

But Formato and Dumas counter that the science of altitude training rooms is so new researchers haven’t had time to publish their findings on living high and training low. Some early studies point toward benefits in oxygen utilization and sprint performance, but these are still ongoing.

Because few nonprofessional athletes are blessed enough by geography to have access to high-altitude training and its benefits, Air Fit has a ready audience. The new facility opened this month at the Quad, a Pleasanton, California, gym. There, as many as 27 members at a time can take high-altitude classes that include circuit training, rowing, spinning, and one-on-one sessions.

Unlike athletes who use altitude masks attached to a machine, users of Air Fit don’t have to be tied to a stationary bike or treadmill. “We wanted to offer something no one else was,” Dumas explains. “It’s not just a room built for hypoxic training, but it’s built for high intensity, functional training.”

Many of the Air Fit classes—Summit Yoga and Mile High Circuit, for instance—will be programmed to simulate altitudes of 5,000 to 6,000 feet. Oxygen levels can be set to approximate those at altitudes as high as 22,000 feet, but Dumas says that such extreme settings will be used exclusively by elite athletes training to summit Everest or other major peaks.

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Your Face Scrub Is a Serious Pollutant

In 2012, advocacy group 5 Gyres, which draws attention to the epidemic of ocean trash and the impact photo-degraded plastic is having on ocean ecosystems, turned its attention to the Great Lakes. Suddenly, the group's workload skyrocketed.

“We found high concentrations of micro-plastics, more than most ocean samples collected worldwide," said 5 Gyres' executive director Marcus Eriksen. "These were of similar size, shape, texture and composition to plastic microbeads found in many consumer products used as exfoliants…"

Thus began the group's campaign to pressure cosmetics companies to jettison these tiny beads from their products, such as facial scrubs and other types of soaps and toothpaste. The campaign saw some victories, but they were small, says 5 Gyres director of communications Stiv Wilson: "The only firm commitment we got was from Unilever, which said it would cut microbeads out by 2015. Some other companies still have not given a firm deadline. Procter & Gamble said it would eliminate them by end of 2017, but it's all based on when they can find alternatives. Johnson & Johnson has never given a timeline. Long story short, these timelines became a moving target."

So last fall 5 Gyres started working with its legal staff to draft a bill seeking to prohibit the sale of beauty and cosmetic products that contain microbeads smaller than 5 millimeters, such as the polyethylene and polypropylene beads found in many popular face-wash products. Sewage systems cannot capture or filter these small beads of plastic out of wastewater, so they are eventually flushed out into waterways.

In early February, within 72 hours, both New York's attorney general Eric Schneiderman and California assemblyman Richard Bloom introduced versions of this bill to their respective state legislatures. Wilson, who is one of just 5 full-time 5 Gyres staffers, was clearly quite pleased with the outcome. "We had been hoping it would happen, but you can't make really strong requests of senators and attorneys general offices," he said.

The California version of the bill only bans the sale of products containing microbeads, while New York would ban their manufacture, as well. Aside from forcing consumer brands to rid their products of microbeads sooner rather than later, the passage of both bills would effectively force the companies to completely change their formulas, because converting to non-plastic abrasives in one part of their manufacturing would not make sense. "One in every seven Americans lives in California," says Wilson. "If these bills pass, makers of personal-care products will have no choice but to phase microbeads out."

Other states are moving with bills as well, including Illinois, whose Senate passed a bill recently with no opposition, but Wilson says that the timeline, which would phase the plastic out by 2018, is too slow.

Wilson says consumer products are not the only source of microbeads in waterways, but they are the most troubling in terms of their numbers and impact on fish life. "In the Great Lakes we were finding [microplastic] sandblasting mediums, but those are negatively buoyant so not on surface," says Wilson.

Questions are piling up around what these tiny bits of plastic, which look an awful lot like fish eggs and therefore a compelling meal to many larger fish, are doing to fisheries in the Great Lakes and elsewhere. In this L.A. Times story, Marcus Eriksen does a quick survey of the Los Angeles River, with a 2-foot-wide net placed in the flow for 10 minutes, and finds dozens of bits of plastic.

"The bigger picture is to improve [product] design—not use single-use plastics in throw-away, single-use applications like microbeads," he says.

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The Rise of Lyme Disease

Now that the polar vortex has (hopefully) been banished for the year, you're probably chomping at the bit to get back out to your favorite hiking trail—likely with your canine adventure companion in tow. But fresh research about Lyme disease suggests you should think twice before throwing Fido in the back of your truck.

In Banfield Pet Hospital’s 2014 State of Pet Health Report, researchers found that Lyme disease in dogs has increased 21 percent since 2009. The report, which based its results on medical data from more than 2.3 million dogs, found that in 2013, one in every 130 dogs carried the disease-causing bacteria.

"Because it’s been a long winter, especially in many areas where Lyme disease is prevalent, the natural thing for everyone to do is to go outside and enjoy the wonderful weather," says Dr. Sandi Lefebvre, a veterinary research associate at Banfield. "Although it's fabulous to be outside with your dog, you need to be conscious of the dangers that are lurking out there."

Those dangers vary depending on which state you live in. Take New England, where Lyme disease rates are much higher than in the rest of the country. In New Hampshire—the state with the most reported cases of Lyme disease—one in every 15 dogs examined was infected. Compare that to the Pacific Northwest, where just one in every 1,000 dogs carried the bacteria.  

Since 2009, populations of the two species of ticks that carry Lyme disease have exploded. The white-tailed deer populations that ticks feast upon—and that primarily occupy states east of the Rocky Mountains—have also grown since then, says Lefebvre.

"Ticks like to feed off of these deer, so the more deer there are, the more ticks there are, and the higher the chance that those ticks are infected," Lefebvre says. "And the more infected ticks there are, the higher the chance of dogs getting bitten by them."

Climate may also have played a role in the Lyme disease boom. Simply put, ticks like warmer weather. Short, mild winters like the one two years ago translate to longer tick seasons. 

"Any mammal, whether dog, raccoon, or cat, that travels through those environments is potential target for hungry ticks," says Banfield’s Regional Medical Director Amy Bowman. "Ticks don't jump, leap, or fly. They merely climb plant life and release onto the potential host. What can you do to break that cycle? You have to prevent ticks from attaching and feeding on your pet."

But before you decide to lock your four-legged friend in the kennel, take a second to reconsider. Just because your dog is carrying the bacteria doesn’t mean he’ll show any of the disease’s symptoms. And while others can have life-threatening kidney failure, there are a few simple precautions you can take to keep your pup healthy.

With that in mind, Bowman provided some tips to keep your pup safe, identify signs of Lyme disease, and treat the ailment.

Medication and Gadgets

You wear sunblock to prevent sunburns, so why not give your dog a similar treatment to deter ticks? Bowman suggests a chemical method, like the popular parasiticide Advantix, or a flea and tick collar. Both are available at most pet stores and animal clinics.

Grooming

After any outdoor adventure, remember to check your dogs for ticks. "Ticks need to feed on your pet for about 24 hours," says Bowman. "So when you get back from your activity, groom your pet for ticks. That greatly decreases exposure."

Know the Symptoms

The incubation period and symptoms of Lyme disease in canines vary drastically. However, if your dog exhibits lameness, limping, fever, lethargy, joint soreness, or joint inflammation, it might have Lyme disease and you should seek veterinary help as soon as possible.  

Don't Ignore Your Vet

"The best thing you can do to know whether or not your dog is positive for the bacteria is to have it tested regularly for exposure to Lyme disease," Bowman says. "That is usually done in conjunction with your pet's annual heartworm test. We often pick up Lyme disease in pets who have never shown symptoms." These tests are simple, requiring only a drop of blood, and will help detect other potentially harmful diseases in your dog.

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The Science Behind the Existentially Minded Runner

You may doubt the numbers, but according to neuroscientist and philosopher Deepak Chopra, you have 60 to 80 thousand thoughts running through your mind every single day. That’s somewhere between 42 and 56 thoughts a minute. Which means that a half-hour run gives you at least 1,260 opportunities to think about whatever you want to. Talk about mind power.

Sometimes when we run, our thoughts are running-appropriate: “If I tuck my hips in like Pre, I can run as fast as Pre.”

Sometimes when we run, our thoughts are worth millions: “What if the next special-edition Oreo were s’more-flavored? Hell, yes.”

Sometimes when we run, our thoughts are freaking existential: “Expecting the unexpected is impossible. It can’t be unexpected if you’re expecting it.”

Having thoughts is one thing, but controlling them is another. “It’s common for thoughts to bounce around,” says Jim Taylor, a sports psychologist and mental-training consultant for U.S. Olympic teams and USA Triathlon. “You go from ‘What am I doing out here?’ to ‘Hey, I’m working hard, I’m reaching my goals, I’m doing this!’” Taylor says that the key to keeping your mind on your run is to successfully manage what’s going on in there. Just as with running, this takes training. “You have to learn to master positive thinking,” Taylor explains. “That’s where it gets hard. It’s a skill you have to work at.”

When you do master your mind, you also maximize your fitness level. “You may have the physical ability to run a certain pace or distance, but if you aren’t in the right state of mind, then, mentally, you won’t be able to do it,” says Taylor.

Once you home in and focus, there’s a reason why that half-hour jaunt seems to produce cranial gems: It does. A study conducted by the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia shows that exercise promotes memory function and information processing by speeding cell growth in the hippocampus, the memory and learning center of the brain. A running-induced increased heart rate pumps extra oxygen into your noggin’s lobes, also producing a drop in stress hormones. All of which means that that legendary, clear-headed runner’s high is the real thing. 

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