Tag Archives: health

Conversion factors – Science reminds you that “more calories = more work”, fatty!

18 Mar

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=labels-that-translate-calories-into-walking-distance&page=2

Tread Lightly: Labels That Translate Calories into Walking Distance Could Induce People to Eat Less

 

Including the amount of physical activity needed to burn off the calories from a meal caused people to order on average 200 calories less in an online survey

By Roxanne Khamsi

 

NYC map shows walking distances for burning calories

NYC’s Health Department encourages consumers to choose beverages with less sugar. Image: New York City Health Department

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaign to limit sugary drinks is losing juice, but an idea the city has used to convey caloric information about these beverages might actually have legs. Public awareness posters used by the campaign showed the number of miles a person would have to walk to burn off the calories in a 20-ounce soda, and new research suggests that physical activity–based conversions such as these can actually persuade people to make healthier choices.

food labels

FOOTLOOSE: Researchers tested four labeling scenarios.
Image: Courtesy of Dowray et. al.

Choosing what to eat or drink based on calorie numbers alone is challenging for some restaurant-goers, according to Anthony Viera at the University of North Carolina (U.N.C.) at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. “It requires a computation that many people might not find easy to make at the point of decision,” he says. So Viera and his colleagues conducted an online survey of 802 individuals randomly presented with one of four hypothetical menus. One of the menus provided only calorie counts, another supplemented this with information about the number of minutes one would need to walk to burn those calories whereas the third menu showed calorie numbers plus the distance necessary to walk them off. The fourth menu had no nutritional data whatsoever. All of the physical activity labeling for walking was based on the energy expenditure of a 160-pound adult walking at a rate of 30 minutes per mile—so a “regular burger” was, for example, listed as containing 250 calories, the equivalent amount burned in 2.6 miles, or 78 minutes of walking.

People who viewed the menu without nutritional information ordered a meal totaling 1,020 calories, on average, significantly more than the average 826 calories ordered by those who viewed menus that included information about walking-distance. Study participants ordered meals adding up to averages of 927 calories and 916 calories from menus with only calorie information or calorie information plus minutes walking, respectively, although the differences between these two totals were not statistically significant. The findings appear in the March issue of the journal Appetite. “The next stage is to see how this might work in a real-world setting,” says Sunaina Dowray, a medical student at the U.N.C. School of Medicine and lead author of the study. She says that the team might try to work with the school’s cafeteria about the possibility of testing the concept their labels there.

Although a difference of 200 or even 100 calories might not seem large, a 2011 study from researchers that included scientists at the National Institutes of Health calculated that eating just 10 fewer calories a day would make a person shed a pound of weight over three years.

Running with the idea
The notion of physical activity–based calorie labeling has stirred interest. “This is a huge window of opportunity for the public health community to provide consumers useful information about calories,” says Sara Bleich of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who was not involved in the new study. “Information-based interventions that require less mental processing are typically more successful than information-based interventions requiring greater computation effort,” she adds. Bleich co-authored a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Public Health that looked at sugary drink sales at four corner stores in a low-income Baltimore neighborhood in which the scientists placed brightly-colored signs on the beverage cases asking, “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 50 minutes of running?” The signs that included this physical activity estimate reduced the odds of adolescents purchasing sugar-sweetened beverages whereas signs that included only the calorie content produced no statistically significant decline in such odds.

Subway riders in the Big Apple saw exactly this calorie–physical activity equivalence approach rolled out in fall 2011, when posters warned them that they would need to walk three miles—from Union Square in Manhattan to Brooklyn—to burn off the calories in a 20-ounce soda. “We found that this information was new for many people and helped people better understand the number of calories in a sugary beverage,” says Susan Kansagra, assistant commissioner of the city’s Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention and Tobacco Control.

New York is, of course, the same city that instituted a requirement in 2008 that required restaurant chains with more than five locations to list calorie content on their menus. Although some studies have found an appreciable reduction in calorie consumption following this rule, a handful have not seen a difference. Meanwhile public health advocates are waiting for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to publish a final version of a rule proposed in April 2011 that would require restaurants with more than 20 locations nationwide to list caloric information on their menus. The agency has estimated that approximately 1,640 chains with a total of 278,600 establishments across the country would fall under this rule.

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Science in the Public Interest, is optimistic that calorie counts on their own will make a big difference in the fight against the obesity epidemic in the U.S. “We don’t know what the full impact of menu labeling is, and we won’t know until it’s been in effect nationally for several years,” Wootan says. She’s less sanguine about adding physical activity labels: “It’s a clever idea, but for most restaurants’ menus it probably wouldn’t be practical.” The addition of such information means that menus “could really get cluttered and hard to read.”

In the meantime those curious about physical activity equivalents of the food they eat can chew on this: the recent publication Convert Anything to Calories reportedly states that you can burn off the calories in one Big Mac with 350,000 clicks of a computer mouse.

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The Nature Cure

28 Nov

http://www.outsideonline.com/fitness/wellness/Take-Two-Hours-of-Pine-Forest-and-Call-Me-in-the-Morning.html

Outside Magazine, December 2012
Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning

These days, screen-addicted Americans are more stressed out and distracted than ever. And nope, there’s no app for that. But there is a radically simple remedy: get outside. Florence Williams travels to the deep woods of Japan, where researchers are backing up the surprising theory that nature can lower your blood pressure, fight off depression, beat back stress—and even prevent cancer.

I was supposed to be listening to the cicadas and the sound of a flowing creek when a Mitsubishi van rumbled across a small steel bridge just downstream. It was probably depositing campers at a nearby tent village, where kids were running around with their fishing poles and pink bed pillows. This was nature, Japan style. I was in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, a 75-minute train ride northwest of Tokyo, with half a dozen other hikers out for a dose of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. The Japanese go crazy for this practice, which is standard preventive medicine here. It essentially involves hanging out in the woods. It’s not about wilderness; it’s about the nature-civilization hybrid the Japanese have cultivated for thousands of years. You stroll a little, maybe write a haiku, crack open a spicebush twig and inhale its woodsy, sassy scent.

“People come out from the city and literally shower in the greenery,” our guide Kunio explained. “This way they are able to become relaxed.” To help us along, Kunio—a volunteer ranger—had us standing still on a hillside, facing the creek, with our arms at our sides. I glanced around. We looked like earthlings transfixed by the light of the beamship. Or extras in a magical-kingdom movie. Kunio could have been one of the seven dwarves. Elfin, with noticeably large ears, he told us to breathe in for a count of seven, hold for five, release. “Concentrate on your belly,” he said.

We needed this. Most of us were urban desk jockeys, including Tokyo businessman Ito Tatsuya, 41, standing next to me. Like many Japanese day hikers, he was carrying an inordinate amount of gear, much of it dangling from his belt: a cell phone, a camera, a water bottle, and a set of keys. The Japanese would make great Boy Scouts, which is probably why they make such fervent office workers, logging longer hours than almost anyone else in the developed world. They’ve even coined a term, karoshi, meaning death by overwork. Since he began lollygagging in the woods and picnicking on octopus, Ito’s shoulders seemed to be unclenching by the minute.

“When I’m out here, I don’t think about things,” he said.

“What’s the Japanese word for stress?” I asked.

“Stress,” he said.

WITH THE LARGEST CONCENTRATION of broad-leafed evergreens in Japan, mountainous Chichibu-Tama-Kai is an ideal place to put into practice the newest principles of wellness science. In a grove of rod-straight Japanese red pine, Kunio pulled a thermos from his massive daypack and served us some mountain-grown, bark-flavored wasabi-root tea. The idea with shinrin-yoku, a term coined by the government in 1982 but inspired by ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices, is to let nature enter your body through all five senses, and this was the taste part. I stretched out across the top of a cool, mossy boulder. A duck quacked. I was feeling pretty mellow, and tests would soon validate this: between the beginning and the end of the two-hour hike, my blood pressure had dropped a couple of points. Ito’s had dropped even more.

We knew this because we were on one of Japan’s 48 official Forest Therapy trails, designated for shinrin-yoku by Japan’s Forestry Agency. In an effort to benefit the Japanese and find nonextractive ways to use forests, which cover 67 percent of the country’s landmass, the government has funded about $4 million in forest-bathing research since 2004. It intends to designate a total of 100 Forest Therapy sites within 10 years. Visitors here are routinely hauled off to a cabin where rangers measure their blood pressure, part of an effort to provide ever more data to support the project.

The Japanese have good reason to require unwinding: In addition to those long workdays, pressure and competition for schools and jobs have helped Japan achieve the third-highest suicide rate in the developed world (after South Korea and Hungary). Ten percent of the country’s 128 million residents live in greater Tokyo, where rush hour is so crowded that white-gloved workers shove people onto Metro trains, leading to another coinage, tsukin-jigoku—commuter hell. On top of all that, the small island nation trembles and yaws with more than 1,500 earthquakes a year. The tsunami that hit in 2011 killed 20,000 people, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant suffered a triple meltdown, and now some of the country’s prized rice has radioactive cesium in it.

So it makes sense that Japan’s scientists are in the vanguard of knowing how green spaces soothe the body and brain. While a small but impressive shelf of psychological research in recent decades suggests that spending time in nature improves cognition, relieves anxiety and depression, and even boosts empathy, scientists in Japan are measuring what’s actually happening to our cells and neurons. Led by Yoshifumi Miyazaki from the University of Chiba and Qing Li from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, they’re using field tests, hormone analysis, and new brain-imaging technology to uncover how the magic works on a molecular level. Once we know that, it’s news we can use.

“The Japanese work is essential, a Rosetta stone,” says Alan C. Logan, co-author of the recent book Your Brain on Nature. “We have to validate the ideas scientifically, through stress physiology, or we’re still stuck at Walden Pond.” Americans have often relegated nature to the romantic realm of Thoreau and Abbey. Viewing it as medicine is still largely foreign. “Studying the impact of the natural world on the brain is actually a scandalously new idea,” says Richard Louv, author of the 2008 bestseller Last Child in the Woods—the book that minted the term nature deficit disorder—and The Nature Principle, his 2010 follow-up about adults. “It should’ve been studied 30 to 50 years ago.”

But the Japanese evidence is appearing at a good time. Books like Louv’s, combined with an explosion in new digital distractions and malaises, are helping to define a cultural moment, what might be called a new slow-nature movement. We are rediscovering our inherent biophilia—what Harvard entomologist E. O. Wilson and Yale social ecologist Stephen Kellert defined as humanity’s affinity for nature. And we see now that we have become what John Muir described as “tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people.”

Indeed, in 2008, the world reached a curious milestone: more people lived in urban areas than outside of them. In the U.S., urban areas grew faster in 2010 and 2011 than suburban regions for the first time since the 1920s. According to Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows, the average American spends at least eight hours a day looking at some sort of electronic screen. Then we try to relax by watching TV. Bad idea. Research shows that this only makes us crabbier. Logan asserts that, since the age of the Internet, North Americans have become more aggressive, more narcissistic, more distracted, more depressed, and less cognitively nimble. Oh yeah, and fatter.

And don’t think you’re off the hook if you exercise outdoors. You are quite likely still tethered to civilization. Perhaps you’re strapped to a heart monitor or headset. Admit it: Have you brought your phone? Are you clocking wind sprints? Sure, you are deriving some mental and physical benefits, but evidence is mounting that to get the most out of nature, you really need to be present in it, not distracted by your own great story of self.

I reflect most of these trends. I spend too much time sitting inside. I maintain multiple social-media platforms, and I’ve recently moved from idyllic Boulder, Colorado, to Washington, D.C. Now my morning walk takes place directly under the flight path of Reagan National Airport. I dodge surly bike commuters and professional dog walkers, then cross a car-clogged parkway that sets me grumbling and obsessing over my fate, my relationships, and my kids’ new schedules, which require military precision and Euclidean traffic calculations. When I walk under a bridge to get to something resembling a trail, I pass graffiti that reads PUSSY FUDGE. I’m feeling a bit. On. Edge.

IF THE JAPANESE EMBRACE of forest therapy can be attributed to one man, it’s Miyazaki, a physiological anthropologist and vice director of Chiba University’s Center for Environment, Health, and Field Sciences, located just outside Tokyo. Miyazaki believes that because humans evolved in nature, it’s where we feel most comfortable, even if we don’t always know it. “Throughout our evolution, we’ve spent 99.9 percent of our time in natural environments,” he says. “Our physiological functions are still adapted to it. During everyday life, a feeling of comfort can be achieved if our rhythms are synchronized with those of the environment.”

To prove it, Miyazaki has taken more than 600 research subjects into the woods since 2004. He and his colleague Juyoung Lee, also of Chiba University, have found that leisurely forest walks, compared with urban walks, yield a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a seven percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate. On subjective tests, study participants also report better moods and lower anxiety.

As Miyazaki concludes in a 2011 paper, “This shows that stressful states can be relieved by forest therapy.” And the Japanese eat it up, with nearly a quarter of the population partaking in some way. Between 2.5 million and five million visitors walk the Forest Therapy trails each year.

The science is so convincing that other countries are following Japan’s lead in studying and promoting nature as a cure. Lee just got hired away by the South Korean government, which is pouring more than $140 million into a new National Forest Therapy Center, expected to be completed in 2014. Finland, an empire of boreal spruce and pine, is also funding numerous studies. “Japan showed us that there could be cooperation between forestry and medical fields,” says Liisa Tyrvainen of the Finnish Forest Research Institute. “Now we are conducting similar research.”

I met up with Miyazaki at the country’s newest proposed therapy site, Juniko, a leafy network of trails and lakes near northern Japan’s Shirakami Mountains. The scientist was swatting mosquitoes from his face and neatly trimmed gray hair. In fact, he wasn’t looking relaxed at all. He was worried that the trail might be too muddy for his latest experiment, which would inaugurate the new field version of a brain-oxygen measuring, near-infrared spectrometer. He was kicking rocks out of the way and overseeing the setup of a netted, canopied mini-lab. The next morning, he and Lee would bring 12 male college students here, to measure their brain activity and vital signs after walking and sitting and generally forest bathing. They’d repeat the experiment in downtown Hirosaki, a city of 175,000 about two hours away. I would serve as one of Miyazaki’s stressed guinea pigs.

With the details worked out, several of us retired to a quiet restaurant across from Hirosaki’s Dormy Inn. We removed our shoes and sat cross-legged on the floor while Miyazaki distributed a baffling array of dishes involving runny eggs, seaweed, and gelatinous balls.

“Why do the Japanese think about nature so much?” I asked Miyazaki, who was preparing to eat his modest slab of manta ray.

“Don’t Americans think about nature?” he asked me.

I considered. “Some do and some don’t.”

“Well,” he mused, “in our culture, nature is part of our minds and bodies and philosophy. In our tradition, all things are relative to something else. In Western thought, all things are absolute.”

Maybe it was the sake, but he was starting to lose me.

“The difference is in language,” he continued. “If I ask you, ‘A human is not a dog, is it?’ you say, ‘No, a human is not a dog.’ In Japan, we say, ‘Yes, a human is not a dog.’” The great sensei of nature studies peered at me over his chopsticks. I was reminded of the story of the Zen student who asks his teacher, “How do you see so much?” and the teacher responds, “I close my eyes.”

Miyazaki, I understood, was like a koan, impenetrable. But you had to trust that the guy was onto something.

ON THE MORNING OF the forest experiment, the college kids and I took turns sitting in the mobile lab at the trailhead. The boys were skinny, sleepy-eyed, and unfailingly polite. As if we were receiving sacrament, we placed hard cotton cylinders under our tongues for two minutes, then spit them out into test tubes. Once analyzed in a lab, these samples would reveal our levels of salivary cortisol, a stress hormone made in the adrenal cortex and sent to the brain. Lee, exuding calm and efficiency, hooked us up to other electrodes and devices that would track changes in blood pressure, pulse rate, and heart rate, gauging our physiological responses to the forest and the city.

These are standard measurements the team has used for years. But today they also pulled out the new battery powered spectrometer, which, when deployed, gave me a sensation of leeches sticking to my forehead. It’s designed to measure hemoglobin levels (a proxy for blood and oxygen) in the prefrontal cortex. This is the brain geography that deals with cognitive and executive functions, such as planning, problem solving, and decision making. When aggregated, these metrics paint a picture of our bifurcated nervous system.

The researchers want to know if being in nature gives these frontal lobes a much needed rest. When we are relaxed and at ease in our environment, our parasympathetic system—sometimes called the rest-and-digest branch—kicks in, stimulating appetite. This is why food tastes better in the outdoors, explained Miyazaki. But the constant stimulus of modern life triggers our sympathetic nervous system, which governs fight-or-flight behaviors. And triggers it, and triggers it. A long trail of research dating back to the 1930s shows that people with chronically high cortisol levels and blood pressure are more prone to heart disease and depression.

When it was my turn to wander through the forest for 15 minutes, I was happy to break free from the wires. The loud pulse of cicadas echoed through the woods. Light filtered gently through the beeches and Japanese horse chestnuts, and the earth smelled like, well, earth. An elderly couple ambled by, assisted by walking sticks and a bear bell. I was briefly mesmerized by a yellow butterfly. I could see why Juniko is a candidate for the country’s next forest-therapy station. Local and park officials are seeking the designation because, where there’s forest therapy, there are tourists and their yen. Miyazaki may have a mystical side, but what drives him is the data he gets from these parks. It’s a convenient arrangement.

This isn’t an entirely new idea. Beginning in the 1970s, researchers at the University of Michigan, led by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, noticed that psychological distress was often related to mental fatigue. Modern life demands what the Kaplans call sustained directed attention on tasks both important and mundane—checking email, working a desk job, finding a parking spot. What leads to resting our brains’ directed-attention function? “Soft fascination,” explains Rachel Kaplan from her plant-filled university office. This is what happens when you watch a butterfly or the sunset or rain. You can’t help but stop multitasking or kvetching. That’s why Kaplan recommends a decidedly nonathletic approach to the outdoors, at least at times.

“When you’re pursuing a sport, you get cardiac points, but you’re not necessarily getting nature points,” she says. Research by her colleague Jason Duvall suggests that when you are distracted outside—running with an iPod, say—you may be more irritable and impatient later, less able to stay on task, focus, and plan than your nature-engaged peers.

Studies by the Kaplans and others show that after short walks in greenery, or even spells of looking at nature images in a lab, subjects’ directed-attention capabilities at least partly recover—people perform significantly better on cognitive tests and report feeling happier. They behave less selfishly when playing computer games. Turning down the front-brain disco ball also seems to improve creativity. And the more time in nature, the better. A recent pilot study by psychologists Paul and Ruth Ann Atchley of the University of Kansas and David Strayer of the University of Utah found that after three days of hiking and camping in the wilderness, participants in an Outward Bound course improved their scores on tests of creativity by 50 percent. “I’ll admit I’m a believer that there’s something profound going on,” says Strayer.

Yet, it’s been hard to see inside the brain to observe these processes at work. Neuroscientists want quantitative visuals. That’s starting to happen, mostly in labs in South Korea and the U.S. Studies have shown that when subjects look at pictures of nature, hemoglobin levels drop in the prefrontal cortex, meaning that the home base of executive function has switched a few lights off. (Similar effects have been seen in the brains of Tibetan monks, who appear to dim their brain wattage through meditation.)

Where’s the action going instead? To other parts of the brain, like the insula and the basal ganglia, says Kaplan protégé Marc Berman, now at the University of Toronto’s Rotman Research Institute. These are areas sometimes associated with emotion, pleasure, and empathy.

Berman has recently begun using functional MRI to watch people’s brains as they look at images of nature through virtual-reality glasses. “What we’re trying to find out is, what does a restored brain look like, and what does it look like as it’s getting restored?” says Berman. In the real world, filled with real nature, he would expect the effects to be even more pronounced. Miyazaki and Lee, with their hemoglobin-measuring spectrometer, intend to find out.

TWO WEEKS AFTER OUR experiments at Juniko and Hirosaki, Lee sent me preliminary results from my brain spectroscopy. Brightly colored squiggly lines on a graph show that my oxyhemoglobin concentrations indeed appeared lower in the forest than in the city. Lee said that results from me and the college boys would require more analysis, but for first-time field work he was optimistic. “I am very excited,” he said.

The results didn’t surprise me. My urban peregrination hadn’t been nearly as pleasant as the soft green trails of Juniko. Downtown Hirosaki is, like a lot of midsize cities, more functional than attractive. Walking on the hot asphalt, I passed four parking lots, two taxi stands, a bus station, and two loudly idling buses belching fumes. The results showed that my nervous system had responded. My systolic blood pressure had dropped six points after walking in the forest; obligingly, it went up six points after walking in the city.

But how long do the feel-good effects of nature last? Are they simply wiped out by the first traffic jam or cell-phone ditty?

One of Miyazaki’s collaborators, Qing Li, an immunologist in the department of hygiene and public health at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, had the same question. The chairman of the Society of Forest Medicine, a small but growing international group of academics, Li is interested in nature’s effect on the human immune system. A person’s natural killer immune cells (NK cells for short) can, like cortisol and hemoglobin, be reliably measured in a lab. A type of white blood cell, NK cells are handy to have around, since they send self-destruct messages to tumors and virus-infected cells. It’s been known for a long time that factors like stress, aging, and pesticides can reduce your NK count, at least temporarily. So, Li wondered, if nature reduces stress, could it also increase your NK cells and thereby help you fight infections and cancer?

In 2005 and 2006, Li brought a group of middle-aged Tokyo businessmen into the woods. For three days, they hiked in the morning and again in the afternoon. By the end, blood tests showed that their NK cells had increased 40 percent. A month later, their NK count was still 15 percent higher than when they started. By contrast, during urban walking trips, NK levels didn’t change.

Since most of us can’t spend three days a week walking in the woods, Li was curious to know if a one-day trip to a suburban park would have a similar effect. It did, boosting the levels of both NK cells and anticancer proteins for at least seven days afterward.

What was going on? Li suspected that trees were important. Specifically, he wondered if NK cells are affected by “aromatic volatile substances,” otherwise known as scents, sometimes called phytoncides. These are the pinenes, limonenes, and other aerosols emitted by evergreens and many other trees. Scientists have identified 50 to 100 of these phytoncides in the Japanese countryside and virtually none in city air that’s not directly above a park.

This wasn’t a totally left-field idea. Studies have attributed healthful properties to soil compounds like actinomycetes, which the human nose can detect at concentrations of 10 parts per trillion. And since the mid-1990s, researchers have been studying pinene for its antimicrobial properties and limonene, which is given off by citrus and other trees, as a possible tumor suppressor in cancer patients.

To test the phytoncide theory, Li sequestered 12 subjects in hotel rooms. In some rooms, he rigged a humidifier to vaporize stem oil from common Hinoki cypress trees; other rooms got nothing. The results? The cypress dwellers had a 20 percent increase in NK cells during their three-night stay and reported feeling less fatigued. The control group saw almost no changes.

“It’s like a miracle drug,” said Li.

It sounds hokey that evergreen scents—the kind of thing given off by those cardboard trees dangling from the rearview mirrors of taxicabs—could help us live longer. But Li found similar results with NK cells in a petri dish: they increased in the presence of aromatic cypress molecules. So did anti-cancer proteins and proteases called granulysin, granzymes A and B, and perforin, which act by causing tumor cells to self-destruct. Li’s olfaction theory is unconventional, but it contains some of that Zen five-sense wisdom. While American researchers are mostly showing people pictures of nature, the Japanese are pouring it into every orifice.

Li invited me to his lab to have a sniff. The building was practically empty—the medical students were on break—and eerily dark, the result of power shortages in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

He held up a small cinnamon-colored glass bottle filled with oil. “This is very toxic!” he said, giggling. “It’s very good but very toxic.” Phytoncides, from the Greek and Latin for “plant” and “killer,” are antimicrobial compounds that ward off pests. At low levels, though, we find them pleasant, and sometimes we don’t consciously detect them at all. Li believes that, while being around big trees in forests offers us the greatest benefit, flora from other landscapes, and possibly even houseplants, release these substances, too.

Before taking a drag, I stuffed my right arm into yet another blood-pressure machine. Then we unscrewed the cap of the forest elixir and I inhaled. The oil gave off a nice pitchy, vaguely turpentine scent. We put the cap back on and read my blood pressure again. It had dropped 12 points.

I looked at Li, who nodded delightedly. “This is a very big effect, bigger than people get with pharmaceuticals,” he said. “In fact, I use a humidifier with cypress oil almost every night in the winter.” You don’t need to harvest your own, Li said. Standard health-store aromatherapy oils work fine.

“What else do you do?” I asked the middle-aged man with the bowl haircut.

Clearly, Li gets asked this a lot. He had a small list. “If you have time for a vacation, don’t go to a city. Go to a natural area. Try to go one weekend a month. Visit a park at least once a week. Gardening is good. On urban walks, try to walk under trees, not across fields. Go to a quiet place. Near water is also good.”

My morning walk back in D.C. was transforming before my eyes.

WE DON’T NEEDA scientist to tell us that flowers and chirping birds make us feel good. But if the benefits of getting outside are so intuitive, why don’t more of us do it? Nature-based recreation has declined 35 percent in the U.S. in the past four decades, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. We underestimate the curative effects, or perhaps we’re just too readily beguiled by the easy entertainments of technology. But will having more data about how nature works on our bodies lure us into the woods? We know we’re supposed to eat more leafy greens, but most of us don’t.

The kale analogy is pretty apt, because it turns out that even when we don’t enjoy spending time in nature, like during lousy winter conditions, we benefit from it just the same. At least that’s what Toronto’s Berman found when research subjects took walks in an arboretum on a blustery winter day. The walkers didn’t really enjoy themselves, but they still performed much better on tests measuring short-term memory and attention.

Japanese researchers understand our draw to nature, but American researchers understand our pull away from it—our distractions, inertia, and addictions. They want to help motivate us, to make our doses of nature so palatable and efficient that we hardly notice them. This is the next frontier in forest-therapy science, all aided by brain imaging.

Berman, for example, wants to figure out exactly which features (ponds, trees, biodiversity) yield the biggest bang in the brain. The idea is that once researchers know more about what makes our brains happy, that information can be fed into public-policy decisions, urban planning, and architectural design. The research has profound implications for schools, hospitals, prisons, and public housing. Imagine bigger windows, more trees in cities, and mandatory lie-on-the-grass breaks.

This approach, of course, is classically Western. Manipulate the environment; feel nature without even trying. As for me, I’m going to be looking for a more East-meets-West approach. I’ll try harder to quit checking my text messages and instead watch for rock bass jumping in the C&O Canal. Scratch and sniff some pine cones. Run my hands through the moss. Maybe even drink a little bark tea.

After all—yes, I am not a dog.

Experiencing Awe Improves Well-Being and Personal Awesomeness

25 Jul

http://www.adventure-journal.com/2012/07/experiencing-awe-improves-well-being-and-personal-awesomeness/
 

Experiencing Awe Improves Well-Being and Personal Awesomeness

by brendan leonard on July 9, 2012

 

 

Experiencing awesome things can make you more awesome, according to a recently published study. More scientifically, standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon can change your perception of time, make you less materialistic, and alter your understanding of the world, according to a recent study. So can going backpacking in the Tetons, or climbing El Cap, or kayaking a big river, or any other method of experiencing perceptual vastness. Awe is often experienced in nature, or when we encounter things we think are unfathomable.

The study, to be published in Psychological Science, examined what happened when test subjects experienced feelings of awe — which is different than happiness. Awe, according to research, has two features: Perceptual vastness, or the understanding that a person has come upon “something immense in size, number, scope, complexity or social bearing,” and the stimulation of a need for accommodation, meaning it “alters one’s understanding of the world.”

Researchers from business schools at Stanford and the University of Minnesota conducted a series of experiments to determine what happens when we experience awe, compared to a feeling of happiness. The findings:

“[The experiments] showed that awe, relative to happiness, engenders a perception that time is plentiful, curbs impatience, and inspires a desire to volunteer time. These outcomes have been related to well-being, suggesting life satisfaction itself might be affected by awe.”

“Eliciting a feeling of awe, versus a neutral state, increased perceived time availability, which in turn led participants to more strongly prefer experiential over material goods and view their lives as more satisfying. [The experiments] also found evidence of mediation: Greater perceived time availability mediated awe’s effect on momentary life satisfaction and participants’ choice of experiential (over material) products.”

Also interesting: Although awe increased participants’ willingness to donate time, it did not increase their overall generosity, or willingness to donate money. But still, they were more awesome.

Photo of the Grand Canyon by Shutterstock

Fitness Tips from the World’s Greatest Athlete – Olympic Decathlete Trey Hardee

13 Jun

http://www.outsideonline.com/fitness/Train-Like-an-Olympian-20120701.html?page=1

Outside Magazine, July 2012
Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The World’s Greatest Athlete

Spoiler alert! You’re not making this year’s Olympic team. But here’s your consolation prize: Priceless advice from reigning world champion decathlete Trey Hardee, who has distilled a decade of training and nutrition wisdom into one totally customizable gold-medal fitness formula.

By: Ryan Krogh

 

 

Hardee’s routine of choice is something he calls speed-endurance workouts. “They’re designed to tip you over the edge of your lactate threshold,” he says. “You’re in oxygen debt, and you’re forcing your body to work through it.” A common example for Hardee is a 450-meter run, a 350, and a 250, all with relatively short recovery times (roughly four minutes) between each one. He’ll follow those with a 10-minute break and then three 150-meter sprints, with a longer recovery period in between (five or six minutes). “At the end, your muscles are just swimming with lactic acid,” says Hardee. “Your body feels like it’s going to shut down, but it will learn to recover faster, which is particularly important for me when there are short times in between events.” For you, it means faster recovery between ascents on the bike or ski laps at the resort.

I’m just a runner/cyclist/swimmer. Is the weight room really worth my time?
Hitting the weights, insists Hardee, is necessary no matter what sport you do. But it’s not about getting bigger by isolating muscles. It’s about getting stronger for your sport through dynamic exercises. Hardee does heavy rotations of Olympic movements—power cleans, squats, and bench presses. “They’re our bread and butter,” he says. “There’s almost a one-to-one transfer of power we build there to all of the events we do on the track.” Not surprisingly, Olympic exercises are good for many outdoor sports, too, because they engage muscles throughout the body. Hardee and his coach incorporate other exercises, but Olympic movements are the foundation.

What about warming up? Should I stretch before I work out?
“Stretching isn’t warming up,” says Hardee. “Warming up is literally that—raising your body’s temperature and getting blood flowing to your muscles.” Hardee recommends dynamic exercises that are movement-oriented. Instead of going for a jog around the track and then bending over to touch his toes, Hardee goes for a jog around the track and then does lateral shuffles, jumping jacks, backward runs, lunges, box hops, legs swings, and other light exercises. “The idea is not to elongate your muscles,” explains Hardee. “It’s simply to wake them up and let them know what they’re about to do.” 

How much water should I drink when I’m training?
“For me, there’s no such thing as too much water,” says Hardee. “My body craves it from the moment I wake up until I go to bed, and I drink until my body tells me I’m loaded.” Good call. Recent research backs up this basic but intuitive guideline: Hydrate if you’re thirsty, don’t if you’re not. In a survey of distance runners last year, more than a third said they drink according to a preset schedule, such as one liter per hour, and nearly 10 percent simply down as much as they can. Thirst, which has been honed over millennia, turns out to be a pretty good measure of how much to drink when working out. As you pay more attention to your body’s signals, Hardee says, you’ll be able to recognize the subtleties of thirst more quickly. “Even if you don’t change your diet but pay more attention to how much water you drink, it will make a difference,” he says. “You’ll be surprised at how good you feel.”

I’ve just done a hard workout—what’s my recovery routine?
“I can spend as much time getting ready for the next day’s workout as actually doing the current day’s regimen,” Hardee says. After an intense sprint session, he’ll go for a low-intensity jog, do exercises like leg swings against a wall or lateral jumping jacks, then stretch for 10 to 15 minutes. Hardee says the biggest mistake most athletes make is not taking the time to properly cool down after a heavy session. “You’re breaking down your muscles when you’re working out,” Hardee explains, “and you need to work equally hard to help them recover. I’m always actively trying to recover and get ready for the next day.”

What do you mean by active recovery?
For one, Hardee soaks in a 55-degree cold tub daily—he has one in his house—to help reduce inflammation. More important for non-Olympians is one of his other protocols: a quality meal high in protein and carbs within an hour or so after the last workout of the day (see his daily meal plan, below). After a training session, your body is primed to take in nutrients and use them to build muscle. To end his daily recovery, he has a foam roller that he self-massages with at night. To use it, he simple lies on it and lets his body weight do the work as he rolls back and forth on tight spots. In addition, he gets a professional massage and visits a chiropractor every other week—the former to loosen any particularly tight muscles and the latter to make sure everything is in proper alignment. The massage-and-chiropractor protocol is not so much an immediate recovery technique, explains Hardee, as a way to make sure there are no weak links that might cause an injury.

What about off days?
There’s no such thing as an off day—but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun on non-training days. “Instead of giving yourself the day off, which may make you feel even worse,” says Hardee, “do something to raise the metabolism a bit.” That may be as simple as a few push-ups and sit-ups and then stretching. “Sometimes I’ll ride my bike or go stand-up paddleboarding on Lake Travis here in Austin.”  

SUPing? Really?
“Oh yeah. It’s great, because it’s low impact and it’s left up to you how hard you want to go. I also like it because it gets me out on the water and I can be in my own serene little world.” 

What about food? Do I need to behave like a cyclist and weigh out every meal?
Not at all, insists Hardee, explaining that his meal plan probably looks a lot like a weekend warrior’s with a few hundred extra calories added in. “My meals are real simple,” says Hardee. “I use organic when I can and eat foods high in antioxidants to help my body recover.” Here’s Hardee’s prescription for a day’s nutrition:

Breakfast: A bowl of oatmeal with brown sugar, along with daily vitamins (more on that in a second).

Lunch: Because Hardee often eats lunch in between training sessions (weights in the morning and track in the afternoon), he likes a carb-heavy meal with a little lean protein, often something like whole-wheat pasta with turkey sausage and a side of broccoli. “If I’m still hungry after that,” says Hardee, “then I go to fruit, like bananas or apples, to fill in the gaps.”

Dinner: It needs to be a dish high in protein to help repair and build muscle, like grilled salmon or a bison-and-quinoa chili that has become a recent favorite of his. “We had a really good sweet Italian chili recipe and started throwing in quinoa to raise the caloric intake,” he says. “It’s unreal how good it is.” 

Snacks?
Pistachios. “I eat my weight in them each month,” says Hardee. “That’s my snack if I’m watching a movie or just vegging out. They’re a good source of amino acids and have a low glycemic index”—a measure of how quickly the food breaks down into glucose in the bloodstream—“so they’re a great healthy snack.”

What about supplements?
Hardee takes a multivitamin in the morning, as well as flax- and fish-oil supplements. Which isn’t a whole lot compared with many world-class athletes. “I try to rely as best I can on the food that I’m already putting in my body for my nutritional needs,” he says. “But I can’t eat or drink enough calories to repair my muscles like I need to.” To augment, Hardee will also down a whey protein shake after a heavy workout. On non-training days, though, he says whole-food nutrition will suffice. 

How do I stay motivated?
Set goals. But don’t make them unreasonable. “I set long-range goals that will be hard to achieve,” says Hardee, “but I keep it interesting by setting small, attainable goals, too. I get to accomplish these on a daily basis. In essence, I rehearse being successful.” For Hardee, the Olympics are always on the horizon, but a daily goal might be envisioning—and then completing—a flawless 27-foot long jump or a fast 400-meter run with perfect form. For you that might mean signing up for a race, like a sprint triathlon, which will serve as your long-term goal. Then, for a short-term objective, do five 100-meter sprint drills one day at two-thirds speed. Two days later, make it your goal to go a little faster or do an extra 100 meters. 

How do I maintain performance all year?
First, recognize that you can’t be at your peak at all times. “There’s a tiny window,” explains Hardee, and his periodized fitness plan is designed to let him peak during competition—and back off some in between. Second, never back off too much. Listen to what your body is telling you, but don’t be afraid to push it. “That’s why older athletes are sometimes better,” says Hardee, “because they know exactly what their body needs to peak, but also how hard they can push it without hurting themselves.” Once you start paying more attention to your training regimen—or start one in the first place—your brain will almost automatically become more in tune with your body, and you’ll be able to expand what you thought were your limits. Lastly, compete with yourself to get better. “People talk about rivalries,” Hardee says. “I don’t have that urge. I just want to get better than my old self. I want to be better today than I was yesterday, and better tomorrow than I was last year. That’s what’s most important to me.”

 

 

Take care of your ticker while you still can!

1 Feb

 

http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/01/25/145857358/start-early-to-curb-heart-risks-for-a-lifetime

 

Get out there and do some damn cardio, you bastards!

 

 

Start Early To Curb Heart Risks For A Lifetime

05:35 pm

January 25, 2012

A stethoscope rests on top of a puzzle shaped like a heart.

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the U.S. But who’s at the most risk?

A study in the lastest New England Journal of Medicine offers a simple way to predict the risk of a fatal or debilitating heart attack or stroke for a middle-aged person over the rest of his or her life.

“If at age 45 you have two or more of either elevated blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes or smoking, and you’re a man, then there’s a 50-50 proposition that you will have a heart attack or a stroke during your remaining lifespan,” cardiologist Donald Lloyd-Jones, who headed the study at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Women with two risk factors have about a 30 percent chance.

Having even one risk factor dramatically increases the risk of heart disease. And 95 percent of middle-aged Americans (ages 45-55) have at least one risk factor for heart disease.

In this study, Lloyd-Jones and his colleagues tallied the results of 18 long-term studies conducted over the past 50 years. The studies included men and women, African-Americans and whites. All told, there was information on more than 250,000 adults.

The specific risk factors were most important, regardless of age or race.

If you’ve got some of these risk factors, don’t despair, though. You may not be able to get down to zero, but you can reduce the odds for cardiovascular trouble with exercise, a better diet and treatment for the conditions.

Indeed, Lloyd-Jones says talking about lifetime risks may help motivate patients do that sooner rather than later.

He says he worries that patients won’t take action on diet or exercise when they hear they have just a 3 or 4 percent risk of suffering a debilitating heart attack or stroke over the next five or 10 years. If, on the other hand, he provides a clearer picture about what is in store for them over a lifetime, they’ll be more likely to adhere to a healthful lifestyle.

There was some heartening information in the study, according to Lloyd-Jones. Nonsmokers who make it to middle age with normal blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar have almost no risk of heart disease. “Our data suggested that for a 45-year-old man the likelihood that he would have a heart attack or stroke by 80 was only 1.4 percent,” Lloyd-Jones says.

If more people could get to middle age without the usual risks, it could make a big difference. That means patients and doctors should start tracking blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar starting early in adulthood.

Cardiologist Gordon Tomaselli, president of the American Heart Association, says young adults without a doctor should measure their blood pressure on their own with one of the automated blood pressure cuffs common at pharmacies and grocery stores. If the reading is high, get to a doctor.

If there’s a family history for high cholesterol or diabetes, get that checked early too.

Diet, exercise and drugs can be highly effective when people have these health problems, Tomaselli says. And while they can’t wipe out heart disease risk entirely, they can keep it under control.

Need to focus? Here’s a tree.

17 Nov

 

“In God’s wilderness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and the wounds heal ere we are aware.”
John Muir

 

It’s November 17… National Take a Hike Day.

 

Taking  break from your day to watch these won’t kill you. In fact, it might make the day a little easier.

“A 2008 study by University of Michigan psychologists found that walking outside or even just looking at pictures of natural settings improved directed attention, the ability to concentrate on a task. Put another way: nature restores our ability to focus.” 

– Outside Magazine, Dec 2011

 

 

Landscapes: Volume Two from Dustin Farrell on Vimeo.

Time Lapse Tour of Yosemite National Park from Henry Jun Wah Lee on Vimeo.

Landscapes: Volume One from Dustin Farrell on Vimeo.

Timescapes Timelapse: Mountain Light from Tom Lowe on Vimeo.

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