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Dispatches : Science

Championing Renewable Energy for Everyone

"The shift from fossil fuels to renewables is one of the biggest wealth-creation opportunities of our time," says 32-year-old Solar Mosaic cofounder Billy Parish, "and we all should be part of it." Does that sound like a hard sell? Or a Pollyannaish one? Consider that since Parish officially launched Mosaic in January, the company, which acts as a bank to vet and back solar projects, has attracted $5 million in capital from more than 2,000 investors. Those who wish to do good and turn a profit can just go to Mosaic's website, sign up, and commit increments of $25 to projects as small as a 645-kilowatt bee farm in California and as large as a 55,000-panel solar installment on a military housing development in New Jersey. The investments are illiquid, meaning you can't pull your funds out for a fixed period of time, and projected returns are in the 4 percent to 7 percent range—competitive with many mutual funds. Best of all? You get to visit the projects you invest in.

"There's a big gap between 'Click the link to send an e-mail to your congressman' and 'Chain yourself to the White House,' " says Parish, who dropped out of Yale and later founded the Energy Action Coalition, an activist group. "We're doing something nobody has been able to do before," says Parish, "allowing people to invest directly in clean-energy projects."

Parish and a partner, Dan Rosen, ran the company with seed money from their parents before attracting angel investors and a Department of Energy grant. Mosaic negotiates the complex regulatory processes for investors and vets solar projects pitched by developers, just as a bank would. Then it makes a crowd-funded loan and skims 1 percent of the profits for itself. Despite public hand-wringing over solar tied to the failure of Solyndra, experts say Mosaic is arriving at a good time: solar-module prices have dropped by 80 percent in the past four years, so it's easier than ever to fund projects.

"There's no one else like Mosaic, so people in the industry are really intrigued," says Jigar Shah, a consultant and investor who was CEO of the solar utility Sun Edison for five years. "No one is sure if
it's for real or not—they haven't even deployed $10 million yet—but the opportunity is there. It's all about whether or not they execute."

Parish isn't concerned about that. "Solar will outcompete other technologies," he says. "It's happening so fast, I don't see any fossil fuels being able to compete anytime soon."

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Is CrossFit Killing Us?

IN JULY, nearly 300,000 people tuned in live on ESPN2 to watch 26-year-old Rich Froning and 31-year-old Samantha Briggs win the Reebok CrossFit Games, the last two standing after out-muscling 138,000 global participants in three rounds of competition. For their efforts, which included CrossFit mainstays like burpees and deadlifts, Froning and Briggs walked away with $275,000 each and the title Fittest on Earth—at least according to CrossFit.

Buoyed by the games, CrossFit's high-intensity workouts have exploded in popularity. There are now roughly 10,000 CrossFit-branded affiliate gyms—or boxes, as they're called—around the world. But behind the competitive, puke-inducing workouts is a growing list of injured participants, many of whom suffer from telltale injuries: slipped disks, torn rotator cuffs, knee tendinopathy. Neither the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) nor any other association tracks injury rates, but Robert Hayden, a Georgia chiropractor and spokesman for the American Chiropractic Association, says he has noticed a rise in CrossFit patients over the past two years. "Among my colleagues, we often share the anecdotal observation that CrossFit is good for our practices," says Hayden.

Blame the nature of the training. Most Workout of the Day routines (WODs, as CrossFit disciples refer to them) include Olympic lifts like squats and power cleans, which require near perfect form to prevent undue strain. Newbies rarely have the stamina or guidance to maintain that form. Combine that with the high number of reps and it's a recipe for injury.

"If you have a preexisting condition—an old ACL tear, tendon damage, or a slipped disk—this kind of exercise will bring it to the surface," says Hayden.

This isn't the first time CrossFit has been in the injury spotlight. Early on, it earned a reputation for being so intense that it could induce rhabdomyolysis, a potentially fatal condition in which muscle tissue breaks down and is released into the bloodstream. But this time the focus is on musculoskeletal issues. This summer, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research published a study showing eye-popping fitness gains among CrossFitters, with participants in a ten-week program boosting their VO2 max by roughly four points. But the study also revealed a troubling statistic: 16 percent of the 54 participants had quit the program due to "overuse or injury." In 2011, the U.S. military, in conjunction with the ACSM, advised soldiers to avoid CrossFit, citing "disproportionate musculo-skeletal injury risk."

In both cases, CrossFit representatives waged a counteroffensive. Reacting to the military findings, CrossFit's chief scientist, Jeff Glassman—father of CrossFit founder Greg Glassman—wrote a 92-page rebuttal that attributed the rise in injuries in part to fatigue from the war on terror.

In CrossFit's defense, the organization goes out of its way to warn people that if they can't maintain proper technique, they should back off. But backing off is a hard sell for many participants, who view the workouts as a competition, especially now that the CrossFit Games are so popular—participation is up more than 400 percent since 2011.

"This year it seemed like everyone at my box was getting ready for the local competition," says 32-year-old former college gymnast Emily Carothers, of Maple Valley, Washington, who finished 23rd at this summer's games. "Many of them were pushing themselves harder than they should have."

Perhaps that's the root cause. Practicing good technique, working around your weaknesses, and staying within your limits doesn't always happen when you're stampeding to beat the next guy. If, however, you approach CrossFit as a sport, complete with cycles of increased workloads and periods of rest and recovery—not to mention an off-season—you can develop a much healthier approach. Carothers already treats it that way.

"I've been doing CrossFit for three and a half years, and I've only had one injury, to my hip," she says. "When I was in college, I had nine surgeries in four years. As far as sports are concerned, CrossFit looks pretty good."

More CrossFit coverage on Outside:

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Is Any Amount of Sugar Safe?

It's official. Sugar is killing us—and our economy. With the average American eating 40 teaspoons of the sweet stuff a day, the related health care costs have reached a startling number: $1 trillion. And it's not just limited to the sedentary among us. High-energy lifestyles may not be enough to burn through all this excess carbohydrate.  

Exercise is Protective
There’s an old saying that if the furnace is hot enough, anything will burn, even Big Macs. And for dedicated athletes, there’s truth to the idea. With enough exercise, you can probably prevent almost all of the negative health consequences of sugar.  There are a limited number of studies on the topic, but fit people appear to be generally protected from junk food diets. Even in people who are otherwise overweight, exercise reduces the quantity of liver and visceral fat stored around organs that is associated with the worst health outcomes. 

In a recent study, investigators in the UK asked a group of fit young males to stop training and be as inactive as possible while they intentionally overfed them  with 50 percent extra calories for seven days. Half of the subjects were then assigned to 45 minutes of vigorous treadmill running per day and got additional food to make up for the calories spent exercising 

The inactive overeaters eaters saw their lipids, glucose, and blood pressure all get measurably worse. But these changes were not seen in the group that exercised. The results related to blood sugar regulation were especially striking:

In summary, our study shows that short-term overfeeding combined with reduced physical activity induced a reduction in insulin sensitivity, hyperinsulinemia and altered expression of several key genes within adipose tissue. The addition of daily vigorous-intensity exercise mostly prevented these changes independent of any net effect on energy imbalance. Whether this is facilitated by regular glycogen turnover or some other consequence of muscle contraction per se remains to be explored. These results demonstrate that exercise has a profound effect on physiological function even in the face of a considerable energy surplus.

Exercise is clearly protective. But the interactions aren’t always as clear in the real world as in the lab. A series of new studies have shown that  at least some people may not respond positively to exercise in the way most of us do. For these non-responders to exercise, too much sugar and too many calories may still pose a legitimate threat to health. 

What About Peak Performance?
Exercise may protect your body from some of sugar’s nastiest effects, but when it comes to peak performance, your bodyweight is a key factor. So while the athlete’s furnace may burn hot enough to avoid the medical problems associated with a bad diet, it’s just not hot enough to let us totally ignore what we eat if we want to go fast. 

That said, most of us live in the real world and don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to eat a pristine farm-to-table diet with minimal processed food and no added sugar. And we don’t need to. Sugar consumption has gone up 25 percent since 1980 as it’s insidiously entered everyday foods. You can cut down to mid-20th century levels out without reinventing your diet:

  1. Avoid routine consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. And avoid drinking sports drinks on training rides or runs shorter than an hour and a half.  Water works fine.
  2. Replace the high sugar snacks at your workplace with fruit.
  3. Read labels. You will be amazed at how much hidden sugar and high fructose corn sweetener there can be in the snacks you munch on. Your morning muffin from Dunkin’ Donuts may pack 49 grams of sugar. And your afternoon granola bar can easily have upwards of 20 grams of sugar. 
  4. Your swell Frappuccino Blended can pack 52 grams of sugar. Go black or ask to see the nutritional information before you order. 
  5. During the holidays or when on vacation, don’t overthink things. Get regular vigorous exercise and you can afford to overeat. 

Michael J. Joyner, M.D., is a physiologist and anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic and a leading voice in the world of exercise physiology. Over the past 25-plus years, he's published hundreds of studies, many of which have focused on how humans respond to exercise. Dr. Joyner also writes at Human Limits. The views expressed in his posts are his own and do not reflect those of his employer.

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