Minimalist Running Style Called into Question


Minimalist running style photoWhen my husband read the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, he immediately went out and bought new minimalist running shoes. A much hipper version of the traditional running shoe, made with a slim rubber sole and slight tread. And he wasn’t the only runner to feel completely cured of any possible injury through this new, more natural running style. 

The trend caught on in a big way generating $59 million in sales in the U.S. last year.

The book talked about how Kenya’s famous Kalenjin distance runners naturally land on their forefeet and not their heels, whereas traditional, padded running shoes force runners to land on their heels. It's helped runners discern how best to avoid impact-driven injury over the course of many years.

The Kalenjin come from the Rift Valley, partially located in Kenya. They've been called the "running tribe" after winning countless Olympic medals from the 800 meter to the marathon. Recently, Kalenjin women have been recognized for their athletic prowess as well. 

Running Style Called into Question

According to a story in The Washington Post, researchers at George Washington University have called modern minimalist running into question after studying a different population of barefoot runners. Kevin Hatala, a doctoral student in anthropology at GWU was surprised to find that the Daasanach people strike on their heels rather than their forefeet during their endurance runs. 

“I guess what we found really interesting about this is it directly shows that there is not one way to run barefoot,” Hatala said on The Washington Post. “We have a lot more to learn about how people who are barefoot run and what might be the best way to run barefoot.”

The Daasanach People 

The Daasanach people come from Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya. They're mostly pastoral people that grow sorghum, maize, pumpkins, and beans. They're not as well known for their running abilities as the Kalenjin people. 

According to the study:

Data were collected from 38 consenting adults as they ran along a trackway with a plantar pressure pad placed midway along its length. Subjects ran at self-selected endurance running and sprinting speeds. Our data support the hypothesis that a forefoot strike reduces the magnitude of impact loading, but the majority of subjects instead used a rearfoot strike at endurance running speeds.

This isn't to say that one group is right and one is wrong. It's just a matter of understanding that they're may be more than one way to run safely.

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Read More: Are We Really Born to Run?

5 Exciting Ways to Break a Sweat in 2013


Hip hop photoTired of the same old workout? Wanna break a sweat while still doing what you love, or maybe you wanna find something new to love. 

The key to keeping your weight in sink is to find a workout that keeps you inspired day in and day out. 

This year, choose a new workout:

1. Pure Barre

Pure Barre uses a ballet bar to utilize muscles you may not even know you had. Believers say it tightens up your entire body faster than you would ever have thought possble. Students say they see results in just 10 classes.

2. Hip Hop Dance

Dance the calories away with this hip hop dance class. Great music, fun moves, and enthusiastic instructors make for an excellent workout that makes it so you don't even know you're working out! 

3. Paddle Boarding

Maintaining balance and paddling the board itself makes for an awesome workout. Your arms and legs will tone up all the while enjoying the beauty of the sea.

4. Belly Dancing 

Belly dancing is the Western name for traditional West Asian or Middle Eastern dance which varies depending on the country. It usually involves a lot of hip movements and fast hand movements. Recently, it’s gained popularity as a beautiful way to burn calories. 

5. Hula Hooping

Hula hooping gained popularity in the 1950's when a California toy company successfully marketed a plastic version of a hula hoop. Most recently, hula hooping has gained popularity as a vibrant way to get moving.

Hula hop photo

The key to staying fit is to get moving and even more importantly, keep moving. So find a new way to break a sweat in 2013.

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Physically Fit Kids Get Better Grades


Boy playing soccer photo

Physical fitness may be to good grades what it is to overall happiness, according to a study in Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness and reported in The Washington Post

The study followed 312 middle school aged kids, an average of 12 years old for one academic year. The kids had their body fat measured periodically as well as their cardiorespiratory endurance, flexibility, and muscular strength. Researchers also recorded student grades in various areas, including English, math, science, and world studies.

The Washington Post reports:

Students deemed the most physically fit had the highest grades and test scores; the least fit had the lowest. The results did not differ by sex or by whether the youths had reached puberty.

This isn’t too surprising considering other studies relating to obesity and mental capacity. A study in the journal Pediatrics looked at adolescents with Metabolic syndrome, the name for a group of risk factors related to obesity. The kids had more difficulty with arithmetic, spelling, attention, and mental flexibility, according to The Boston Globe. There were physical changes too -- differences in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory.

Researchers aren’t sure what causes the connection between physical and mental fitness. But the link between fitness and academic success is there.

Fit kids also tend to enjoy more life satisfaction and happiness because ample exercise is both a means of releasing teenage stress and often a way for kids to make friends. In fact, other studies have pointed to childhood happiness and success later in life. The study analyzed data from 15,000 adolescents and young adults in the United States. Kids who reported being happy grew up to earn significantly more income later in life. They were more likely to earn a degree, get a job, and be promoted more rapidly.

It’s not to say that only physically fit kids are happy and successful later in life -- that’s certainly not the case. But these studies show a link between mental and physical health. 

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Compliments Make Us Work Harder


Flattery photo

Flattery will get you everywhere -- according to a new study from the University of Tokyo. Japanese scientists have found that those who receive compliments strive to succeed.

The research, which was lead by the National Institute for Physiological Sciences, found that the same part of the brain, the striatum, is activated the same way when we are paid cash as when we are paid a compliment. When the striatum is activated we tend to perform better.

In the study, 48 adults were asked to learn a specific keyboard sequence, performing it as fast as possible for 30 seconds. Then participants were divided into three groups. In the first group, evaluators paid each participant a compliment individually. In the second group, participants watched another individual receive a compliment. And in the third group, individuals evaluated their own performance. 

When the test was performed again, those in the first group that had received the compliment individually did better than the other two groups. According to the study: "[P]articipants who received praise for their own performance showed a significantly higher rate of offline improvement relative to other participants when performing a surprise recall test of the learned sequence."

According to Professor Norihiro Sadato of Science Daily: "To the brain, receiving a compliment is as much a social reward as being rewarded money. We've been able to find scientific proof that a person performs better when they receive a social reward after completing an exercise. There seems to be scientific validity behind the message 'praise to encourage improvement'. Complimenting someone could become an easy and effective strategy to use in the classroom and during rehabilitation."

People that receive compliments work harder. Those paying the compliments may feel the benefit as well because sincere compliments make us feel good. This is just further proof that when people feel valued they tend to work harder. 

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Exercise Protects the Elderly Against Brain Shrinkage


Exercise for seniors photoThe brain shrinks as we age, reducing memory and thinking abilities in the elderly and researchers are constantly looking at ways to minimize this atrophy of the brain. A study reported in The Washington Post, analyzed data from 691 adults in their early seventies, including other habits that may contribute to mental maintenance like social interaction and intellectually challenging activities. 

MRI scans showed less shrinkage in the brains of those that exercised regularly. Atrophy was the most noticeable in elderly men that did not exercise. Surprisingly, social and mental stimulation had no impact. Data came from responses to questionnaires. People who were in better health were more likely to exercise. 

Exercise Makes You Smarter

This isn’t the first study of its kind to point to a connection between brain shrinkage and exercise. Researchers led by Justin S. Rhodes, a psychology professor at the Beekman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois tested this premise on mice. The mice were tested on cognitive ability before entering their cages and then injected with a substance that marked changes in their cognition. After months in the cages they were tested once again. 

“Only one thing had mattered,” Rhodes says, “and that’s whether they had a running wheel.”

Exercise seems to slow the brain’s decay because just like other organs it’s made up of tissues that diminish with underuse and age. Exercise also seems to jumpstart the brain’s ability to make new cells. 

The ‘use it or lose it’ mentality is once again apparent. The same is true of the heart. Octogenarians, or those 80 to 89 years old, who have spent their lives doing endurance exercise have the aerobic capacity of someone half their age.

"This long decline into disability, it's not our biological destiny," Scott Trappe, an exercise researcher at Ball State University said. It's that lust for life that seems to preserve both the mental and physical body.

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Why Women Have a Harder Time With Pull-Ups


Pull-up photo

I remember distinctly in the 5th grade wanting nothing more than to be able to do a pull-up. I could run fast, reach my fingers well past my toes, and do ample sit-ups; but pull-ups constantly evaded me. I was never able to get my head above that infamous pull-up bar no matter how hard I tried. 

It seems easier for men across the board to do pull-ups and researchers recently answered the question why. 

A recent article in The New York Times discussed the difficulty. Performing a pull-up means placing your hands in an overhand grip, arms fully extended and feet off the ground. Using the muscles in your arms and back you have to pull yourself off the ground and over the bar. 

Researchers at the University of Dayton wondered why it’s so much more difficult for a women so they looked at 17 normal weight girls who could not do a pull-up. Three days a week for three months they worked the muscles needed to do a pull-up, including biceps and the latissimus dorsi in the back. They focused on aerobic activity to reduce body fat. 

Over time the women increased strength by 36 percent and reduced body fat by two percent but by the end of the trial only four out of the 17 women could do just one pull-up. 

The New York Times reports:

[Paul Vanderburgh, a professor of exercise physiology and associate provost and dean at the University of Dayton, and an author of the study] said the study and other research has shown that performing a pull-up requires more than simple upper-body strength. Men and women who can do them tend to have a combination of strength, low body fat and shorter stature. During training, because women have lower levels of testosterone, they typically develop less muscle than men, Vanderburgh explained. In addition, they can’t lose as much fat. Men can conceivably get to 4 percent body fat; women typically bottom out at more than 10 percent.

So it seems no matter how hard I trained in 5th grade gym class I may never have been able to do that dreaded pull-up. And considering this data, maybe I should stop worrying about it.

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Laughter as a Form of Exercise



I’ve written about Laughter Yoga before. It's a yoga practice which consists of nothing else but laughter.

Laughing makes you feel good. It releases endorphins and reminds us not to take ourselves so seriously. 

A study published in the Proceeding of the Royal B at Oxford University speaks to the effectiveness of laughter, specifically laughing in a group. 

Researchers recruited a large group of undergraduate men and women for a laugher study. The study was based around the idea that laughter isn’t just a response to something funny, it’s a form of physical exertion or exercise that causes a similar physiological response. 

Studying Laughter

The New York Times reports: 

“Laughter involves the repeated, forceful exhalation of breath from the lungs,” says Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford, who led the study. “The muscles of the diaphragm have to work very hard.” We’ve all heard the phrase “laugh until it hurts,” he points out. That pain isn’t metaphoric; prolonged laughing can be painful and exhausting.

Dr. Dunbar's study participants watched short videos of either a comic or dryly factual nature, either alone or with a group. Afterwards, volunteers submitted to a pain threshold test of how long they could endure a blood pressure cuff or frozen cooling sleeve. 

Again, The New York Times reports: "The decision to introduce pain into this otherwise fun-loving study stems from one of the more well-established effects of strenuous exercise: that it causes the body to release endorphins, or natural opiates. Endorphins are known “to play a crucial role in the management of pain,” the study authors write, and, like other opiates, to induce a feeling of euphoric calm and well-being (they are believed to play a role in “runner’s high”)."

The more pain participants could endure, the more endorphins produced in the prior experiment. Pain thresholds were higher after the comic video. But they were even higher after watching the funny video with a group. The physiological reactions from a good belly laugh with a group were similar to those after group exercise like rowing or team sports. 

This is why Laughter Yoga seems so effective--it’s a group activity involving belly laughter. According to Psychology Today, laughter also helps your blood vessels function more efficiently, allowing the more expanded movement of blood, which helps us relax. So laugh out loud -- it’s good for you!

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Morning Coffee May Actually Cause You to Slack Off


Coffee for slackers pgotoThis one brings it home for me. I never realized why coffee just doesn’t do anything for my work ethic, now I know. It turns out that for some of us stimulants have the opposite effect--they cause us to slack off.

You see, hard workers and slackers have different approaches to tasks at hand. Hard workers think more about the reward at the end of a task, while slackers think about the effort to complete the task at hand. Stimulants seem to flip these approaches in hard working rats. Lazy rats given stimulants worked harder, but hard workers seemed to become slackers. 

“I think this is already somewhat understood in everyday life; for some of us, coffee really does the trick for those long hours in the middle of the day, but for other people it makes them too jittery or aroused to concentrate on their work,” Jay Hosking, lead author of the study and PhD candidate.  

Live Science reports:

When the rats were given stimulants — caffeine or amphetamines — they were more impulsive and responded quicker, but they were just as accurate at nosing the lit-up hole. However, the two personalities of rat had opposite reactions when made to choose between tasks. On either of the drugs, the hardworking rats became lazy, preferring the easy tasks in trials.

Read More: Your Health on Coffee: 7 Facts To Change Your Perception

Coffee has been proven in past studies to impact cognition especially in older people. Researchers reported that volunteers who drank coffee in the morning performed better than nondrinkers on tests that involved learning new information. Coffee can also improve cognitive function as we age. One study found that combining coffee with a sweet treat had an even bigger impact.

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Sara Novak writes about health and wellness for Discovery Health. Her work is also regularly featured in Breathe Magazine and on She has written extensively on food policy, food politics, and food safety.









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