Do we really need more evidence?

Exercise, Daily, Fitness, Health, Diet

You can rejoice in the high level of confidence of at least one thing: Exercise is good for you.

The results keep pouring in.

The titles are often exaggerated, sometimes misleading, occasionally downright wrong. But that’s journalists for you. You gotta read beyond the headlines.

Even without reading beyond the headlines, however, the general trend is very clear: Exercise is good for you. Even in large doses, it is certainly better to be exercising than not exercising at all.

Thus the question I ask in the title: Do we really need more evidence?

As a scientist, I understand that there cannot be absolute certainty. It is a matter of “degree of confidence.” And it is difficult to tease apart the effects of various lifestyle decisions in something as complex as health. So I cannot begrudge researchers wanting to do more research, needing to clarify (or identify) causality among the sea of correlations that past research has brought to our attention.

But no matter how much clarification and specific causality determination still remains, no one is claiming that exercise is NOT a good thing for you. On the contrary. That’s pretty much the best, most agreed-upon, common denominator to all the research out there (on the subject of fitness and health). There is a lot of confidence.

So for you and me, normal folks, it truly is a no-brainer: Exercise. Move. Regularly. Everyday. The more, the better.

But because it is always fun to do (and it provides good fodder for a blog), here are a few recent conclusions from articles published on the subject.

Answers

First of, it really looks like exercising is not only good for increasing the odds of long-term health, but it is also a really good idea if you are sick or have suffered from a serious illness.

Then, if you are getting older (and who isn’t?), exercise can really help keep your head in better shape, not just your body.

Speaking of which, I’d be remiss not to mention this really interesting piece of research about the effect of diet, particularly greens, on cognitive health. I do love my greens, even though I promote exercise first and foremost.

There’s a passage in the summary of that particular article that is worth copying here:

They followed participants for 2 to 10 years, assessing cognition annually with a comprehensive battery of 19 tests and adjusted for age, sex, education, smoking, genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease and participation in physical activities when estimating the effects of diet on cognitive decline.

By the way, when a researcher talks about “adjusted for (…) participation in physical activities” to estimate the effect of diet, it means that exercise was already understood as an important contributor to health (high correlation between exercise and health) and what is being looked for is the remaining contribution of diet. Get it? Exercise comes first, diet comes later. Just sayin’.

In closing, let’s go back to one of the earlier things I hinted at: Even if you do “too much” (and the exact definition of “too much” is unclear), you are still better off than if you are not doing any. So exercise, regularly. Vigorously at times.

That’s a no-brainer for which your body (and your brain) will thank you later.

Questions

You think my section titles are backwards? Answers first, then questions? Nope. Answers always lead to other questions. At least if you are serious about asking questions.

So let’s.

Do we really need more evidence that exercise is good for us? Ok, we know the answer to that. It is a resounding “no!”

Do we really need more evidence in order to get us moving more? That’s a different question. The answer is also, probably, no.

So what do we need, if not evidence, to get us moving more? That’s a far more intriguing question.

Perhaps it has to come from our emotions? Perhaps it is simply a commitment? The big stick of Discipline, or the easy persuasion of our Purpose?

I don’t know for sure, and it probably depends. And it is a good question to finish with.

One thing is certain: It is what I’ll spend my next post talking about…

Picture from Pixabay.

5 Little Ninjas

Movement, Daily, Exercise

Cute… and very good at what they do.

Sometimes, you have to make do with what you have, no matter how “little” that is. It just might turn out it is not that “little” after all, once you get moving.

If you are like most people nowadays, that means you work a mostly desk-bound job, commute for a sizable chunk of your day, don’t get enough sleep, drink too much coffee and in general consume too much NOT FOOD items. Oh, and you have precious little time to exercise the way you know you should.

That’s why when I saw this image of five little ninjas, I was inspired to remind us all about the ways in which we can sneak exercise into our days without requiring big changes to our lifestyles. (As I wrote this post, I was also reminded of some ads for smoking replacement products that featured ninjas, so I can’t claim to be very original. But bear with me. My ninjas are cuter. And more healthy.)

So let’s call this the 5 Little Ninjas of Daily Exercise. (5LNDE for short in the rest of the text.)

Just like real ninjas (supposing such persons really exist), the 5LNDE are sneaky, which means that others might not even notice they are there.

The 5LNDE are also quiet; they don’t require big noisy equipment, or loud grunts on your part.

And because they are little ninjas, they might not appear deadly, but they certainly can make a difference if you do them often enough. Don’t be fooled.

So, without any further ado, here they are:

Walk Ninja – The very essence of stealth and quiet. Simply walking more on a daily basis will make a difference in your muscles and bones, and even though it does not burn many calories, it burns more than sitting and doing nothing in your car or in public transit. Go for a walk at lunch time, have a walking meeting. It does not require any extra time; just make it part of your daily getting from point A to point B. Let this little ninja sneak into your daily habits.

Stairs Ninja – Also very quiet, and can also be done as part of your normal movements during the day (instead of escalators/elevators, for instance). Or use a break or part of lunch time to sneak into the stairwell of your building, and go up and down for a while. 5 minutes. Very good for your muscles and bones, and burns a decent amount of calories, without making you sweat too much. Good ninja to have on your team.

Getting Up Ninja – To go talk to someone, or get water; any pretense is good to get up from your chair. Sitting is really, really bad for us. So the more often you can interrupt a sitting session, the better. Best still if you can work standing, but that is hard to pull off. The most effective, and sneaky, approach to this is simply to stand up once in a while. At least every hour, preferably more. The more active your day becomes, the better off you’ll be.

Squats Ninja – This may seem strange to witnesses, but when you have a moment, perhaps in conjunction with the previous little ninja, go down and then back up again from a standing position. Do 10 at a time at first. Slowly, while breathing. 20 is better. Full amplitude is better than partial; however, just doing the sitting to standing squat, and back down again, without using your arms to help yourself in and out of the chair, does the trick. It only takes a few minutes, so you can do it multiple times during the day. Easier if you have a closed office, but this little ninja can be active anywhere, without being overly conspicuous. And it does wonders for your legs.

Push-ups Ninja – Yes, I know, push-ups are hard. Harder than squats, and stairs. Perhaps even harder than running. But guess what? That’s precisely why they are so good. We systematically under-use our muscles, which means our bones have no reason to remain strong, and our base metabolism slows down because the muscles are smaller. Time to change that. You don’t need to do a whole lot; maybe 5 at a time to start. But do them a few times per day, and you’ll soon see results. Maybe not at the office, though I dare you to start a “lunch push-up club” and recruit a few co-workers to share the pain, er, I mean, fun. Do them first thing in the morning (it is very much like eating a frog), and in the evening. It takes almost no time, so it is the quickest of the ninjas. But just as effective.

That’s it. The 5LNDE.

Make them part of your team in the fight for better fitness and health.

Image from Pixabay

The only thing that matters

Movement, Exercise, Daily

It does not matter how fast.

Get moving again.

There. End of post. Shortest ever!

What, you don’t quite get it?

OK, I’ll elaborate a little. But just a little. (I still want this to be the shortest post ever from me.)

Take this post, for instance. It has been a while since I’ve written one. I’ve been busy, you know, with stuff: Selling a home, buying a new one, preparing two moves, planning a new life in a new town, doing a bit of money-earning work. Oh, and trying to get pregnant. (Not me: My wife. But apparently I have a contribution to make.)

It adds up. And whether it is the time it takes, or the mental energy it requires, it ends up leaving too little of either for me to muster what it takes to write.

And so you don’t get to read anything from me for a while.

It is just like when “Life gets in the way” and prevents us from exercising like we know we should. (Or must.)

First, you take a short breather, just to get over the urgent things. Then it gets a bit longer, because it always takes longer than expected. Then the habit appears broken, and it gets hard to find the time or muster the energy.

Next thing you know, you’ve not exercised in a while. Just like I’ve not written a post in a while.

So, what are we to do in such situations?

Get moving again.

That is the only thing that matters.

It does not have to be moving a lot. It does not have to be performing at our top level. It does not even have to be a good post.

Just get out there and move. Just find a bit of time.

You know why. You know it is the right thing to do. For yourself. For your Purpose.

So that’s it. Today, I’ve done my part (writing this post); now it’s your turn to do yours.

Get out there and move!

Picture by Sacha Veillette

P.S.: It is still pretty much my shortest post ever.

Getting to the gut of the problem

I’m really trying not to talk about food anymore.

Food, Diet, NOT FOOD, Everyday

Bacteria (and archaea) are your friends. Feed them well.

But I keep being drawn back to it, somehow.

Here are the reasons, I suspect:

1) Exercising more is very simple, and you can find all the advice you can possibly need elsewhere on my blog. So without going into highly specialized training regimen, which I don’t advocate anyway, there are only so many things that can be said about moving everyday. It is simple, but it requires effort. Everyday.

2) Food is fascinating, pleasant, and something we do effortlessly multiple times per day. So fixating on it comes easily. Also, the entire process from the food we eat to the energy we have to spend is so complex that, depending on your intentions, you can fool a lot of people some of the time, or try to enlighten one person at a time, with the same amount of energy.

So, because I’d rather enlighten a single person (I’m that kind of person), and I’ve talked about how to move more aplenty, and because more people want to read about food, let’s talk about food.

Actually, let’s talk about food that feeds the many, on top of feeding the one person who eats it. In so doing, we will get to what some have come to consider the “gut of the problem.”

Let’s talk about the food that feeds the bacteria and archaea that live in our guts.

A summary of recent research published in Scientific American spells it out quite nicely. You should really read it.

To save you time, however, here are the main facts, and what they hint at for optimal health:

  • Fact 1: Our digestive system is home to millions of other living beings. It is an ecosystem for them, and there is an interaction between their living, and our absorption of nutrients from food. It is what we refer to as the “gut microbiome” or “gut microbiota.” Or just “microbes” if you prefer.
  • Fact 2: Who says “ecosystem” also says “food chain,” “competition,” “natural selection,” etc. For instance, there’s a constant battle between “good” and “bad” bacteria; between those that help us (by helping our digestion not causing diseases) and those that can hinder us (by causing inflammation, diseases, etc.).
  • Fact 3: The gut microbiome didn’t just appear out of the blue this week; it has evolved along with us (co-evolved is the term). Different species have different gut microbiota. In each case, the gut microbiota has evolved and adapted to thrive off of what the host species typically eat.

Hint 1: Just like our own body should be fed the kind of food it is capable of handling (i.e. food, not too much, mostly plants), so too the bacteria and archaea that live inside us. Basically, the “good” ones strive on a diet that is precisely the kind of diet we should eat. And when the “good” ones don’t strive, then the “bad” ones do, and that can lead to problems for us.

Hint 2: One aspect of the research focused on fiber. We’ve known that fiber is important, and that we don’t have enough in our modern diet, but it seems a big part of the reason is that, without fiber, those “good” bacteria and archaea don’t fare so well.

Hint 3: Moreover, in the absence of enough fiber in our diet, a part of the gut microbes to the next best thing for them: the mucus that lines the walls of our digestive tract, particularly in the large intestine. But we need that mucus for the digestive system to work correctly and for the protection of the rest of our bodies, so when bacteria and archaea eat it, we get ulcers, inflammation, and a slew of other problems.

The article talks about positive results from adding fiber, even just a little, to the diet. It seems to help.

So, go ahead, add fiber to your diet. But not just any fiber.

Real food contains fiber. NOT FOOD that claims to contain fiber often contains the wrong kind of fiber. What I might call NOT FIBER, were it not for the fact that it is, in fact, fiber. Just not the kind that our gut microbiota can be expected to eat.

So we are back to the food we eat. What are we to do?

The same that we’ve known all along: Lots of veggies and fruit. And stay away from NOT FOOD.

No surprise there. Have we learned anything new today?

Yes, I think we have. Or at least this story serves as a reminder.

Nutrition is more complex than “calories in,” and just a count of carbs, proteins, and lipids. What you eat does not end up directly in your blood stream and then inside your cells. It goes through many steps of processing, natural processing, by our guts and the multitude that live in it.

Our own enzymes and guts mechanically and chemically disassemble the food we eat into its basic constituents (glucids, lipids, amino acids, various micro-nutrients) which can then enter the blood stream. What’s left behind is then further processed by gut microbes, and that can sometimes provide more nutrients for us as well.

By further (and co-processing) food, the gut microbiota play an essential role. They help make the whole machinery run smoothly. Provided they get benefits from it as well. Those benefits come from having a relatively safe place to call home and lots of food.

If we create the wrong kind of home for them, or if we provide food that the rowdy relatives prefer, then the “home” becomes less peaceful, and everybody suffers.

Sure, I’m simplifying by using such an analogy, but it is closer to the truth than a lot of the advice out there. (And much better than a car analogy.) Basically, feed your gut bacteria well, by feeding yourself real food (not too much, and mostly from plants), and you’ll improve your digestion.

So next time someone tries to sell you a super food, supplement, or miracle cure for what they claim ails you (but probably doesn’t), simply grab a veggie or a fruit, and chew on that. Everybody involved will feel better…

*****

See the article “Fiber-Famished Gut Microbes Linked to Poor Health” in Scientific American, March 23, 2015, by Katherine Harmon Courage.

Image from Pixabay.

Some is good, more is better, too much is still undetermined?

Running, Exercise, Science, Everyday

Running: Some is good, more is better, but too much is… too much?

This post is about the danger, and strong temptation, of drawing conclusions when it comes to fitness.

There is a process by which it can be done: It is called science.

But it is a lengthy process, one that is deeply human (and that can therefore err) but also fundamentally self-correcting (thus its immense success, without which you would not be reading this, among other things you do on a daily basis).

There are shortcuts, sometimes pretending to be science, but in fact nothing more than wishful thinking. Common sense, sometimes based on anecdotes, falls in this category.

Science is fundamentally always questioning itself. Common sense and anecdotes appear much more solid, which explains their success.

The main issue, it seems, is that most of us are more comfortable with solid, unequivocal conclusions than with questions.

Take a recent example, from just two days ago.

A small research team published results from an analysis of data on mortality and jogging habits of people living in Copenhagen. So far, this is science.

The title of the paper indicates what was being analyzed. The results suggest a possible negative effect of “strenuous” jogging.

That’s all most bloggers and some journalists needed to draw firm conclusions. That’s news. But it is no longer science.

Take a moment to read some of these (they basically say the same thing): BBC, Time, and Huffington Post.

Those titles, and some of the statements, are strong conclusions, mostly taken from the title of the research paper and probably from a press release stating a few key aspects of the research (thus the similarities between the three).

Running, Exercise, Everyday, Science

Go ahead and do it?

The problem is that the research is still lacking in statistical significance with respect to the strongly stated conclusions. The paper itself is not strongly concluding, but stating that the results suggest an increased risk. That raises the question; it is not a firm conclusion.

Of course, to those strong conclusions, some folks with a keen interest in promoting running had to take a dissenting position. That’s what is sometimes called “a debate.” (Note: Not a scientific debate, but one in the public sphere.)

Take a moment to read this Runner’s World blogger.

He makes some valid points about statistical significance, but he also acts disingenuously when trying to imply that the methodology is not correct. (That’s what peer reviewers are there for, not some blogger.)

And by pointing out the small numbers, as if they were by themselves cause to not pay attention to the research, he is giving a false impression of what science is all about. By thus strongly concluding against the findings, he is also part of the problem.

Now, pause for a moment, and consider whether you are more comfortable with the strong conclusions, whichever you like better, or with the uncertainty that, perhaps, too much of something might actually be bad.

Because that question is worth asking.

To use an analogy: You need to breathe oxygen to live; air with a slightly increased oxygen percentage promotes recovery; too much oxygen in percentage in the air you breathe and you die.

So it would stand to reason that some exercise is good for you; more exercise is better, but “too much” can be deadly.

It is worth investigating, not denying. What it is not worth doing is becoming sedentary over…

Because even though “is too much bad for you?” is a valid question, the question “is doing some good for you?” has generated a lot of evidence behind a positive answer, even though it is also still a valid scientific question.

That’s what science provides: Degrees of confidence. Never absolute conclusions.

No matter what anyone tells you about it.

Unfortunately, degrees of confidence don’t sell magazines, or gym memberships. Certainty does.

So you should move. A lot. Everyday. And it seems pretty certain that if you keep the intensity moderate, you’ll be safe.

Safer, and healthier, than if you don’t move at all. I’m pretty confident about that.

Running, Exercise, Science

Better move than not. Better more than too little.

Pictures taken by the author at various running events.