Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Your True Self

In a recent article in the Chicago Tribune about the growing trend of "sweatworking," or combining networking opportunities with a trip to the gym, personal trainer and gym owner Jason Rodriguez says of the practice, "The great thing about sports or exercise is your true self is revealed." Entrepreneur Tony Ricciardi adds, "People need to be vulnerable," and claims exercise or other physical activities uncover that vulnerability. I think one of the benefits of these activities is that they provide an opportunity to expose oneself to failure in a relatively safe setting. Fatiguing during a workout or making an error while playing a sport happen regularly, but the consequences to most of us are relatively minimal. We leave the gym or field and return to our everyday lives, not too much the worse for wear. But learning to respond to challenge and failure is an essential life skill that translates beyond physical activity. Those who are motivated by setbacks in training or sport seem likely to be similarly motivated in their careers and relationships. I can understand why prospective colleagues view sweatworking as a way to gain valuable insight into people they hope to collaborate with and depend on in the future.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

2015 Year in Review

2015 saw the end of one thread of the KineSophy project and the start of another. When I began this blog in 2012 with the aim of exploring connections between philosophy and physical fitness, I soon began to recognize ways in which a philosophical approach could be applied to redeem physical virtues and reintegrate them in a unified ethical theory. Ancient Greek thinkers like Aristotle considered physical capabilities such as strength and endurance as virtues alongside bravery and kindness, but these physical virtues have been cast aside in modern philosophy to focus more on moral (other-directed) virtues.
In 2013 and 2014, I proposed three ethical precepts for human movement (part 1 and part 2), showed how to scale these precepts basedon age, used this principle of scalability to distinguish between primary and secondary virtues in non-moral and moral spheres, and showed how secondary virtues complement and strengthen one another (see January, March, July, September and October 2014). In October 2015, I provided further evidence for the connection between physical fitness and cognitive performance, a relationship I had previously delineated in January 2014. In particular, I sought more evidence to demonstrate that greater levels of cognitive performance are correlated with increased physical capabilities. Scientific research has shown that subjects who imagine performing specific movements without actually performing those motions demonstrate greater strength gains than subjects who perform no imaginary exercises, thus establishing a connection between brain activity and physical ability. Moreover, the quality of this mental imagery is important, since subjects who practice positive imagery improve their performance, while subjects who practice negative imagery see decreases in performance, and individuals who are more adept at mental imagery demonstrate greater improvement in physical skills than do weaker mental imagers. These studies suggest that the quality of mental imagery impacts changes in physical capacities, and individuals with greater cognitive abilities having more potential for increases in physical performance.
In January, I continued my construction of a complete ethical framework by deriving secondary, scalable virtues from the primary virtue of human inviolability. In short, when I think of myself, I realize that I do not want my personhood harmed or my desires frustrated. I also recognize other beings who appear similar to me and realize that they must not want their personhoods harmed or desires frustrated. This realization provides the basis for the primary virtue, according to which I would be wrong to perform certain acts (such as murder) against others no matter my own level of ethical knowledge. Furthermore, human beings are creatures that think and act, or more specifically, that meet minimum standards for thought and action. These standards are non-moral secondary virtues. And if I recognize the reasons to avoid violating the rights of other humans, I will also see reasons to abstain from theft, dishonesty and other secondary moral virtues, since these also harm others or frustrate their desires. Thus, from an understanding of the primary virtue, we proceed to a realization of the secondary virtues.
In March, I endeavored to complete the picture by showing how secondary virtues, and physical fitness in particular, work to support the primary virtue. According to the action theory I proposed in 2014, an agent who performs a virtuous action must have a notion of self, a notion of control over a situation and a notion of value. As an example of physical, non-moral, secondary virtues, an individual who wants to perform a handstand must recognize that he is the agent who will act, that he is capable of learning to perform a handstand, and that performing a handstand is important to him for some reason and will improve him in some essential manner. A similar approach can be used to explain moral secondary virtues. As a result, an agent who practices secondary virtues necessarily realizes that at least one person’s existence is worthwhile. Since the ends of her desires are valuable to her, she does not want to see those desires frustrated. From here, we return to January’s argument, in which an understanding of one’s own inviolability and the recognition of other similarly motivated human beings leads to an understanding of the primary virtue.
Having thus completed the initial aim of the KineSophy project, I turned my attention to applying a philosophical approach of critically appraising arguments to commonly held assumptions in health, fitness and athletics. In February, I addressed the practice of applying ice to physical injuries. Any rationale for icing must assume that the human body’s natural inflammatory response is not appropriate for dealing with acute trauma, and that the topical application of ice can somehow blunt this response. However, there is no scientific evidence that ice achieves the ends claimed by its proponents. In fact, ice may actually delay the healing process. For these reasons, the claim that icing an injury improves healing has no merit.
In June, I used a similar approach to address the common practice of landing on the heel of the foot when running. We would never think of jumping and landing on our heels with locked knees rather than on the balls of our feet with bent knees in any other circumstances. Yet that’s exactly what the majority of runners do when they run for any distance longer than 200 meters. And instead of adopting a safer movement pattern, many runners throw on thick-heeled shoes that allow them to continue to heel strike without the painful feedback that would normally alert them to the dangers of this movement choice. A growing body of research into shoe type and running style consistently demonstrates that the choice of running shoes has no effect on injury rates, and that landing on the forefoot while running reduces impact and decreases the likelihood of injury. Though it may take time and practice to transition from a heel strike to a forefoot strike, thinking logically about the biomechanics involved and reading the pertinent scientific research both lead to the conclusion that the latter is a more effective running stride.
Finally, in November, I combined the Socratic philosophy of self-knowledge with scientific experimentation to examine changes in my own diet. By varying the carbohydrate-to-protein ratio of my meals, I was able to measure the effects of varying macronutrient content on a variety of health and performance metrics. I found that a balance between protein and carbohydrate intake led to the greatest improvements in my central nervous system and brain function, while a diet slightly higher in protein resulted in the greatest improvements in my workout performance and body composition. Overall, I achieved the best results with a macronutrient ratio of 6 to 9 grams carbohydrates per 7 grams protein. Most importantly, I hope this kind of self-experimentation will demonstrate the importance of defining and measuring specific changes for those who seek to make improvements in some aspect of their lives.
I plan to continue this approach of applying logic and critical thought to popular beliefs in health and fitness in 2016. I will also continue to share the latest news on developments in the interplay between athletics and society. And I hope to hear from new and diverse perspectives on all of these issues, similar to my interview with MeganGrant in May. Having completed the ethical foundation for KineSophy in 2015, I look forward to building on it in the months to come.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


Not long ago, I learned the term "adaptive athlete," which describes an athlete with a physical or mental disability. Having previously encountered phrases like "disabled" or "Special Olympics," I much prefer the connotations of this new term. Consider the alternatives:

Image by Australian Paralympic Committee
  • Handicapped - There is some speculation that this word originates from the description of disabled and destitute veterans forced to take to the streets with caps in hand to beg for money. However, the word actually derives from the 17th century betting game "hand in cap," in which one player claimed an article belonging to a second and offered something of supposedly equal value in exchange. A third player would act as an arbitrator and rule as to whether the items were of equal value. All three then deposited forfeit money in a cap, and the first two players displayed their agreement or disagreement with the arbitrator's valuation by bringing out their hands either full or empty. If both players made the same decision, the arbitrator took the forfeit money; if not, the money went to the person who accepted the valuation. The term was later applied to horse racing, in which stronger horses received a handicap of added weight in order to equalize the field ( In either case, the term suggests something lost by way of a forfeiture or burden. The association with gambling also ignores the fact that individuals born with mental or physical setbacks did not voluntarily gamble on their abilities, and would be offensive to individuals disabled later in life, especially those injured through no fault of their own.
  • Disabled - This word literally describes what someone cannot do. Yet while a paraplegic may be unable to walk, she is capable of manipulating her wheelchair in ways most of us cannot.
  • Differently abled - This term has been suggested as a more politically correct variant of disabled. In addition to being an awkward mouthful, the term presupposes that there are normal humans and different humans, with "different" almost always adopting a negative connotation.
  • Special - Another attempt at political correctness, it seems "special" is now frequently uttered with sardonic air quotes and a knowing sneer. The intentions behind adopting this word appear noble, but it is often misappropriated as an insult in contemporary society.
In contrast, "adaptive" acknowledges the existence of a setback by recognizing that the individual faces a set of circumstances to which he must adapt. Yet it also focuses on what the individual can do rather than what he cannot. Furthermore, it relies far less on standards of "normal" and "different," and addresses how a person performs functional tasks such as locomotion. People with two fully functional legs stand and walk, while adaptive individuals learn new skills to accomplish movement. To describe a person as adaptive is to recognize her necessary limitations and simultaneously admire her still considerable abilities.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Socratic Diet

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates

            For the past two years, I have followed a rough interpretation of Barry Sears’ Zone Diet[1], which has allowed me to see improvements in my training for endurance races, feel mentally sharp and energized, and maintain a healthy weight and body composition. But is this diet actually the optimal one for me? I decided to find out.
            The Zone Diet aims to limit systemic inflammation and its myriad related problems by balancing the three macronutrients—carbohydrates, protein and fat—at each meal. It measures these nutrients in a Sears-invented unit called “blocks,” where one block of carbohydrates equals 9 grams (g) carbohydrate, one block of protein equals 7 g protein and one block of fat equals 1.5 g fat. Sears claims that the amount of food a person needs over the course of a day is based on his protein requirement, which in turn is based on lean body weight and activity level. For example, a very active 170 pound man with 10% body fat would require approximately 140 g or 20 blocks of protein each day[2]. Based on his protein requirement, he would also require 20 carbohydrate blocks and 20 fat blocks. Because the Zone Diet encourages adherents to balance their macronutrient blocks at each meal, a “two block meal” would consist of two blocks each of protein, carbohydrates and fat, such as two ounces (oz) chicken (weighed when raw) and three cups of green beans cooked in 2/3 teaspoon of olive oil. For the most part, the Zone Diet categorizes foods by the predominant macronutrient (e.g. 1/4 cup of black beans is considered one carbohydrate block, even though black beans also contain a fair amount of protein).

After a period of trial and error, I found that 20 blocks of carbohydrates and protein and 40 blocks of fat (where the number of fat blocks at each meal is double the number of protein and carbohydrate blocks) seemed to work well in matching my daily energy expenditure, and the experiment described in this article uses that distribution as a baseline. In this experiment, I wanted to see whether varying the ratio of carbohydrate to protein had any effect on my overall health and well-being. I divided the trial into three four-week periods as follows:
            1.      Weeks 1 through 4: increase carbohydrate intake by one block at each meal and decrease protein intake by one block at each meal (so a “two block meal” under my previous diet would now consist of three blocks (27 g) of carbohydrates, one block (7 g) of protein and four blocks (6 g) of fat).
            2.      Weeks 5 through 8: increase protein intake by one block at each meal and decrease carbohydrate intake by one block at each meal (making a “two block meal” consist of one block (9 g) of carbohydrates, three blocks (21 g) of protein and four blocks (6 g) of fat).
            3.      Weeks 9 through 12: return to my previous diet of equal carbohydrate and protein blocks and double fat blocks.
This procedure allowed me to make small changes to my food intake and provided a range of carbohydrate to protein ratios for comparison. As an illustration, here are sample days for each experimental condition:
To determine the effect of each diet on my overall health and performance, I collected the following data:
            1.      Heart rate – measured each day when I woke up and before I went to bed and 30, 60 and 90 minutes after each meal using the FoodDetective app by Better Baby LLC[3]
            2.      Central nervous system (CNS) function – measured 30 minutes after each meal with a tap test and reaction time test using the Performance app by[4]
            3.      Brain function – measured 30 minutes after each meal with the Matching Pairs game on the Fit Brains app by Rosetta Stone[5]
            4.      Workout performance – measured by recording each workout and grading each workout that had a predefined goal (such as a previous personal best or an expected level of performance) as a success or failure
            5.      Sleep – measured each night by recording the number of instances of light sleep or waking using the SleepBot app by SleepBot LLC[6]
            6.      Body composition – measured each week by recording my weight and body fat using circumference measurements and formulas defined by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and Dr. Barry Sears
Here are the results[7]:
            1.      Heart rate
There were no significant variations in my heart rate 30, 60 or 90 minutes after eating based on the carbohydrate to protein ratio of my previous meal, and no significant variations in mean heart rates for any of the diets as a whole.
            2.      CNS function
The average tap test score for my right hand was 66 for the high carbohydrate diet, 68 for the high protein diet and 71 for the balanced diet. The average tap test score for my left hand was 60 for the high carbohydrate diet, 61 for the high protein diet and 60 for the balanced diet. My average reaction time was 270 milliseconds (ms) for the high carbohydrate diet, 240 ms for the high protein diet and 232 ms for the balanced diet.
            3.       Brain function
My average brain game score was 3616 for the high carbohydrate diet, 3867 for the high protein diet and 4005 for the balanced diet. Because I moved from the high carbohydrate diet to the high protein diet to the balanced diet over the course of the twelve weeks, I realized that the improvements in the metrics for CNS and brain function could have resulted from accumulated practice over the twelve weeks and may have been unrelated to changes in my diet. To test this possibility, I recently completed a single week each of the balanced diet, the high protein diet and the carbohydrate diet (in that order), and measured CNS and brain function as before.
Over the course of these final three weeks, my average right hand tap test score was 74 for the balanced diet, 71 for the high protein diet and 70 for the high carbohydrate diet. My average left hand tap test score was 60 for the balanced diet, 59 for the high protein diet and 59 for the high carbohydrate diet. My average reaction time was 223 ms for the balanced diet, 227 ms for the high protein diet and 232 ms for the high carbohydrate diet. My average brain game score was 4007 for the balanced diet, 4013 for the high protein diet and 3941 for the high carbohydrate diet. Since these metrics did not improve (and generally worsened) as I changed diets over these latter three weeks, I believe the changes in CNS and brain function observed in the first twelve weeks were due (at least in part) to changes in my diet.
Looking at individual meals, my best performances on CNS and brain function tests followed meals with a ratio between 2 blocks carbohydrates to 3 blocks protein (6 g carbohydrates to 7 g protein) and 1 block carbohydrates to 1 block protein (9 g carbohydrates to 7 g protein).
            4.      Workout performance
                  I was successful in 17 of 25 workouts (68.0%) on the high carbohydrate diet, 15 of 20 workouts (75.0%) on the high protein diet and 20 of 30 workouts (66.7%) on the balanced diet.
            5.      Sleep
There were no significant variations in my sleep patterns between the three different diets.
            6.      Body Composition
Photographs taken before Week 1 and after Weeks 4, 8 and 12 confirmed that I was least lean on the high carbohydrate diet, lost body fat on the high protein diet, and leveled off on the balanced diet.
In general, two observations stood out to me from this experiment. First off, no individual meal, regardless of carbohydrate to protein ratio or overall nutritional value, resulted in major or irreversible variations in any of the metrics tested. If I ate poorly at a given meal, I might see a slight increase in heart rate or marginally reduced tap test score. Yet if my next meal was healthier, the metrics rebounded toward the mean of my current diet. However, I was surprised at the significant changes in my physical and mental performance over the course of a week or month as a result of these relatively small adjustments in my diet. Throughout these twelve weeks, every meal I ate contained at least one source of carbohydrate, protein or fat. Oftentimes, I ate the exact same foods, just in different proportions depending on the parameters of my current diet. Yet adjusting the ratio of carbohydrate to protein in a consistent manner for an extended period of time produced significant variations in the means of several performance metrics. In particular, eating a balanced diet or one slightly higher in protein improved my CNS and brain function, my physical performance and my body composition in comparison to a diet slightly higher in carbohydrates.
Because the balanced diet resulted in the highest scores for central nervous system and brain function and the high protein diet produced the greatest improvements in body composition and physical performance, I plan to incorporate both of these diets moving forward. Given that my best brain and CNS performance followed meals with a ratio between 6 to 9 g carbohydrates to 7 g protein, I will attempt to maintain this ratio in my meals going forward. Without necessarily recording detailed measurements as in this experiment, I will continue to monitor my health and performance subjectively, and will corroborate these observations with regular blood tests.
In a big picture sense, this article is not intended to encourage you to follow any particular diet, or even to undergo this level of self-experimentation on your own diet. The idea is simply to provide one small example of how to think about making changes in your own life. We all have aspects of our lives we want to improve, whether they are related to health, education, business or relationships. In order to make meaningful change, we need to explicitly define and measure that meaning. If you don’t know exactly what your target is, you will never know when you’ve hit it, and you will waste time and energy on half-measures that don’t get you closer to your goal. It is only human to strive for change and improvement, but we must examine our efforts in order to reach our life’s aims.

[1] For a complete overview of and justification for the Zone Diet, see:
Sears, Barry. Enter the Zone: A Dietary Road Map. New York: Harper Collins, 1995.
[2] The calculation is [1 – [body fat percentage]] x [weight in pounds] x [activity level factor], e.g. (1-0.1) x 170 x 0.9 = 137.7 g protein, rounded up to 140 g protein for convenience in calculating blocks.
[3] FoodDetective (2015). Better Baby LLC (Version 1.0.3). Mobile application software. Retrieved from
[4] Performance (2015). (Version 1.1.1). Mobile application software. Retrieved from
[5] Fit Brains (2015). Rosetta Stone (Version 3.5). Mobile application software. Retrieved from
[6] SleepBot (2015). SleepBot LLC (Version 1.2.0). Retrieved from
[7] You can download all the data from this experiment here: The Socratic Diet Data

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Sexism in Sports Broadcasting

Two nights ago, I tuned into ESPN's television broadcast of Major League Baseball's American League Wild Card Game, presented by the broadcast team of Dan Shulman, Jessica Mendoza and John Kruk (you can find their bios and credentials here). Not having watched an ESPN-televised baseball game in some time, I first thought Mendoza was the on-field reporter (an unfortunate bias on my part). I was pleasantly surprised to hear her providing more frequent analysis than the typical injury update or manager sound bite, analysis that I found to be incisive, well-researched and representative of significant experience with the game. I didn't even think there might be viewers who couldn't come to grips with a woman announcing a baseball game on live TV until my wife alerted me to the backlash on Twitter (I'll let you find those comments yourself since I don't think they deserve a forum here). Here are some more takeaways from Mendoza's broadcast and the (social) media hype:
1. I was shocked to learn that Mendoza was the first woman ever to broadcast a nationally televised Major League Baseball postseason game. You'd think that would have happened in the last 75 years.
2. Do women question how University of Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma can possible understand women's basketball when he's missing a second X chromosome? Assuredly not. Would women doubt the ability of an ex-Major League Baseball player to understand softball strategy or glean information from players and coaches? No.
3. ESPN (and other corporations) may care a lot about diversity. But there's one thing they definitely care about more than diversity, and that's money. And in television broadcasts, money means ratings. So there is no way ESPN would have put Mendoza on the air if they thought she would affect their ratings. Which means they thought she was extremely well qualified to be part of the broadcast. In fact, the network probably held her to higher standards than they would a male broadcaster, knowing the potential for sexist idiots to complain. In other words, the fact that ESPN included Mendoza in its broadcast team means they thought she was far better qualified than male candidates for the position.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Cognitive Ability and Physical Performance

            Early on in my exploration of an ethical theory that incorporated both moral (other-directed) virtues and non-moral (self-directed) virtues (particularly those virtues related to physical fitness), I discussed the relationship between fitness and intelligence. In this previous piece, I presented several scientific studies which demonstrate that increased physical activity leads to improved cognitive performance. I also cited one study in which subjects increased their muscular strength simply by imagining they were moving particular muscles. Based on this body of research, I claimed a complementary relationship between the virtues of fitness and intelligence, although I noted that the assertion that greater cognitive abilities could result in improved physical fitness would benefit from evidence “that higher levels of mental stimulation and intelligence are correlated with increased physical capabilities.”[1] Had I delved deeper into existing research when I wrote that piece, I would have found the evidence I had been seeking. Instead, I present it in this article.
            In the study cited in that previous article, researchers at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation divided 30 subjects into four groups: eight subjects who were trained to perform mental contractions of little finger abduction, eight who were trained to perform mental contractions of elbow flexion, eight who performed no mental contractions, and the remaining six who performed physical training of little finger abduction. After 12 weeks of training, the mental abduction group improved finger abduction strength by 35%, the mental flexion group improved elbow flexion strength by 13.5% and the physical training group improved finger abduction strength by 53%. The control group showed no significant strength changes for either movement.[2]
            This positive effect of mental imagery on physical action is well-documented. Researchers found that brain patterns activated when weightlifters lifted hundreds of pounds were also activated when they only imagined lifting.[3] A 2014 study compared 29 subjects who wore a rigid cast that immobilized their hands and wrists for four weeks against a control group of 15 subjects who did not wear a cast. 14 of the 29 subjects in the experimental group performed four weeks of mental exercise in which they imagined contracting the muscles in their wrists, while the other 15 experimental subjects performed no such exercises. After four weeks, all subjects with immobilized arms had lost strength in that arm in comparison to the control group. But those subjects who performed imaginary exercises lost only 24% of their initial strength compared to a 45% strength loss in the non-imaginative group.[4]
            These three studies demonstrate a clear connection between mental imagery and physical performance. Imagining specific muscle contractions or physical movements can produce physical effects similar to those produced by actual physical activity. Yet the question still remains as to whether any such mental imagery, no matter its quality, can produce significant physical results. Is mental imagery a cognitive skill, like memory or vocabulary, which can be learned and improved to effect greater physical change?

            In a 1985 study, 30 college students were separated into three groups of ten as follows: the first group was instructed to imagine putting a golf ball into the hole, the second group was instructed to imagine the ball just missing the hole, and the third group putted without any instruction. Each subject attempted ten putts on six consecutive days. Over the course of the experiment, the subjects who practiced positive imagery showed the greatest improvement, the control group showed less improvement, and the group who practiced negative imagery saw their performance get worse over the course of the trial.[5]
            Finally, in a 1992 study, Anne Isaac classified 78 trampolinists as novice or experienced, and as high or low imagers based on an initial assessment of mental imagery ability. She then divided them into experimental and control groups, and had the experimental group practice a trampoline skill for 2:30 (two minutes, thirty seconds), mental imagery for 5:00, and then return to skill practice for an additional 2:30, while the control group practiced for 2:30, spent 5:00 on a mental task such as a math problem, and practiced the skills for another 2:30. The subjects were trained in this fashion in three skills over a six week period. As expected, the experimental group showed greater improvement in the skill than did the control group at the end of the experiment. Moreover, in both the novice and experienced group, the high imagers showed greater improvement than did the low imagers.[6]
            Clearly, the quality of mental imagery does matter in the effectiveness of its translation to physical performance. Positive imagery encourages gains in physical performance while negative imagery translates to poor performance. Successful imagery would seem to require a certain level of focus to exclude negative impulses and concentrate on visualizations of success. Furthermore, mental imagery is a skill with different ability levels. Those who are more skilled at imaging will achieve better physical results. In other words, increased cognitive capabilities in the form of mental imaging skills are associated with improved physical performance.
            In hindsight, my previous desire for “a demonstration that more intelligent subjects achieve greater physical improvements”[7] suffered from a poor choice of words. Individuals skilled at mental imagery are not necessarily more intelligent than others, but like those with good memories or large vocabularies, they possess a greater cognitive ability in this aspect of mental performance. My original goal was to show that physical virtues are related to mental virtues. Increased physical activity and fitness leads to improved cognitive function. And as the above studies demonstrate, greater cognitive capabilities translate to improved physical performance when appropriately focused.

[1] Hickey, Greg. “Fitness and Intelligence.” KineSophy. 1 Jan. 2014. Online. 24 Sep. 2015.
[2] Ranganathan V, Siemionow V, Liu J, Sahgal V, Yue G. “From mental power to muscle power—gaining strength by using the mind.” Neuropsychologia, 2004, 42(7), p. 944-56. Online. 24 Sep 2015.
[3] Cited in LeVann, AJ. “Seeing Is Believing: The Power of Visualization.” Psychology Today. Online. 24 Sep. 2015.
[4] Brooks, Stacy. “Mind over Matter: Can You Think Your Way to Strength?” American Physiological Society Press Release. 31 Dec. 2014. Online. 24 Sep 2015.
[5] Woolfork R, Parrish M, Murphy S. “The effects of positive and negative imagery on motor skill performance.” Cognitive Therapy and Research, June 1985, 9(3), p. 335-341. Online. 24 Sep. 2015.
[6] Isaac, Anne. “Mental Practice- Does it Work in the Field?” The Sport Psychologist, 1992, Issue 6, p. 192-198. Cited in Plessinger, Annie. “The Effects of Mental Imagery on Athletic Performance.” Vanderbilt University Psychology Department. Online. 24 Sep. 2015.
[7] Hickey, 2014.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The fallacy of the American low-fat diet

Last year, I compared the Swedish government's new recommendation of a diet low or moderate in carbohydrates and high in fat to the longstanding American government's recommendation of a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet to argue that governments shouldn't be making these kinds of recommendations in the first place. A recent study highlights that argument. Compared to subjects on a low-fat diet, subjects on a Mediterranean diet supplemented with either extra virgin olive oil or mixed nuts had better heart health. Furthermore, women in the nuts-supplemented Mediterranean group were 40% less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than women on a low-fat diet. (However, given the small sample size for this group, these results weren't considered statistically significant.) Women in the olive oil group were over 60% less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than those in the low-fat group. It's a tragic and chilling thought that individuals who subscribed to the dietary recommendations of the American government for many years may have put themselves at greater risk for serious illness and premature death.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Addicted to Ironman?

"Former drug addict and alcoholic Todd Crandell has swapped an unhealthy addiction for a healthy one," writes Daniel Hoy in his article Addicted to Ironman. He goes on to chronicle Crandell's transition from a ten-year addiction to drugs and alcohol to completion of 27 Ironman triathlons. But are triathletes, marathoners or other dedicated athletes truly addicted to their sports? And are their behaviors healthy?

The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a "chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry" and says "without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death." By these standards, there is no such thing as a healthy addiction.

Anyone who trains for and completes even one Ironman undertakes a program of chronic exercise. She must be intrinsically motivated and thrive on the psychological reward of completing a workout or race or achieving a personal record. Furthermore, at least 65% of runners are injured each year. Men in their fifties who have run a marathon each year for 25 years have increased risks of heart attack or stroke compared to their sedentary counterparts. So continued participation in these types of endurance races will very likely result in injury (if not disability) and premature death.

Image by Michael Foley
One might argue that exercise is a more beneficial behavior than consuming alcohol. All other things being equal, a person who never consumes alcohol will be better off than a person who never exercises. But the problem is one of degrees. Restricting calorie intake is also a beneficial behavior; anorexia is not. Neither is running yourself into the ground day after day.

So when does beneficial behavior become deleterious and possibly addictive? Two distinctions come to mind:
1. At some point, the accumulated intensity, frequency and/or volume of a particular activity will become harmful, no matter how beneficial single or limited instances of that activity may be. An alcoholic will likely discover that a having a few drinks no longer takes the edge off at the end of a hard day's work, and will notice a decline in his physical health and the well-being of his relationships. An overtrained triathlete will cease to progress and may become injured.
2. A second possibility is that the individual can no longer control the behavior in question. An alcoholic will ignore or forget previous voluntary allegiances to family, friends and career in order to satisfy the single-minded obsession of his addiction. Athletes may exhibit the same behavior, becoming consumed by the nagging thought that they need to complete the day's workout(s). When such a loss of control occurs, it will almost certainly require an outside observer to point out the obsession.

Returning to our original questions, are regular Ironmen and Ironwomen engaging in healthy behavior? If healthy means living longer, pain-free lives, probably not. If healthy means finding happiness and achievement while openly acknowledging the risks involved, then yes. Are they addicts? If we accept that--by any definition of healthy--there are no healthy addicts, then Ironmen who compulsively pursue their sport but take no enjoyment from that pursuit appear to exhibit addictive behavior. In contrast, Todd Crandell seems to enjoy his new life. It seems likely he will live longer as an Ironman than as an alcoholic, though neither pursuit is conducive to the greatest possible lifespan. But if he is truly happy, and therefore healthy, he is no addict.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Study links highly cushioned running shoes to higher impact load

In June I wrote about the fallacy of heel striking while running, and the mistaken belief that running shoes with thick, cushioned heels are a safe alternative to learning to run properly. A new study published by the Spaulding National Running Center at Harvard Medical School offers further evidence that cushioned running shoes actually put runners at a greater risk of injury. 14 healthy heel-striking runners ran on a treadmill in both highly cushioned and lightly cushioned shoes. Contrary to claims by manufacturers of cushioned running shoes, "the investigators found highly cushioned (HC) shoes result in a significantly higher vertical average load rate (VALR) and vertical instantaneous loading rate (VILR), both of which have been associated with overuse injuries such as tibial stress fractures and plantar fasciitis."

Thursday, July 30, 2015

If you want to save lives, become a banker, and exercise at least three hours per week

I have previously argued that if you are committed to an ethic of altruism, you have reason to care about your physical fitness (see Why Be Fit? - Altruism). Here's a summary of that argument in its simplest form, with direct links to support for the premises:

1. If you want to save lives, become a banker (or other high-earning professional), because the more money you earn, the more you can give to life-saving causes (Young, smart and want to save lives? Become a banker, says philosopher).
2. If you want to earn more money, exercise at least three hours per week, since those who do so earn 9% more than those who don't (One More Reason to Hit the Gym: You’ll Make More Money at Work).
3. Therefore, if you want to save lives, exercise at least three hours per week.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Exercycle

A spot-on comic from PHD Comics:

Of course, there are reasons beyond fatigue to be concerned with physical fitness. That's what KineSophy is all about!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

A Brief Argument for Strength

In a previous post (What's Your Fitness Age?) I highlighted research that demonstrates the correlation between longevity and VO2max, an indicator of the body's ability to take in and utilize oxygen. Additional research suggests increased lean muscle mass and leg strength are also strongly linked to longevity. Thus:
1. No matter your value system, you have reason to want to live longer (see my Why Be Fit? - Hedonism and Why Be Fit - Altruism?).
2. If you want to live longer, you should increase your lean muscle mass and leg strength (see Muscle Mass Index As a Predictor of Longevity in Older Adults and Muscle strength as a predictor of long-term survival in severe congestive heart failure).
3. Therefore, no matter your value system, you have reason to increase your lean muscle mass and leg strength.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Real Life Female Nepalese Sisyphuses

There was a fascinating article published in the most recent ESPN The Magazine about a group of Nepalese women who climbed the Seven Summits (the highest peak on each of the seven continents): After the Seven Summits. Many of the women had no previous climbing experience, but after completing their goal, they founded a trekking company, began teaching English, outdoor skills and high-altitude techniques to women, and started a program that empowers survivors of sex trafficking and abuse through climbing and the outdoors. After the recent earthquakes in Nepal, they spearheaded relief efforts by collecting supplies and initiating fundraising efforts.

One of the climbers, Maya, used to dream of marrying a Sherpa who would take her to see Mount Everest. After climbing Everest on her own, Maya and the other climbers became inspirations to women throughout Nepal, not just to climb, but to finish school and aspire to independent lives and careers beyond what prospective husbands could offer. Their story is another example of the power of physical achievement to inspire people in a multitude of pursuits (as in my analysis of The Myth of Sisyphus), and provides further support for the connection between physical and non-physical virtues (see my summary of that argument). Again, you can read the original ESPN article at: After the Seven Summits.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Facial Coding in Professional Sports

Apparently, when the Milwaukee Bucks selected Jabari Parker with the second overall pick in last year's NBA Draft, they used his facial expressions to help them make that decision (Teams Turn to a Face Reader, Looking for That Winning Smile). The Bucks hired facial coding expert Dan Hill to help them evaluate the emotional attributes of prospective players based on their facial expressions when they answered interview questions such as “How would your mom describe you?”

On a first glance, the technique seems dubious. Parker was considered one of the top two players in the draft by most basketball insiders, and no rumors surfaced that the Bucks had a serious interest in Dante Exum prior to the draft, as the Times article suggests. The analysis of the facial expressions of five other athletes is consistent with popular perception of those athletes in the absence of facial coding, so it is hard to see what can be gained with the technique by retrospectively evaluating athletes with ingrained reputations. Professional sports teams are always looking for an edge in discovering talent, but we need a study that compares facial coding scores calculated before a player's professional career to that player's career statistics to attribute any significance to the technique.

But if more teams do employ Hill and/or his disciples, how will this affect player evaluation? Will players get coached to control their facial expressions, in much the same way they are now coached to conduct interviews? And how does facial coding relate to actual performance? If an athlete improves his skills, will those increased abilities manifest themselves in their facial expressions? Can an athlete improve her physical performance by endeavoring to portray certain emotions?

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Fallacy of Heel Striking

            This month, I continue my critical exploration of commonly held beliefs in the health and fitness community (see my Febraury article on the fallacy of icing injuries) with a look at the mechanics of running. Let us begin with two thought experiments, the first of which requires some movement.

Thought Experiment 1:
Wherever you are right now, remove your shoes and socks, stand up and jump up and down a few times. Pay attention to how you land. Without even thinking about it, the balls of your feet contact the ground first, perhaps followed by your heels, your knees bend slightly and you rebound back into the air. Now repeat the same movement, but focus on landing on your heels instead of your forefeet. You need only do this once to realize you don’t want to do it many more times. Landing on your heels while jumping in place is jarring and unnatural; you have to actively flex your toes and lock out your knees in order to do so. Imagine jumping rope this way. Do you think the discomfort would improve if you only jumped and landed on one foot? What about doing it 1,000 times with each foot, about the minimum number of steps you would take in a twenty minute run?

Thought Experiment 2:
Imagine you are helping a friend move. He stoops to pick up a heavy box and you watch his knees cave in and his lower back round (as in the images below).[1][2]
 As he starts to lift the box, he cries out in pain and drops it to the floor. As his friend, do you offer him knee and back braces to mask the pain and tell him to keep going? Or do you suggest some changes to his lifting technique that will keep him safer and pain free?

            As observed in Experiment 1, there is clearly a problem with heel striking when running or jumping barefoot. Yet most people run on their heels every time they go out for a morning jog or log upwards of 100 miles to train for a half-marathon. It should come as no surprise that 65% of runners are injured each year.[3] Of course, most heel-striking runners attempt to reduce the perceived impact of this movement by wearing shoes with a heavily cushioned heel. Yet just like the braces for your friend’s poor lifting technique, high-heeled running shoes don’t seem to offer a solution, just a temporary Band-Aid for the problem.
            Moreover, no empirical evidence exists to demonstrate that choice of shoes actually reduces the rate of running injuries. Hoping to prevent injuries among Basic Combat Training participants, the United States Army prescribed motion control, stability, or cushioned running shoes for subjects with low, medium, or high foot arches, respectively. Compared with a control group in which all subjects received the stability shoe, the researchers found no difference in injury rates between the two groups.[4] Australian researchers searched several academic databases for original research on the influence of “pronation-control, elevated, cushioned heel” running shoes on injury rates and performance in distance runners. They found no such research.[5] In fact, a 1991 study concluded “wearers of expensive running shoes that are promoted as having additional features that protect (e.g., more cushioning, "pronation correction") are injured significantly more frequently than runners employing inexpensive shoes (costing less that US $40).”[6]
            These studies lend further support to the notion that running injury rates depend on the way you run. As suggested by Experiments 1 and 2, an examination of biomechanical studies by the Penn State College of Medicine claimed landing on the ball of the foot with a softer, shorter stride may reduce injury.[7] In a group of 52 college cross-country runners, those who landed on their heels were twice as likely to sustain injury as those who landed on their forefeet.[8] And a study of twelve runners showed greater shock absorption when the runners landed with a forefoot strike versus a heel strike. However, the study also suggested that injuries may occur from heel striking in thin-soled shoes or from greater loads on calf muscles when forefoot striking.[9]
            Opponents of forefoot striking point out such potential for injury when wearing thin-soled shoes or forefoot striking. Doctors at New York’s Keller Army Hospital reported two cases of “metatarsal stress fracture in experienced runners whose only regimen change was the adoption of barefoot-simulating footwear,” noting “runners using these shoes should be cautioned on the potential need for gait alterations from a heel-strike to a midfoot-striking pattern.”[10] And Vibram, a company that sells shoes that are little more than rubber-soled socks, recently settled a class-action lawsuit under allegations that it misrepresented the health benefits of its minimalist shoes.[11] A study on Vibram shoes revealed that more subjects wearing Vibrams showed increases in bone marrow edema (the precursor to a stress fracture) in comparison to a control group.[12]

Two additional thought experiments should clarify the results of these studies and allay some objections.

Thought Experiment 3:
Let us return to the scenario where you are helping your friend move. He ignores your advice on his lifting technique and refuses to wear any kind of brace. As he lifts the second box, he throws out his back.

Thought Experiment 4:
You fix your friend’s lifting technique and the two of you continue to work. After carrying a few boxes out, you notice he seems to be slowing and you suggest taking a break. He refuses, and continues to lift the rest of the boxes, still using proper technique. The next day he calls you and complains that his hamstrings and glutes are incredibly sore.
            In Experiment 3, your friend adopts poor movement patterns without any attempt at compensation. This experiment is analogous to heel striking while barefoot or while wearing thin-soled shoes. It should be obvious from Experiments 1 and 3 that doing so is a recipe for disaster. In Experiment 4, your friend adopts proper, yet (to him) novel, movement patterns, which likely cause soreness in muscles he rarely used when moving poorly. This experiment is analogous to injuries sustained by runners switching to a forefoot strike after years of heel striking, and continuing their previous regimen with no consideration for the adaptation period for previously underused muscles in their feet and lower legs.
            When assessing any activity, we should attempt to determine the most biomechanically sound movement, which is often the way we would move without the external assistance provided by braces or excessive cushioning. Feeling pain in your back and knees when lifting a heavy box or in your feet when heel striking barefoot are indications of poor movement patterns. Of course, even good movement patterns hit a breaking point. You can only run so many miles or lift so many heavy objects, even with perfect technique, before your muscles reach their limits. Training a movement and the associated muscles extends those limits, and any new movement requires such training to build the requisite strength and skill to perform the movement safely over and over again. Based on some common sense reasoning about how we land on our feet, as well as direct comparisons between forefoot striking and heel striking while running, there should be no doubt as to the safer style of running. Yet that does not mean changing your running style will be a quick and easy task. Like any other new movement, runners must approach this transition with common sense and responsibility.

[1] Hoobler, Colin. “Resistance training may be the antidote for knee pain.” The Oregonian. 15 Feb. 2011. Image. Online. 28 May 2015.
[2] “What Are Some Causes of Back Pain?” WiseGeek. Image. Online. 28 May 2015.
[3] Sports Medicine & Athletic Related Trauma Institute. “Sports Specific Safety: Cross Country Running.” University of South Florida, 2010. Online. 25 May 2015.
[4]Knapik, J., Swedler D., Grier T., et al. “Injury reduction effectiveness of selecting running shoes based on plantar shape.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. May 2009, 23(3). Online. 24 May 2015.
[5] Richards, Craig, Magin, Parker, and Callister, Robin. “Is your prescription of distance running shoes evidence based?” British Journal of Sports Medicine. 18 Apr. 2008. Online. 24 May 2015.
[6] Robbins, Steven and Gouw, Gerard. "Athletic footwear: unsafe due to perceptual illusions." Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 1991, 23(2).
[7] Rixe, J., Gallo, R ., and Silvis, M. “The barefoot debate: can minimalist shoes reduce running-related injuries?” Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2012, 11(3). Online. 24 May 2015.
[8] Daoud, A., Geissler, G., Wang F., et al. “Foot strike and injury rates in endurance runners: a retrospective study.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Jul. 2012, 44(7). Online. 24 May 2015.
[9] Yo Shih, Kuan-Lun Lin, and Tzyy-Yuang Shiang. “Is the foot striking pattern more important than barefoot or shod conditions in running?” Gait & Posture. 18 Mar. 2013. Online. 24 May 2015.
[10] Giuliani, J, Masini, B., Alitz, C., and Owens, B. “Barefoot-simulating footwear associated with metatarsal stress injury in 2 runners.” Orthopedics. 2011, 34(7). Online. 24 May 2015.
[11] McCue, Matt. “Vibram Agrees to Settle Class Action Lawsuit.” Runner’s World. 6 May 2014. Online. 24 May 2015.
[12] Ridge, S., Johnson, A., Mitchell, U., et al. “Foot Bone Marrow Edema after 10-Week Transition
to Minimalist Running Shoes.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 7 Jan. 2013. Online. 24 May 2015.