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What is your Spark?

9 May

Twice a year, all of our staff get together to read and dissect a book; these are usually not directly related to fitness, but instead subjects that will get us thinking.  At the end of the day, though, we DO become better trainers and coaches because the topics help us improve our skills as: goal managers, psychologists, motivators, and health promotors.  Last month we discussed the book, “SPARK: the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” by Dr. John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

 

Generally speaking, Dr. Ratey discusses the connection between physical activity and cognition.  While very science forward, this is an approachable book that should be required reading for anyone who wants to think and reason clearly, and stave off the mental decay brought on by aging, mental disorders, and inactivity.

 

The biggest take-aways:

1 – All stress is not bad.  Proper stress – even at the cellular level – is actually beneficial.  It is what helps to stimulate the body.  Judicious and properly applied stressor will make us healthier and more able to handle dangerous and debilitating circumstances in our futures.  Miniscule amounts of toxins in the foods we eat actually make us more capable of fending off disease.

 

2 – Age is not a deterrent.  We can improve at the cellular level and increase brain size at any age.  Aging really at its most basic view is the body’s cessation of regeneration and growth.  By exercising, we are not only improving our muscular and cardiovascular systems, but increasing neural connections and positive hormonal and neurotransmitter levels in our brains.

 

3 – The same general principles apply to most of everything we do and how we can change, correct, or influence our circumstance and environment to improve our lives.  Whether it’s dementia, anxiety, depression, or addiction, exercise, both physical and mental, can help ameliorate and control these problems.

 

4 – Inactivity is the ultimate killer.  Lack of physical activity will rot not only our bodies, but also our brains and cognitive abilities.  Just like slowing aging, physical activity helps to (re)build pathways in our brains that make us more productive and improve focus and attention.

 

5 – Exercise is a great way to bolster our mental faculties, regardless of the task at hand.  The hormonal and neurotransmitter cascades that occur after exercise help to “grow” our brains and leave them in an environment more capable of learning and retaining information.

 

Now before you get intimidated by thinking that this means that you have to go out and train for a marathon or throw 1,000 pounds over your head, know this: a little is better than nothing, and every little bit more is beneficial.  Taking your current state, adding just 30 minutes of brisk walking daily is enough exercise to make improvements – in your physical health, but also in your thinking and mood.  Try a new sport, add an after-dinner walk with your spouse, or come in for an additional 30 minute session each week.  These will all help you on your path to improving your life and vitality.

Egg Yolk Consumption: Article Review

3 Sep

Spending several years in a medical setting, I have become acquainted with reading research studies and identifying the conclusions and ramifications – even if they are not completely the same as those published by the authors in the paper.  There has been a study discussed in the news recently that has piqued just this interest in me – perhaps you have heard of it: “Egg yolk consumption and carotid plaque.”

In this study, published in the journal Atherosclerosis, Spence and his colleagues wanted to examine the link between egg yolk consumption and atherosclerosis.  The authors point out that this has, for some time, been a controversial issue, with previous studies falling on both sides of the debate – some state that eating egg yolks raises serum cholesterol while other studies saw no change.  In an effort to identify whether or not eggs are, in fact, deleterious to cardiovascular health, Spence, Jenkins, and Davignon decided to look at a different marker in examining risk for cardiovascular disease: total plaque area.

That’s a lot of science to start out this article, so I’ll back track a little bit.  While we might debate its validity, cholesterol is still a leading indicator for risk of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease.  Generally speaking, cholesterol values can be broken down into high-density lipoprotein (HDL – “good” cholesterol) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL – “bad” cholesterol).  As LDL increases as a proportion of total cholesterol (or often times as a ratio compared to HDL and/or triglycerides), the risk for disease increases.  Because the effects of egg yolk consumption on cholesterol have been equivocal up to this point, the authors must have wanted to use a different variable, hence measuring total plaque area.  

So why did this study get me worked up?  Firstly, it was the inflammatory headline that ran on CNN: “Egg yolks as fatal as cigarettes”.  Secondly, when I sat down to read the study, the authors made some pretty broad generalizations and gross over simplifications.  To start with, in order to identify egg yolk consumption over time, the authors culled information from “lifestyle questionnaires” from patients “at the time of referral” to a vascular prevention clinic after transient ischemic attacks or strokes.  Simply put, the authors asked patients how many eggs they had eaten through their lives on a questionnaire.  These were patients who had already had an transient ischemic attack or stroke (A transient ischemic attack – or TIA – is when blood flow to a part of the brain stops for a brief period of time. A person will have stroke-like symptoms for up to 24 hours, but in most cases for 1 – 2 hours.  A TIA is felt to be a warning sign that a true stroke may happen in the future if something is not done to prevent it.).  Inferring anything about lifestyle or dietary habits of healthy individuals based on the presentation of sick individuals is extremely confounding and usually not very accurate because of physiological changes brought on by the disease process.

The other problem with how Spence and his colleagues collected the data was with their dietary recall.  The average age of the subjects in the study was 62; how was someone expected to remember how many eggs they had eaten throughout their life, let alone even what they ate last week?  As fitness professionals, we are intimately tuned into our nutrition, but I for one, can’t even recall what (let alone how much) I ate last month.  Additionally, egg consumption was the only dietary variable that the authors examined.  I would highly doubt that most people eat eggs in isolation of other foods, and for that matter, wouldn’t these other foods possibly contribute to – OR – take away from accumulation of plaque in the arteries?

OK so those are the fatal flaws of the study on it’s surface.  What next?  The authors wanted to relate any atherosclerosis brought on by egg consumption to previously known plaque producers.  So what did they do?  They compared eating eggs to cigarette smoking!  How are these two habits AT ALL comparable?  One habit is a known carcinogen, destroyer of lung tissue, and HIGHLY addictive.  The other, however, is a complete food uniquely designed to sustain life.  Can you tell which one is which?

If you’re still keeping up, the authors showed that increasing egg consumption ran almost parallel to cigarette smoking with regard to accumulation of arterial plaque, with both showing a direct exponential relationship as consumption (or smoking frequency) increased.  WOW!  So maybe eggs are pretty bad for you huh?  The general consensus that we, as a staff, drew from this study was that it really only relates to those already at risk for coronary heart disease and/or strokes.  We make recommendations to clients with respect to their nutrition and eating habits for improving their health and fitness.  We do need to keep this study in mind when making those recommendations, but for the vast majority of our clients who have not experienced a cardiac episode or stroke, or are at risk for them, this study is not all that relevant.

What does this mean for all of you?  Keep eating those eggs!  Eggs contain a multitude of vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients that are hard to come by from other foods (choline anyone?).  Additionally, they are a great source of easily digestible protein needed for recovery from workouts and keeping the body health.  While eggs do contain cholesterol (about 200mg per egg) your body NEEDS cholesterol to function properly.  Everybody needs cholesterol to maintain a healthy balance of all number of hormones, including the sex hormones, which many researchers believe are important for maintaining vitality.  Do, however, make sure that these eggs are part of a healthy meal full of ripe brightly colored fruits and vegetables.  And be sure to peruse the archives of the blog, as there are several great tasty egg recipes throughout.

If this got you all worked up over egg consumption, check the following rebuttals to learn more about it from very well informed scientists, researchers and nutrition consultants:

Mark’s Daily Apple

Zoe Harcombe

Outside Magazine

Chris Masterjohn (Weston A Price)

Before we embark…

27 Sep

As the Whole 30 ver. 2.0 approaches (starting October 1), I figured I would share an interesting infographic that I found.  Hope you all enjoy.

Brain and Brawn

10 Feb

I can’t remember the last time I spoke to someone who was excited at the prospect of getting older.  People fear different things, but it’s safe to say most concerns surround declining physical and/or mental well-being.  For years, the medical community has promoted cardiovascular exercise as the best for the prevention and intervention of disability and disease.  Aerobic exercise was said to keep the heart and lungs strong as well as aid in neurogenesis, or the creation of new neuronal cells in the brain, especially in those portions of the brain associated with memory and thinking.  While this recommendation still holds true, recent studies are showing that resistance training is as effective, if not more, at stimulating neurogenesis in the same areas of the brain.

Recently, a few studies examining the effects of exercise on the stimulation of Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) were presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience in November.  BDNF is part of a family of proteins responsible for the growth, survival and differentiation of nerve cells, and maybe the underlining factor responsible for exercise induced effects on cognition and mental well-being.  In one study, researchers from Brazil secured weights to the tails of a group of rats and had them climb ladders for five sessions a week.  This study, which measured the levels of BDNF, found that the weight lifting rats compared favorably to the rats that ran on a wheel.  The sedentary rats showed very low levels of BDNF.  The other study presented studied rats that ran on a weighted wheel (resistance being equivalent to 30% of the rats body weight) compared to rats that ran on an un-weighted wheel.  Not only did the rats moving the loaded wheel pack on muscle mass but they also showed significantly greater gene activity and levels of BDNF within their brains.  Although these results are not definitive proof, it is, at very least, an indication that further study is warranted.

One such study is underway at the University of British Columbia where principal investigator, Teresa Liu-Ambrose, has found that older women who lifted weights performed significantly better on various tests of cognitive functioning than women who completed toning classes.  Ms. Liu-Ambrose has hypothesized that the beneficial effect of strength training on cardiovascular health accounts for some of the improvement in function, but also stated “resistance training at first requires an upsurge in brain usage.”  She goes on to mention the involvement and stimulation of the brain during exercise using proper form and technique could contribute to greater cognitive functioning.  In addition to increased cognitive demand, the brain is responsible for activating the appropriate muscles, the necessary type and quantity of muscle fibers (efficiency) and activating the various energy systems that need to be involved.

One word to the wise, conventional wisdom often suggests that if some thing is good, more is better.  When it comes to exercise, this is not always the case.  Another study recently published showed that excessive exercise in postmenopausal women was linked to lower cognitive function.  Although this study was assessed by questionnaire, not known for their reliability, we do know that overtraining stimulates the release of cortisol.  Cortisol in excess has been linked to depression and lower levels of neurogenesis.

Sharon Begley’s January 3, 2011 Newsweek article “Can You Build a Better Brain?”  presented a review of what neuroscience has learned, and has yet to learn, about improving cognitive function. Supporting additional research regarding strength training and the brain is a statement by Columbia University’s Yaakov Stern that “the research so far suggests that cognitive training benefits only the task used in training and does not generalize to other tasks.”  Stern’s input begs the question, if training cognition doesn’t help, what does?  In answer to that, Begley quotes Art Kramer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studied the effect of aerobic exercise.  Kramer found that “A year of exercise can give a 70-year-old the connectivity of a 30-year-old, improving memory, planning, dealing with ambiguity, and multitasking… fitness training [stimulates] the molecular and cellular building blocks that underlie many cognitive skills.  It thus provides more generalizable benefits than specifically training memory or decision-making.”

In relation to anti-aging, the adage of ‘use it or lose it’ is a good guide for the maintenance of movement and cognitive function, and it appears these are no longer unrelated.  These studies suggest that you can engage both the brain and the body by learning and practicing new or complex movements under a safely prescribed load.  My recommendation would be to start with body weight exercises and focus on learning how to move properly and then progress to greater loads.  The other implication of this study is that checking out during your exercise routine and simply going through the motions to just  ‘get it done’ may not be as beneficial.  Practicing movements with the intent of getting better not only improves your physical health, but also may contribute to your mental well-being