Boucicaut’s Workout du Jour

Friday, December 23rd, 2022

Jean le Maingre, called Boucicaut, (1366-1421) was a French knight known for his rigorous physical training:

And now he began to test himself by jumping onto a courser in full armor. At other times he would run or hike for a long way on foot, to train himself not to get out of breath and to endure long efforts. At other times he would strike with an axe or hammer for a long time to be able to hold out well in armor, and so his arms and hands would endure striking for a long time, and train himself to nimbly lift his arms. By these means he trained himself so well that at that time you couldn’t find another gentleman in equal physical condition. He would do a somersault armed in all his armor except his bascinet, and dance armed in a mail shirt…

When he was at his lodgings he would never ceased to test himself with the other squires at throwing the lance or other tests of war.

I was reminded of this when Ben Espen recently shared this video, demonstrating that plate armor was not especially cumbersome:

All the twin pairs came in for physical examinations, and the results were pretty much what you’d expect

Wednesday, December 21st, 2022

Researchers in Finland looked at 17 pairs of identical twins who didn’t have similar exercise habits:

The first thing to note is just how unusual such twin pairs are. The twins in the study were drawn from two previous Finnish twin studies that included thousands of pairs of identical twins. The vast majority of them had similar levels of physical activity. The High Runner mouse line that’s often used in lab studies took mice that loved to run, bred them with each other, and produced mice that love to run even more. I’d like to think that human behavior (and mating patterns) are a little more complex than that, but the twin data certainly suggests that our genes influence our predilection for movement.

Still, they found these 17 pairs whose paths had diverged. There were two different subgroups: young twins in their thirties whose exercise habits had diverged for at least three years, and older twins in their fifties to seventies whose habits had diverged for at least 30 years. On average, the exercising twins got about three times as much physical activity, including active commuting, as the non-exercising ones: 6.1 MET-hours per day compared to 2.0 MET-hours per day. For context, running at a ten-minute-mile pace for half an hour consumes about 5 MET-hours.

All the twin pairs came in for physical examinations, and the results were pretty much what you’d expect. The exercising twins had higher VO2 max (38.6 vs. 33.0 ml/kg/min), smaller waist circumference (34.8 vs. 36.3 inches), lower body fat (19.7 vs. 22.6 percent), significantly less abdominal fat and liver fat, and so on.

[…]

A 2018 case study from researchers at California State University Fullerton looked at a single identical twin pair, then aged 52. One was a marathoner and triathlete who had logged almost 40,000 miles of running between 1993 and 2015. The other was a truck driver who didn’t exercise. In this case, the exercising twin weighed 22 pounds less, and his resting heart rate was 30 percent lower. Most fascinatingly, muscle biopsies showed that the marathoner had 94 percent slow-twitch fibers while the truck-driver had just 40 percent slow-twitch. No one before or since (as far as I know) has shown such a dramatic change in muscle properties.

Sprint speed starts declining after your 20s

Saturday, December 17th, 2022

Alex Hutchinson explains how to hold on to your sprint speed as you age:

Many of the challenges of daily living, once you hit your 70s and 80s and beyond, are essentially tests of all-out power rather than sustained endurance (though both are important).

The problem is that sprint speed starts declining after your 20s, and most endurance athletes have no clue how to preserve it.

[…]

Older sprinters take shorter steps and their feet spend longer in contact with the ground, presumably because they’re less able to generate explosive force with each step. That’s consistent with the finding that older sprinters have less muscle, and in particular less fast-twitch muscle, than younger sprinters.

But it’s not just a question of how much muscle you’ve got. In fact, some studies suggest that you lose strength more rapidly than you lose muscle, which means that the quality of your remaining muscle is reduced. There are a bunch of different reasons for muscle quality to decline, including the properties of the muscle fibers themselves, but the most interesting culprit is the neuromuscular system: the signals from brain to muscle get garbled.

[…]

The authors cover their bases by recommending that your resistance training routine should include workouts that aim to build muscle size (e.g. three sets of ten reps at 70 percent of one-rep max); workouts that aim to build strength (e.g. two to four sets of four to six reps at 85 percent of max); and workouts to build power (e.g. three sets of three to ten reps at 35 to 60 percent of max).

[…]

The authors suggest training to improve coordination through exercises that challenge balance, stability, and reflexes, such as single-leg balance drills. One advantage of this type of training: it’s not as draining as typical “reps to failure” strength workouts, so it may provide more bang for your buck if you can’t handle as many intense workouts as you used to.

[…]

On that note, the standard advice that veteran athletes give you when you hit your 40s is that you can no longer recover as quickly. Strangely, the authors point out, the relatively sparse data on this question doesn’t find any differences in physiological markers of post-workout recovery between younger and older athletes. The main difference is that older athletes feel less recovered—and in this case, it’s probably worth assuming that those feelings represent some kind of reality, even if we don’t know how to measure it.

This machine-feeding regimen was just about as close as one can get to a diet with zero reward value and zero variety

Monday, October 24th, 2022

In The Hungry Brain, neuroscientist Stephan Guyenet references a 1965 study in which volunteers received all their food from a “feeding machine” that pumped a “liquid formula diet” through a “dispensing syringe-type pump which delivers a predetermined volume of formula through the mouthpiece.”

What happens to food intake and adiposity when researchers dramatically restrict food reward? In 1965, the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences published a very unusual study that unintentionally addressed this question. …

The “system” in question was a machine that dispensed liquid food through a straw at the press of a button—7.4 milliliters per press, to be exact (see figure 15). Volunteers were given access to the machine and allowed to consume as much of the liquid diet as they wanted, but no other food. Since they were in a hospital setting, the researchers could be confident that the volunteers ate nothing else. The liquid food supplied adequate levels of all nutrients, yet it was bland, completely lacking in variety, and almost totally devoid of all normal food cues.

[…]

The researchers first fed two lean people using the machine—one for sixteen days and the other for nine. Without requiring any guidance, both lean volunteers consumed their typical calorie intake and maintained a stable weight during this period.

Next, the researchers did the same experiment with two “grossly obese” volunteers weighing approximately four hundred pounds. Again, they were asked to “obtain food from the machine whenever hungry.” Over the course of the first eighteen days, the first (male) volunteer consumed a meager 275 calories per day—less than 10 percent of his usual calorie intake. The second (female) volunteer consumed a ridiculously low 144 calories per day over the course of twelve days, losing twenty-three pounds. The investigators remarked that an additional three volunteers with obesity “showed a similar inhibition of calorie intake when fed by machine.”

The first volunteer continued eating bland food from the machine for a total of seventy days, losing approximately seventy pounds. After that, he was sent home with the formula and instructed to drink 400 calories of it per day, which he did for an additional 185 days, after which he had lost two hundred pounds —precisely half his body weight. The researchers remarked that “during all this time weight was steadily lost and the patient never complained of hunger.” This is truly a starvation-level calorie intake, and to eat it continuously for 255 days without hunger suggests that something rather interesting was happening in this man’s body. Further studies from the same group and others supported the idea that a bland liquid diet leads people to eat fewer calories and lose excess fat.

This machine-feeding regimen was just about as close as one can get to a diet with zero reward value and zero variety. Although the food contained sugar, fat, and protein, it contained little odor or texture with which to associate them. In people with obesity, this diet caused an impressive spontaneous reduction of calorie intake and rapid fat loss, without hunger. Yet, strangely, lean people maintained weight on this regimen rather than becoming underweight. This suggests that people with obesity may be more sensitive to the impact of food reward on calorie intake.

Environmental contamination by artificial, human-synthesized compounds fits this picture very well, and no other account does

Sunday, October 23rd, 2022

Only one theory can account for all of the available evidence about the obesity epidemic: it is caused by one or more environmental contaminants:

We know that this is biologically plausible because there are many compounds that reliably cause people to gain weight, sometimes a lot of weight.

[…]

We need a theory that can account for all of the mysteries we reviewed earlier. Another way to put this is to say that, based on the evidence, we’re looking for a factor that:

  1. Changed over the last hundred years
  2. With a major shift around 1980
  3. And whatever it is, there is more of it every year
  4. It doesn’t affect people living nonindustrialized lives, regardless of diet
  5. But it does affect lab animals, wild animals, and animals living in zoos
  6. It has something to do with palatable human snackfoods, unrelated to nutritional value
  7. It differs in its intensity by altitude for some reason
  8. And it appears to have nothing to do with our diets

Environmental contamination by artificial, human-synthesized compounds fits this picture very well, and no other account does.

We see a similar pattern of results in humans

Saturday, October 22nd, 2022

It used to be that if researchers needed obese rats for a study, they would just add fat to normal rodent chow, but it turns out that it takes a long time for rats to become obese on this diet:

A breakthrough occurred one day when a graduate student happened to put a rat onto a bench where another student had left a half-finished bowl of Froot Loops. Rats are usually cautious around new foods, but in this case the rat wandered over and began scarfing down the brightly-colored cereal. The graduate student was inspired to try putting the rats on a diet of “palatable supermarket food”; not only Froot Loops, but foods like Doritos, pork rinds, and wedding cake. Today, researchers call these “cafeteria diets”.

Sure enough, on this diet the rats gained weight at unprecedented speed. All this despite the fact that the high-fat and cafeteria diets have similar nutritional profiles, including very similar fat/kcal percentages, around 45%. In both diets, rats were allowed to eat as much as they wanted. When you give a rat a high-fat diet, it eats the right amount and then stops eating, and maintains a healthy weight. But when you give a rat the cafeteria diet, it just keeps eating, and quickly becomes overweight. Something is making them eat more. “Palatable human food is the most effective way to cause a normal rat to spontaneously overeat and become obese,” says neuroscientist Stephan Guyenet in The Hungry Brain, “and its fattening effect cannot be attributed solely to its fat or sugar content.”

Rodents eating diets that are only high in fat or only high in carbohydrates don’t gain nearly as much weight as rodents eating the cafeteria diet. And this isn’t limited to lab rats. Raccoons and monkeys quickly grow fat on human food as well.

We see a similar pattern of results in humans.

Long-term low-dose alcohol intake promotes white adipose tissue browning and reduces obesity

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2022

There are numerous pieces of evidence indicating that moderate alcohol intake has a protective effect on metabolic diseases:

Our previous studies revealed that long-term low-dose alcohol intake resists high-fat diet (HFD) induced obesity. A process in which white adipose tissue can be stimulated and turned into heat-producing brown adipose tissue named white adipose browning is associated with energy expenditure and weight loss. In this study we aimed to investigate whether alcohol causes the browning of white adipose tissue and whether the browning of white adipose tissue is involved in the resistance to the occurrence of obesity caused by long-term low-dose alcohol intake. After eight months of alcohol feeding, the body weight of mice had no significant change, but the fat content and lipid deposition in the liver were reduced. Morphological observations revealed that the browning of white adipose tissue occurred.

[...]

Moderate alcohol drinking mice had faster lipid metabolism and slower lipid anabolism. In addition, we found that long-term low-dose alcohol intake prevented the increase of body weight, triglycerides, inflammation and energy expenditure decrease induced by HFD. Moderate alcohol consumption increased the expression of UCP1 and glucose uptake in the adipose tissue of the HFD group. In conclusion, our results show for the first time that alcohol can trigger the browning of white adipose tissue to counteract obesity.

Sauna bathing demonstrated a substantially supplementary effect on CRF, systolic BP, and total cholesterol levels

Monday, August 15th, 2022

Regular exercise and sauna bathing have each been shown to improve cardiovascular function in clinical populations:

However, experimental data on the cardiovascular adaptations to regular exercise in conjunction with sauna bathing in the general population is lacking. Therefore, we compared the effects of exercise and sauna bathing, to regular exercise using a multi-arm randomized controlled trial. Participants(n = 47) aged 49 ± 9 years with low physical activity levels, and at least one traditional CVD risk factor were randomly assigned (1:1:1) to guideline-based regular exercise and 15-minute post-exercise sauna (EXS), guideline-based regular exercise (EXE), or control (CON), for eight weeks. The primary outcomes were blood pressure (BP) and cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF). Secondary outcomes included fat mass, total cholesterol levels, and arterial stiffness. EXE had a greater change in CRF (+6.2 ml/kg/min; 95% CI, +4.2. to +8.3 ml/kg/min) and fat mass, but no differences in BP when compared to CON. EXS displayed greater change in CRF (+2.7 ml/kg/min; 95% CI, +0.2. to +5.3 ml/kg/min), lower systolic BP (-8.0 mmHg; 95% CI, -14.6 to -1.4 mmHg) and lower total cholesterol levels compared to EXE. Regular exercise improved CRF and body composition in sedentary adults with CVD risk factors. However, when combined with exercise, sauna bathing demonstrated a substantially supplementary effect on CRF, systolic BP, and total cholesterol levels. Sauna bathing is a valuable lifestyle tool that complements exercise for improving CRF, and decreasing systolic BP. Future research should focus on the duration, and frequency of exposure to ascertain the dose-response relationship.

Why that new “science-backed” supplement probably doesn’t work

Sunday, August 14th, 2022

In much the same way that everything in your fridge both causes and prevents cancer, Alex Hutchinson notes, there’s a study out there somewhere proving that everything boosts endurance:

A new preprint (a journal article that hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, ironically) from researchers at Queensland University of Technology in Australia explores why this seems to be the case, and what can be done about it. David Borg and his colleagues comb through thousands of articles from 18 journals that focus on sport and exercise medicine, and unearth telltale patterns about what gets published—and perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t. To make sense of the studies you see and decide whether the latest hot performance aid is worth experimenting with, you also have to consider the studies you don’t see.

[...]

One way to illustrate these results is to plot something called the z-value, which is a statistical measure of the strength of an effect. In theory, if you plot the z-values of thousands of studies, you’d expect to see a perfect bell curve. Most of the results would be clustered around zero, and progressively fewer would have either very strongly positive or very strongly negative effects. Any z-value less than -1.96 or greater than +1.96 corresponds to a statistically significant result with p less than 0.05. A z-value between -1.96 and +1.96 indicates a null result with no statistically significant finding.

In practice, the bell curve won’t be perfect, but you’d still expect a fairly smooth curve. Instead, this is what you see if you plot the z-values from the 1,599 studies analyzed by Borg:

Borg Distribution of Z Values

There’s a giant missing piece in the middle of the bell curve, where all the studies with non-significant results should be. There are probably lots of different reasons for this, both driven by decisions that researchers make and—just as importantly—decisions that journals make about what to publish and what to reject. It’s not an easy problem to solve, because no journal wants to publish (and no reader wants to read) thousands of studies that conclude, over and over, “We’re not yet sure whether this works.”

Participants lost one-fifth of their body weight

Tuesday, June 7th, 2022

In a 72-week trial in participants with obesity, tirzepatide — a novel glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide and glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor agonist — provided substantial and sustained reductions in body weight. Participants lost one-fifth of their body weight.

Boxing and jiu-jitsu have always seemed more important than any training in marksmanship

Wednesday, April 20th, 2022

I stumbled across an MSNBC opinion piece arguing that fitness-fascists have been recruiting and radicalizing young men with neo-Nazi and white supremacist extremist ideologies. I rolled my eyes, but I was legitimately surprised by this bit:

In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler fixated on boxing and jujitsu, believing they could help him create an army of millions whose aggressive spirit and impeccably trained bodies, combined with “fanatical love of the fatherland,” would do more for the German nation than any “mediocre” tactical weapons training.

I’m honestly shocked that I did not know this, since I’m interested in both military history and martial arts. Here’s the offending passage (from 1925):

Now if the SA could be neither a military combat organization nor a secret league, the following consequences inevitably resulted

1. Its training must not proceed from military criteria, but from criteria of expediency for the party.

In so far as the members require physical training, the main emphasis must be laid, not on military drilling, but on athletic activity. Boxing and jiu-jitsu have always seemed to me more important than any inferior, because incomplete, training in marksmanship. Give the German nation six million bodies with flawless athletic training, all glowing with fanatical love of their country and inculcated with the highest offensive spirit, and a national state will, in less than two years if necessary, have created an army, at least in so far as a certain basic core is present. This, as things are today, can rest only in the Reichswehr and not in any combat league that has always done things by halves. Physical culture must inoculate the individual with the conviction of his superiority and give him that self-confidence which lies forever and alone in the consciousness of his own strength; in addition, it must give him those athletic skills which serve as a weapon for the defense of the movement.

Naturally, anyone recommending physical fitness or martial arts is basically Hitler. (Same with vegetarians, of course.)

How little of this is enough?

Monday, February 14th, 2022

Swedish speedskater Nils van der Poel dominated the 10,000-meter race Saturday and then released a training guide for anyone who wants to get on his level:

A friend of mine thinks that my success is mostly based on me being a talent. That the training plan that devoured me wouldn’t give anyone else the same results. Perhaps he’s right, perhaps he’s not. I actually think that he is a little right and a little wrong. I like to think that I earned my success. I also wish for the sport to keep developing and for my records to be broken. I will not be the one to break 6.00,00 nor 12.30,00, but maybe someone else will. For those who might want to, I wrote this document. It’s basically a summary of how I trained from May 2019 to February 2022.

[…]

During my last two seasons I regularly skated 240 laps of 30,0 weekly, alone and with lane change. I believe that I am the only skater ever to be able to do that continuously. I was not born this way, I worked for it. From May 2019 up until August 2020 I abstained from competitions on ice and instead aim my powers at developing a strong aerobic base that enabled me to, later on, perform more high intensity work than ever before. The physical ability that enabled my success was a very strong aerobic base.

[…]

Some pro athletes say that, since they are professionals and can train as much as they like, they might as well add some weight training, and some stretching, and some core, and some technical sessions, and some training competitions, and some coordination sessions… All training sessions are performed at the expense of other, more efficient, training sessions, or at the expense of recovery after these sessions. My point isn’t that stretching is useless. If you need to stretch then go ahead and bend over. But do not fool yourself; do not drop hours from the essential sessions in order to perform something that sounds cool or is easy. Yeah, the gym is warm and nice, mirrors everywhere so that you can see your pretty face and attractive muscles. But you’re more likely 50 watts of the required bike threshold to make it below 12.00,00, than you are 50kg in squats from it. I completely cut what I thought were the sub-optimal sessions in order to increase the optimal ones. But, as I’m looking back upon it all, 5 minutes of core and stretching weekly would have been a smart way of staying clear of injury. Those “prehab” sessions I believe should be approached with an attitude of “how little of this is enough?” in order not to get injured nor steal time and effort from the essential sessions. During winter I skated a lot more competition speed laps than any other long distance speed skater, but I did a lot less of any other high intensity training than all the others.

It may indeed be that there is some extremely nuanced sweet spot

Wednesday, January 26th, 2022

Among 14,000 Finnish people who were tracked for 40 years, those who used saunas frequently were way less likely to develop dementia:

Big if true. And that’s an impressively huge study! But let’s start peeling back the layers.

First of all, it wasn’t every sauna enthusiast who reaped the supposed protective effect against dementia; it was specifically those who used a sauna 9-12 times a month. Sauna bathers who hit the wooden bench 5-8 times a month — sorry, no effect. And those who went more than 12 times a month — again, no luck.

That should raise a caution flag in your head. When only a very specific subpopulation in a study experiences a benefit, it may indeed be that there is some extremely nuanced sweet spot. But it is more likely that the researchers collected a lot of data, which in turn allowed them to analyze many different correlations between sauna use and dementia; the more different analyses they can do, the more likely some of those analyses will generate false positives, just by statistical chance. And then, of course, those titillating positive results are the ones that end up at the top of the paper, and in the press release.

The protection against dementia for that 9-12-times-per-month set was big over the first 20 years of the study, and then faded later, so now we’re slicing and dicing data not only by sauna-frequency, but by time. And then there’s temperature. The Finns who saunaed in temperatures hotter than 100°C (212°F) actually had a higher risk of dementia than those who sauna-and-chilled below 80°C (176°F).

So if you want to prevent dementia, hit the sauna precisely 9-12 times a month at below 80°C — and, unfortunately, expect the protective effect to diminish in the future. Whew!

The two inferior techniques largely rely on pushing down against the water

Saturday, October 16th, 2021

Alex Hutchinson reviews a recent study on the physiology of treading water efficiently:

They put 21 volunteers, all experienced water polo players, synchronized swimmers, or competitive swimmers who self-identified as water treading experts, through a series of physiological and cognitive tests while performing four different styles of treading. The verdict: some techniques really are substantially better than others.

The four techniques are as follows:

  1. Running in the water: This one is pretty self-explanatory. Hands and feet are moving up and down in a running-like motion.
  2. Flutter kick: Your hands are sculling back and forth along the surface of the water, while your legs do a flutter kick.
  3. Upright breaststroke: Your hands are still sculling along the surface of the water, but your legs are doing the distinctive frog kick of the breaststroke.
  4. Eggbeater: It’s similar to the upright breaststroke, with the key difference that your legs are kicking one at a time instead of synchronously, producing an eggbeater pattern of alternating circles with each leg.

[...]

There were clear differences in how efficient the different techniques were, with running and flutter kick performing equally poorly, and upright breaststroke and eggbeater performing equally well. This pattern showed up in every outcome measure.

[...]

Normally VO2 measurements are adjusted for weight, since heavier people burn more energy — but in this case, wet weight was used to also account for differences in buoyancy.

[...]

The two inferior techniques largely rely on pushing down against the water to move the body upward. This has two problems: water is too thin to provide much support, and even when the pushing works you get a lot of wasted up-and-down motion. The two better strokes, in contrast, involve lateral movements of the arms and legs: your cupped hand acts like an airplane wing or sailboat sail, generating lift forces perpendicular to the plane of motion. This is more efficient than pushing on the water, and produces less wasted vertical bobbing.

There’s one key difference between upright breaststroke and the eggbeater: in the former, your legs are kicking outward at the same time, while in the latter they’re alternating. This means that breaststroke produces some of that undesired up (when you kick) and down (between kicks) motion — and that effect is exacerbated if you stop sculling with your hands. In the eggbeater, there’s always one leg moving, so you get a smoother, more continuous lift that can keep you up even without your hands. The study didn’t test anything that required using your arms — but if you want to throw a water polo ball, strike a fancy pose during your synchro routine, or signal frantically to a passing ship that you need rescue, eggbeater looks like a much better bet.

The future elites actually practiced less on average in their eventual sport than the near-elites through most of childhood

Friday, August 13th, 2021

If you look at the average number of hours of deliberate practice between elite and near-elite athletes, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), packing in practice is clearly important, but you need to look at the entire picture:

The future elites actually practiced less on average in their eventual sport than the near-elites through most of childhood. Only in the mid-teen years did they focus in on a single sport and begin racking up practice hours in earnest.

Age vs. Practice Hours per Week

It could be that some eventual elites were simply more gifted and didn’t have to focus in as early.

Or, given the circa-puberty timing of the crossover in the above chart, the future near-elites may simply have been early developers who ceased to stand out when peers caught up physically, and subsequently the near-elites started throwing in the metaphorical towel.

Another possible explanation for this pattern is that early specialization actually hinders development in some sports.

[...]

[NBA MVP Steve] Nash followed a pattern that shows up repeatedly in studies of the childhoods of elite athletes: he had a “sampling period” through about age twelve, where he tried a variety of sports, found the one that best suited him — physically and psychologically — and then focused in during his mid-teen years and got down to business.

[...]

A Swedish study of sub-elite and elite tennis players — five of whom were ranked top fifteen in the world — found that the eventual sub-elites dropped all sports other than tennis by age eleven, whereas the eventual elites continued playing multiple sports until age fourteen. Only at fifteen did the future elites begin to practice more than the future sub-elites.

[...]

A study of the childhoods of musicians shows a similar pattern. In a paper titled “Biological Precursors of Musical Excellence,” psychologists John A. Sloboda and Michael J. A. Howe found that teenagers in a competitive music school who were deemed of “exceptional ability” had, prior to gaining entry to the school, sampled instruments and practiced less and had fewer lessons than students who were deemed of “average ability.” The average students accumulated 1,382 hours of play and practice on their first instrument prior to entering the school, compared to 615 hours for the exceptional students, who only focused on one instrument and ramped up their practice activities later. The average players, the psychologists wrote, “spent more total time on instrumental activity, but devoted the vast majority of their effort to the first chosen instrument.” That is, they stuck rigidly to a single path rather than embracing the sampling period during which athletes and musicians alike apparently often find the route that best fits their inimitable bodies and minds.

This led Epstein to write his next book, Range, which I also recommend — and which I’ve mentioned here before a few times.