The Tibetans do things differently

Saturday, May 20th, 2017

Tibetans have evolved and maintained genetic adaptations that suit them to life above 15,000 feet:

Huff and co-authors published a study in April in PLOS Genetics analyzing for the first time whole-genome sequences for 27 Tibetan individuals. The research identified three new genes that help with mountain living, in addition to confirming two that were previously known. These gene variants give Tibetans the ability to metabolize oxygen more efficiently and protect against Vitamin D deficiency.

[...]

One of the genes that helps Tibetans adapt to high altitude is known as EPAS1. The Tibetan variant of this gene does a surprising thing — it actually lowers the hemoglobin count in your blood at high altitudes. Hemoglobins are a protein in red blood cells that transport oxygen to your body. It’s surprising that Tibetans would have a lower hemoglobin count at high altitudes; normally our bodies respond to lower oxygen pressures by increasing hemoglobins in our blood, allowing for more O2 to reach the muscles. It’s even more surprising because other population groups that have adapted to high altitude environments, including the South American Andes and Africa’s Ethiopian Highlands, have done so in part by raising hemoglobin count.

The Tibetans, however, do things differently. Rather than upping hemoglobin count, their bodies have several adaptations that allow them to use oxygen more efficiently, so they need less of it. This allows them to keep hemoglobin counts relatively low at high altitude, which helps to avoid some of the potential downsides of a high hemoglobin count. Hemoglobins thicken the blood, and the thicker your blood the more likely it is to clot, which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Atlatling in Austin

Wednesday, May 17th, 2017

Austin seems like the kind of town where you’d see someone throwing spears at the park with an atlatl:

“It’s the rawest form of hunting tool,” says the co-founder and CEO of meat-based superfoods company Epic Provisions. Mr. Collins, 34, is a recreational bow hunter based in Austin, Texas, who only has time for a few hunting trips each year. Two years ago, he was researching historical hunting methods and discovered the atlatl (pronounced at-LA-tal).

Atlatl Photo by Matthew Mahon

A version of the atlatl, a hunting tool that predates the bow and arrow, may have first been used around 30,000 years ago in Europe and 11,000 in North America, according to the World Atlatl Organization. The word comes from the Nahuatl languages spoken in Mexico and other parts of Central America.

It lengthens the arm like an extra joint, making it possible to throw a spear farther and with more force than with one’s bare hands. It works similarly to a throw stick for dogs playing fetch.

Atlatls typically range from 18 to 24 inches long. One end has a hook and the other a hand hold. The hook connects to the back end of the spear, which is 5 to 6 feet long and thicker than an arrow. Throwers hold the atlatl at eye level and step in the direction of the target as they use their arm and wrist to throw the spear forward. The end of the atlatl flips around, pushing the spear forward with added force.

Mr. Collins played baseball in high school and likens the motion to throwing a pitch. He finds atlatl throwing meditative. “You really get in a zone and forget any worries,” he says.

Tough, detail-oriented, and able to push themselves

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

Jennifer Bricker was born without legs and immediately given up for adoption by her Romanian-American parents:

But with the support of her adoptive family, Jen, in spite of her physical challenges, grew to become a champion athlete herself. By age 12 she was excelling in power tumbling — an acrobatic sport that combines artistic gymnastics and trampoline. She failed to understand why people singled out her achievements over those of her teammates. In 1998, she placed fourth in the all-around event at the Junior Olympics, the first physically challenged tumbler to finish so high. Her gymnastics idol growing up? Dominique Moceanu.

Her gymnastics idol, Dominique Moceanu, was one of the “Magnificent Seven” at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta — and turned out to be her older sister.

Nancy L. Segal describes her work on identical twins and non-twin siblings:

I have studied separated twins for many years, first from 1982 to 1991 as an investigator with the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart (MISTRA). Today, I follow the progress of 16 young Chinese reared-apart twin pairs, as well as older twins separated due to unusual life events. I have seen striking examples of identical, reared-apart twins whose athletic talents coincided prior to any contact between them. Japanese-born twins Steve and Tom, raised by different families in the United States, both became competitive lifters and owners of bodybuilding gyms; Steve competed in the 1980 Olympics. Adriana and Tamara, born in Mexico and raised in New York, attended different Long Island colleges and found each other only after one was mistaken for the other. But both were already accomplished dancers and later performed together. Mark and Jerry, each six-foot-four, were both already volunteer firefighters when they met in their early thirties, each having developed the strength, stamina, and motivation to pursue the demanding role.

Studying twins, particularly separated-at-birth pairs, and separately reared non-twin siblings, is the best way to disentangle the genetic and environmental influences on individual similarities and differences. For example, such research could help determine if nature or nurture is the stronger factor in sports participation and achievement. But other physical actions and routines appear to have a genetic basis as well. Most reared-apart identical twins in the MISTRA group, for example, positioned their bodies the same way while standing for unposed photographs, which occurred less often among fraternal reared-apart pairs.

[...]

A 2005 twin study by Dutch researcher Janine Stubbe showed that genetic effects on sports participation increase after adolescence, as children gain the freedom to enter and create environments compatible with their genetic proclivities. Her subsequent 2006 study confirmed this finding, and numerous twin studies from around the world have found similar genetic effects on oxygen uptake, anaerobic capacity and power, cardiac mass, and other performance-related fitness characteristics.

Claude Bouchard of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is one of the few researchers to combine twins and adoptees in genetic studies of sports-related traits. His 1984 study of submaximal physical working capacity — an index of aerobic metabolism and oxygen transport that boosts muscular activity and endurance — found the greatest resemblance between identical twins, followed by fraternal twins, biological siblings, and adoptive siblings and showed strong genetic influence on these traits. These findings have serious implications for how we make the most of our physical abilities and overcome our limitations.

[...]

Dominique and Jen are both extroverted, driven, and competitive. They are also perfectionists and “performance hams” who love being in front of a crowd. Their voices sound the same, whether speaking or laughing, and they use their hands a lot in conversation. Jen recognizes traits in Dominique that she sees in herself, such as leadership and initiative. Both are tough, detail-oriented, and able to push themselves emotionally and physically, perhaps explaining their commitment to the long hours and personal sacrifices required for success in gymnastics.

According to Dominique, though, an important difference between them is that Jen has “super-high confidence, whereas we were beaten down by our father. I walked on eggshells.” Jen herself credits her competitive success and self-esteem to the support of her adoptive family and community — and now to the DNA she shares with her sisters as well.

[...]

My reared-apart twin research reveals that close relationships can develop quickly between such pairs. In 2003, I found that over 70 percent of reunited identical twins and nearly 50 percent of reunited fraternal twins recalled feeling closer than or as close as best friends upon first meeting. These figures jumped to about 80 percent and 65 percent, respectively, for the closeness they reported feeling when surveyed. Yet only about 20 percent of the twins felt the same way toward unrelated siblings they had always known. In 2011, I reported my findings that most parents of young separated twins observed an immediate rapport between the children when reunited. These findings suggest that perceptions of similarity (mostly behavioral) are the social glue that draws and keeps reunited twins and siblings together, underlining the universal importance of family.

Hunter-Gatherer Fitness

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

Anthropologist Herman Pontzer distributed GPS units with heart rate monitors to Hadza hunter-gatherers in Northern Tanzania:

The 46 subjects — 19 male and 27 female with a mean age of 32.7 — had their heart rates tracked over four two-week periods, covering both rainy and dry seasons. This data was matched up with what the researchers have learned about the Hadza’s cardiovascular health by testing 198 subjects (including 30 also in the heart-rate study). Their findings: An examination of blood pressure, cholesterol and other biomarkers shows no evidence of risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

The typical Hadza day begins at sunrise. The Hadza wake up in grass huts in the middle of the savanna and mill about while figuring out plans and eating breakfast.

Then the men set out with a bow and poison-tipped arrows, covering miles and miles to track prey, such as giraffes, impalas and zebras. “They don’t run,” Pontzer notes, unless, of course, “someone jumps out of the bushes at them.” But they walk pretty much continuously, with just a single break at midday to avoid the worst heat. If they’re striking out with hunting, Pontzer says, they might chop into trees to get wild honey.

Women go out in groups, along with children under the age of 2, who are usually wrapped up snug on mom’s back. They pick berries at such a rapid clip that Pontzer admits he couldn’t keep up with the pace. The tougher task is digging into the hard and rocky ground with a sharpened stick to collect tubers, which are a staple of their diet. The upper body workout can take hours, Pontzer says.

It all adds up to about 135 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Contrast that to the current recommendations from the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion of at least 150 minutes per week.

And only about 10 percent of Americans achieve that guideline, Pontzer says.

Joe Rogan Interviews Louie Simmons

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

Joe Rogan interviews powerlifting legend Louie Simmons, and he has to laugh from time to time at how ridiculously over-the-top manly Simmons is:

How a Chess Champion Trains for the Big Game

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

Magnus Carlsen’s fitness routine seems rather hip:

At home in Oslo, Mr. Carlsen goes to a 90-minute hot yoga class two to three times a week. He plays defense on his local soccer team but says he prefers to attack when playing casually with friends. He trains with his team one to two times a week for an hour and usually has one game a week. During Norway’s long winters, he goes cross-country skiing and hiking on weekends.

Whenever he has time to kill, such as when traveling or waiting in line at a store, he uses the opportunity to play games on his phone. “I have a team of grandmasters that create interesting chess-related games,” he says. Lately, he has been playing a text-based, multiplayer role-playing game called Avalon. It is played in real time, so players are constantly thinking about the next move. “It’s a mythological environment where you can create your own character and move through over 20,000 locations over 19 continents,” Mr. Carlsen says. “It’s easy to get caught up and play for hours.”

Mr. Carlsen eats a mostly vegetarian diet. For breakfast, he makes a superfood smoothie with ingredients like açaí berry and hemp milk, or he’ll have a fresh pressed green juice, with ginger and lemon. Lunch is a salad topped with avocado, walnuts or pumpkin seeds. He likes Asian flavors and often makes a vegetable stir fry over brown rice for dinner. During tournaments he focuses on getting enough protein to maintain his energy over long time periods. He relies on plant proteins like beans, nuts, seeds or hemp protein and drinks water throughout the tournament.

Metabolic Effects of a 4-Day Outdoor Trip

Monday, November 14th, 2016

Researchers looked at the netabolic effects of a 4-day outdoor trip under simulated Paleolithic conditions:

Background: The observation that the emergence of common Western diseases takes place with much greater prevalence as societies migrate from natural-living cultures to modernized societies, has been well documented. For approximately 84,000 generations humans lived under hunter-gatherer conditions but recently endured dramatic change from our native lifestyle with the occurrence of the agricultural, industrial, and digital revolutions. The massive technological advancement that occurred within a relatively recent timeframe enabled humans to live in manner that is remarkably different than our pre-agricultural past. Consequently, the shift from a natural to a modern lifestyle likely promotes a gene-environment mismatch which causes metabolic dysregulation which causes disease.

Methods: Using a within-participant design, we examined whether, compared to baseline, changes in lifestyle towards a more Paleolithic-style pattern, for a four-day and four-night period related to changes in a variety of metabolic parameters. Two groups of 14 volunteers were isolated for a period of four days and four nights in the natural park Südeifel on the borders between Germany and Luxembourg. Participants lived outdoors without tents. The daily hiking performance was 16.4 km (approx. 24963 steps/day) and the daily activity time 5.49 h/day by a mean caloric intake of 1747 kcal/day.

Results: After four days of simulated Paleolithic conditions, body weight (-2.9%), body mass index (-2.7%), body fat (-10.4%), visceral fat (-13.6%) and waist-hip-ratio (-2.2%) significantly decreased, while muscle mass significantly increased (+2,3%). Additionally, fasting glucose (-6.5%), basal insulin (-44.4%), homeostasis model assessment-index (-49.3%) and fatty liver index (-41%) significantly dropped. In contrast, C-reactive protein, significantly increased (+67.1%).

Conclusion: Our study indicates that a short nature trip, where modern humans adjust their behavioral patterns to simulate a more Paleolithic-like condition, could serve as an effective strategy to help prevent or improve modern metabolic disease. Particularly, the major findings of an expeditious reduction of homeostasis model assessment-index and fatty liver index scores in only four days reveal the potential for meaningful benefits with such an intervention, even when compared to the effects of longer-term, single-intervention studies such as dietary or fitness programs on similar metabolic parameters.

(Hat tip to Mangan.)

Question Everything You Know About Fitness

Saturday, October 1st, 2016

Tim Ferriss talks to Outside magazine about some of the tactics, routines, and habits of billionaires, icons, and world-class performers he has learned from doing his podcast and collected in his new book, Tools of Titans — including some off-beat suggestions:

Every Athlete Needs a Vibrator
Specifically, the plug-in version of the Hitachi Magic Wand — but not for what you’re thinking (though you can do that, too). The device, when set on high, delivers the precise hertz most helpful for relaxing hypertonic (chronically tensed) muscles, at least according to the Russian medical-massage specialist who made this recommendation. Place the wand on the belly of a muscle (not where it connects to the tendons) for 20 to 30 seconds, which is often all it takes. It’s incredibly helpful for anyone constantly managing tight muscles. Pro tip: if you have a stiff upper back or neck, try the wand on the suboccipital muscles, at the base of your skull.

That item may not make it on my Amazon wish list.

I may have to try some of his other advice though.

The Superhero Genes

Sunday, September 4th, 2016

Stanford University scientist Euan Ashley and his team are looking for the superhero genes that give elite athletes their superhuman abilities — and which may yield medical insights, too:

The data analysis will take many years?—?there are too many possibilities to sift through them all?—?but the ELITE team has already isolated some 9,200 genetic variants that may explain preternatural athletic ability. “Our first focus is on the heart,” Ashley said, “but then we’re searching for variants across the whole genome.” One early contender, flagged just before my visit, is a gene known as DUOX. A mutation in the gene essentially confers what many nutrition gurus tout as the health benefits of antioxidants, mitigating the damaging effects of our usual cellular metabolism. In the past, DUOX mutations have been identified in a very specific population: People who’ve managed to adapt to living at extremely high altitudes?—?in the Andes, in particular?—?show the mutation, suggesting a possible link to increased pulmonary function. Could DUOX-targeting therapies help in hypoxia? Could they help with tissue repair, since the amount of oxygen in wounds is a crucial factor for speed of recovery?

Then there’s NADK, a gene involved in fatty acid synthesis. If you have lowered NADK, your body could be better at using fat as fuel, making you more powerful over time. So far, two athletes in the sample have the mutation, a high hit rate given its rarity. Could this be a weight-regulating therapy in the making?

Another intriguing variant found in several athletes is RUNX3?—?though, as with all of these mutations, the data are quite preliminary and any conclusions likewise so. Originally, the gene came to light in cancer research. Normally, it suppresses tumors, but in mutated form the suppression function is lost and increased cellular growth ensues. If you’re an athlete, cellular growth can be good: The better your muscles and heart grow, the more quickly you respond to training. The mutation, however, can also lead to tumors. There’s a finely calibrated and fungible line between overperforming and underperforming, between what makes us healthier and what puts us at risk.

What are the evolutionary roots of West African sprinting and East African distance running dominance?

Thursday, August 18th, 2016

Jon Entine argues that Usain Bolt’s Olympic gold shows again why no Asian, white, or East African will ever be crowned world’s fastest human, but Razib Khan argues that Entine’s wrong — because better drugs and biological engineering mean that the fastest human alive is soon going to be non-African, probably Chinese.

Khan sees running a few seconds faster in the 100 meter dash as a non-adaptively beneficial trait, but Steve Sailer wouldn’t be surprised if the ability to outrun those who are after you and mean to do you harm were an important life skill that is highly adaptive in Darwinian terms:

For example, in 1982, when I had just moved to Chicago, I was headed into the Century Mall on N. Clark St., when a black teen rushed out, followed by two twenty-something Hispanic security guards in close pursuit. I watched them head up Clark Street with the teen in sneakers pulling away from the guards in shiny black leather shoes.

But whether sprinting ability or distance running ability is best for survival depends upon how long pursuers’ sightlines extend in your home terrain.

The shoplifter then turned left at the first corner. It occurred to me that was an important life decision he had just made: if it was a dead end he was in big trouble. But if it were a thru street then he just needed to make a series of seemingly random turns until he had lost his pursuers.

In contrast, if the pursued had headed into open grassland, his pursuers could keep him in sight for a long time, so his better sprinting ability might prove nugatory if they had more endurance.

Perhaps in forested or brush covered terrain, as in West Africa, sprinting is selected for because the pursued individual can get lost faster, while in open grassland, as in East Africa, endurance running is the surest way to get away.

Muscular Human Cannonballs

Friday, August 12th, 2016

Elite female gymnasts are getting smaller, because smaller gymnasts have a better power-to-weight ratio and a lower moment of inertia — but there’s a bit more to it:

In the past, the judges gave taller, more elegantly moving young women advantages because they looked better. But that gave an advantage to Eastern European girls raised in the traditions behind the Bolshoi ballet. The Americans have lobbied to make scoring more objective, which gives the advantages to Mary Lou Retton-style muscular human cannonball body types like Biles’.

41-year-old Oksana Chusovitina

Sunday, August 7th, 2016

“Women’s” gymnastics is famous for its tiny teen athletes, but one Olympic competitor, Oksana Chusovitina, is 41 years old:

When American gymnastics superstar Simone Biles was born in 1997, Oksana Chusovitina had already won five world medals and an Olympic gold.

When Biles’ teammate Laurie Hernandez was born in 2000, Chusovitina was already the mother of a young son.

When Gabby Douglas made her Olympic debut in 2012, Chusovitina was competing in her sixth Games.

A list like this could go on all day, because there might be no other athlete in history who has defied the odds, and Father Time, like the 41-year-old Chusovitina. She is in Rio for her unprecedented seventh Olympics.

Aly Raisman, the U.S. team’s captain, is 22 years old, and she’s returning for her second Olympic Games. Her teammates refer to her as “Grandma Aly” because of her age and habits. And while she may be considered old in the sport, she has quite a ways to go if she wants to match Chusovitina as the oldest woman to ever compete at the Olympics in gymnastics.

Chusovitina was born in 1975 in what is now Uzbekistan, and she learned gymnastics through training in the rigid Soviet Union system. She won the all-around at her first major competition — the USSR’s junior national championships — as a 13-year-old in 1988. In 1991, at her first world championships, she earned three medals, including the gold on floor. To win that title, she mounted with a full-twisting double layout — a move so difficult that it was named after her. It’s still considered so hard that Biles, the favorite to win the 2016 Olympic title on floor, will use the same skill in her first tumbling pass — 25 years later.

She doesn’t train like the young girls:

Due to her age and injury concerns, she isn’t in the gym as much as most of her competitors these days. “At this time, I don’t need much physical training,” she said.

“I do a lot of mental training. I have muscle memory that my body has developed over the years. I typically put in two to two-and-a-half hours in the gym.

“And then I visualize exactly how the skill needs to be done. I do this in my head, and when I get to the gym, all the mental preparation that I did after breakfast or just walking around, it just transfers to the gym and, if I’m vaulting, I know exactly what my body needs to be doing. I know exactly what I need to be doing to get a better execution or a better height or a better landing.”

Presto

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

If Penn Jillette looks a bit different now, it may be because — Presto! — he just lost 100 pounds.

He talks to Reason‘s Nick Gillespie about Donald Trump, his crazy diet, and Bob Dylan’s genius:

Ancient and Modern Olympics

Sunday, July 31st, 2016

With the summer games approaching David Stuttard contrasts the ancient and modern Olympics:

While today’s Games stress inclusivity, their ancient counterparts were rigidly exclusive. To compete in this celebration of not just Greek (and, later, Greco-Roman) identity but of proud god-fearing masculinity, you had to speak Greek, be free from the pollution of murder — and be male. Women couldn’t even be spectators. Only the priestess of Demeter could attend.

The chief reason for these restrictions is that the original Games were not really about sport at all. Rather, they were one part of a major male religious festival in honor of the great god Zeus. Indeed, Olympia, site of the Games, was named for Mount Olympus, where Zeus was considered to have had his throne.

I’m not sure sure that the modern games aren’t religious — depending on your definition.

Olympic Vase by Pep Montserrat

The first Games, in 776 B.C., were small-scale and local:

Apart from sacrifices and other religious rites, it included only one sporting event, a footrace of 200 yards, a distance which the Greeks called a stade (hence our “stadium”), and which took well under a minute to run.

[...]

The stade race, run at the midpoint of the Games, remained the centerpiece — so much so that in the fifth-century B.C., when it became desirable to introduce an internationally recognized dating system, the polymath philosopher Hippias hit on the formula, “in the xth year of the yth Olympiad, when z was victor in the footrace.”

The formula caught on, not only promoting the importance of the Games still further but becoming the means whereby a triumphant runner could win everlasting fame.

The words gymnasium and gymnastics come from a time before lycra:

Like other athletes at the Games, runners competed naked. Again, the origins of this tradition were debated, but the most well-known involved Orisippus, a young man from Megara near Athens. Until 720 B.C., loincloths were de rigueur, but that year Orisippus raced so vigorously that his fell off. When he crossed the line to victory, it was seen as a sign from the gods and henceforth any kind of clothing was banned.

But the athletes probably didn’t look exactly naked. By Roman times, if not before, it was common first to anoint the bodies of competitors in oil, then to sprinkle them with dust or powder. One treatise recommended the dust of terra-cotta for helping to open pores, asphalt dust for heating the chilled and yellow earth for softening the skin, commenting that: “Yellow dust also adds glisten, and is a delight to see on a body which is in good shape.” Athletes may well have looked like moving statues.

It was also a time before sunscreen.

There were no team events in the ancient Olympics, by the way.

I find the tone of this passage almost quaint, like something from the pre-UFC 1980s:

The only contact sport forbidden to boys was the pancration, an almost-no-holds-barred free-for-all, in which only biting and eye-gouging were prohibited. A Roman commentator reflected that the competitor must “endure black eyes…and learn holds by which the fallen can still win, and they must be skillful in the various arts of strangulation.”

One pancratist’s win was particularly unconventional. Arrhachion came from Phigalia, a city in mountainous Arcadia. In 564 B.C. the two-time winner came to Olympia where “his opponent, whoever he was, got a grip first and held Arrhachion with his legs squeezed around his neck at the same time. Meanwhile, Arrhachion dislocated a toe on his opponent’s foot but was strangled and expired. At the same time, however, Arrhachion’s opponent gave up because of the pain in his toe. The judges proclaimed Arrhachion the winner and crowned his corpse.”

The ethos has changed most of all:

When Baron de Coubertin revived — or reimagined — the Olympics in 1896, drawing on the ethos of both the ancient Games and English public schools for inspiration, he averred: “What is important in life is not to triumph, but to take part; what is essential is not to have won, but to have fought well.” This may have been a fine late-Victorian ideal, but it was far from the ancient view. At Olympia there were no prizes for coming second, and, fueled by the Homeric exhortation “always to be best,” the desire to win kudos at almost any cost motivated every competitor.

For the aristocratic elite, it was in that most dangerous and exciting of all events, the chariot race, that the most kudos could be earned. Since its introduction in 680 B.C., leading Greek families from Sicily to Libya to the mainland and beyond coveted this prize above all others, because to win it was a sign of immense wealth and good judgment — and, since they hired charioteers to race for them, they ran no physical risks themselves.

Now I’m wondering why there’s no gilded Trump NASCAR car.

Weaker Grips

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

Researchers from the Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina found that men and women under 30 have weaker grip strength than they did back in 1985:

The researchers asked almost 240 men and women under 30 — most 20 to 24 years old — to exert as much force as they could on a hand dynamometer, which measures grip force in pounds. On average, men’s hand strength decreased by 20 pounds, and women’s hand strength decreased by 10 pounds.

The culprit? Probably a combination of increased technology use at home and at work, and less manual labor. “As a society, we’re no longer agricultural or manufacturing,” Elizabeth Fain, an occupational therapist and lead author of the study, told NPR.