How Sweet It Isn't

It's not often that a TOJ sees a video (Thanks, Lou!) that he thinks everyone he knows -- of all ages -- should watch, but the one below is that good and important. The speaker is Robert Lustig, MD, a pediatrician and endocrinologist (homones like insulin), who teaches in the med school at the University of California in San Francisco. The topic is childhood obesity, but what he discusses holds true for all of us. As Wordsworth said, the child is father of the man.

There's a little biochemistry but it's all well presented and understandable, and I guarantee you will gain tremendous insight into a critical issue related both to your health and everyone you know. A warning: Dr. Lustig presents evidence that will make you want to limit (maybe eliminate) sugar from your diet, in all its forms, including (have mercy) beer.

At the end of the presentation, he offers a simple prescription that has had dramatic success lowering the BMIs of obese children. It would work for you and those around you as well. If you have weight issues, try it. Actually, all of us would be healthier following this intervention.

He has an fascinating discussion of exercise, and how it's not about burning calories, but elevating your overall metabolism. Exercise doesn't just burn fat, it prevents fat from forming in the first place. 

This video has had over 1.5 millions views, and deservedly so. It is the centerpiece in a NY Times article by Gary Taubes, ominously entitled "Is Sugar Toxic?," which is also worth reading.

So what's wrong with a cookie or beer every now and then? Nothing, except that it's not every now and then. For many of us, it's a daily habit. Sometimes a multi-times per day habit because sugar is hidden in almost every processed food that you eat, even if it's not labeled as a sweet. Examine labels on the packaging for sugar, fructose, corn syrup, and words ending in "-ose."

Mounting evidence indicates that many serious illnesses like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers are linked to our modern diet, especially sugar. Sugar, in all its forms, causes by a nightmarish hormonal disruption that slowly and quietly harms the arteries and organs of children and adults. Dr. Lustig tells you exactly how it all happens and how easy it is to stop it.

Knowledge is power, but only if you're smart enough to use it.

Belly Scans

Sometimes you read something that's especially enlightening and really makes you think. Not the usual TOJ stuff involving reps, muscle fibers, and VO2 max, but something exceptional and notable. That's the way I felt about this  article by Kevin Patterson, a Canadian and doctor of internal medicine.

Dr. Patterson was in Afghanistan at at Canadian hospital to care for casualties of the war, both his countrymen and Afghans. Something startling caught his eye. He noticed a stark contrast between the CT scans of Canadians and Afghans. The organs of Canadian soldiers were packed in fat, while there was no fat to be found in the Afghans. (I remembered looking at the dissected cross section of an obese person at Body World. It is shocking to see the dark organs as if packed in yellow putty.)

Dr. Patterson is certain that the abdominal body fat is connected to the rise in diabetes. He suspects urbanization and affluence, with their accompanying poor (processed) diets and lack of exercise, are what is making so many of us sick.

He also happens to be a sailor. In the article, he recounts some of his sea journeys to primitive areas of the world. In those places still less civilized, the people are leaner and more active. Where civilization is creeping  in, he noticed people spend more time sitting on their butts, in front of computers or riding around in motorized vehicles.

While not a back to nature romantic, he speculates that many ccivilized folks, bored with their professions and desperate from sitting around so much, take up hobbies like sailing and bow hunting or doing home improvements. Every generation sees itself as a decadent, diminished version of its predecessors. What is different is the extent to which we actually are.

Absent from his thoughtful speculation is exercise, but it could be added to his list. Many of us exercise maniacs are probably seeking adventure, challenge, and even danger. But just as often we are just feeling the exhilaration of of being alive. And, yes, burn the fat out of our civilized bellies.

Zen Push-Ups

This is an excellent video about how to build your upper body strength with variations on the push-up. It spans the full spectrum from easy to hard. Everybody can find a good place to start and an on-going challenge here.

It accompanied an article at The article has a dumb title, but the content is very good.

Push-ups are a near perfect exercise. No matter how strong you are or young or old, you can do them anywhere, anytime, and they require no special equipment. If you never lifted a Olympic weight or kettlebell in your entire life and just did lots (say 100 total in sets of whatever number make you hurt a little) of push-ups every day, you'd be pretty strong from head to toe and get a decent cardio workout.

Runners and bikers sometimes overlook the importance of upper body strength. Remember that if you fall, your arms and shoulders are the first line of defense for your skeleton.

Don't think, do them.

A Dead Heat

This  article by Jeannnine Stein in the LA Times  provides a nice summary of a study conducted in Wales on a small group of adolescents (i.e., teeney boppers) to determine the comparative effectiveness of aerobic exercise versus high intensity exercise in reducing  cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors.

This TOJ found the results shown in this excerpt from the actual study, which was headed up by Duncan Buchan, to be very cool and encouraging. No doubt the body of an adolescent will adapt more quickly over a short period of time to the stress of exercise, but likely the findings would be the same with more mature adults. To help you decipher it, MOD stands for moderate aerobic exercise and HIT stands for High Intensity Training:

Results: Total exercise time commitment over the intervention was 420 min (MOD) and 63 min (HIT). Training volume was 85% lower for the HIT group. Total estimated energy expenditure was 907.2 kcal (HIT) and 4410 kcal (MOD). Significant improvements (P 0.05) were found in systolic blood pressure, aerobic fitness, and body mass index (BMI) postintervention (HIT). In the MOD group, significant (P 0.05) improvements were noted in aerobic fitness, percentage body fat (%BF), BMI, fibrinogen (Fg), plasminogen activator inhibitor-1, and insulin concentrations.

What's noteworthy is BOTH aerobic training (in this case 20 min. runs at a moderate pace three times a week) and intense intervals (all out sprints for 40 meters alternated with short rest periods over just a few minutes three times a week) had very positive, if slightly different, impacts on improving CVD risk factors.

Obviously how you train depends on what you are trying to accomplish. If your goal is to burn calories, you are better off running distance. If your goal is to get significant training benefits in a short period of time, choose high intensity. It's pretty amazing how much could be accomplished with HIT in only 15% of the time required by aerobic exercise. Many of us don't  have a lot of spare time. As this study proves, it doesn't take much.

In the past year, the TOJ has written a lot about the relative benefits of the two. In the exercise world, there are camps of people who are almost religious zealots about the exclusive advantages of one over the other. The truth isn't either/or, but both. Some days there's no substitute for a short, killer, high intensity workout. Other days there's no substitute for a leisurely run. Just follow your bliss. Either way you'll end up fitter.

As Little As Needed

"Do as little as needed, not as much as possible," is the training philosophy of Henk Kraaijenhoff, who's had tremendous success coaching Olympians. That caught my eye because it's easy for a TOJ to always do as much as possible because s/he enjoys it so much. The problem with too much is it leads to inflammation and can sabotage your effort to get fit.

I found the quote in The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman by Tim Ferriss, a young guy who turned himself into a living experiment on diet and exercise. Despite its hyperbolic title, there's lots of thought-provoking, useful material in the book.

Sometimes you have to laugh at his narcissism and obsessiveness (like when he weighs his boel movements), but, to his credit, he did personally test many of the diet and exercise theories discussed in the book. And he consulted with an array of high-powered experts in medicine, exercise physiology, nutrition, coaching and training. Every chapter is followed by excellent links to websites and resources.

A few chapters this TOJ found especially provocative were entitled "Ultra-Endurance I - Going from 5K to 50K in 12 Weeks - Phase I," "Ultra-Endurance II...," and "Effortless Superhuman." What is so interesting is that they contain more minimalist approaches to training for activities like distance running and power lifting that totally challenge traditional exercise regimens. Some you'll find very counter intuitive (less is more) or just plain wacky. Yet the people discussed have demonstrated impressive results by unconventional means.

For example:

-- A 36 year old man who finished a 28.4 mile ultramarathon with 18,500 feet of elevation gain by running lots of 400 meter intervals and never more than 5K.
-- A 43 year old marathoner, with only 11 weeks left before the NYC marathon, took a minute off her per mile pace by doing 16 minutes of sprint training per week and four sessions of weights and calisthenics.
-- A triathlete completes one of the toughest 100 mile runs in the world by training an average of 6.5 miles per week, mostly strength training, CrossFit, intervals and pace work.
-- A Chinese speed-skating team captures medals by improving their ability to perform a dead lift with barbells, not skating more.
-- A 70 year old sets an American weight lifting record working out only once a week. Read about
this record deadlift.
-- A high school 400 meter runner cuts two seconds off her time by running only 33 meter repeats and strength training; weighing just 119 lbs., she deadlifts 340 lbs.

There's a pattern in many of these stories:
  • High speed/low volume. You train for running long distances by sprinting short distances. You get strong by a few reps of a heavy weight, not multiple sets of high reps with lighter weights. Running with a faster stride rate (versus stride length) naturally leads to more efficient running mechanics. 
  • Strength enables endurance. If you are a distance runner, the tendons and ligaments of your foot and lower leg fail more often than your VO2max or muscles. Strength training enables a runner to recover faster and have be ready for more training, if needed. Short periods of jumping (plyometrics) helps you run faster than just running itself.
  • Intensity (measured by heart rate) of exercise can be more effective than volume (time spent).
  • Strength comes from a few reps of a weight close to the maximum you can lift, and not lifting until you are exhausted. 
  • You really only need a few basic exercises. 
Ferriss in-your-face views have generated supporters and critics. Look at some of the positive and negative reviews on Amazon, all 1,200+ of them (Ferriss is a great self-promoter and salesman, probably why he included sex in the book's title and a totally silly, unnecessary chapter). A couple of physicians are especially critical of some of his claims.

However, a TOJ tries to be pretty open-minded. We are all a little different, and every person needs to find out what works for them. There are always new and useful exercise ideas to explore. Ferris makes you think, which is good, and I've no doubt some of his unorthodox ideas are absolutely correct.