The opportunity cost of exercise

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As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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Exercise is good for us — that’s one of the main themes of this blog, and one that I’m sure not many readers would dispute. But it can take a lot of time. Someone training for a marathon might easily spend more than 10 hours a week running, stretching, showering and so on. What is the opportunity cost of spending all that time? Justin Wolfers, an economist at UPenn’s Wharton School, did a somewhat tongue-in-cheek segment for NPR’s Marketplace analyzing the economics of running:

Runners World magazine recently argued that marathon running is an incredibly cheap sport. All you need is a pair of shoes, and you’re off and running. But they’re wrong.

You see, they were emphasizing the out-of-pocket cost, which is small. But the foundation of all economics is something called opportunity cost. It says that the true cost of something is the alternative you have to give up.

It’s an amusing piece, as well as a primer on some basic principles of economics like opportunity cost and the law of comparative advantage. But he makes a few asides that get the commenters riled up (see also Wolfers’ entry on the Freakonomics blog). And his analysis is (necessarily, I guess, given the space requirements) pretty simplistic. I think he could make a much stronger case for the mental and physical benefits of running that would yield real financial rewards. Fortunately, he still comes to the right conclusion: running is worth it!

World Champs marathon

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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Just finished watching the marathon from the IAAF World Championships in Berlin. Watched the leaders running live through Internet streaming, and followed the Canadians in real time as they posted 5K splits on the IAAF website. It’s a race I was particularly interested in because of an article I wrote last year about Canada’s marathon standards (which earned a National Magazine Award). In 2008, Canada sent no marathoners to the Olympics; this year, in contrast, they sent four men and one woman. So how would this team fare, with its easier standards?

It was a mixed bag, but there were some very encouraging results. Take Reid Coolsaet — some excerpts from his blog:

I’ve been geeking out looking over results and time splits from the past few World Championships to see different pacing strategies.  Seems like a lot of guys go out too hard and fall off pace, often not finishing and saving it for another day.  For a top 10 finish you almost always have to go out with the lead group but there are numerous examples of top 20 and 30 finishes with more sensible pacing strategies. […]

Don’t expect to see me in much TV coverage as the cameras will be concentrating on the leaders.  I’m ranked about 95th out of 100.  Expect me to improve on that ranking.

Unfortunately, the results on the IAAF website are messed up right now, so I can’t give as full a breakdown as I’d like. But here are a few details on Reid’s performance:

[split] / [place]

5K / 75

10K /64

15K / 69

20K / 54

25K / 40

30K / 36

35K / 28

42.2K / 26

Fantastic (and very smart) race for a guy who was ranked 95th. Congratulations, Reid! (And also to Dylan Wykes, who executed the exact same game plan until the last few kilometres, where he lost just a few places but still finished in the top half of the field.)

That’s all for me for a week. Tomorrow morning, I fly to Alice Springs for some hiking in the Australian outback. Should be lots of fun, and I’ll be back on August 30.

Will exercise make me gain weight?

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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Just when I thought I’d vanquished this beast (see the most recent Jockology column, “Statistics Canada says being overweight makes you live longer. Should I stop exercising?“), TIME magazine comes out with a cover story called “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin” that has been making waves. The author, John Cloud, sifts (somewhat selectively) through several decades of research, and reaches the following conclusion:

In short, it’s what you eat, not how hard you try to work it off, that matters more in losing weight. You should exercise to improve your health, but be warned: fiery spurts of vigorous exercise could lead to weight gain. I love how exercise makes me feel, but tomorrow I might skip the VersaClimber — and skip the blueberry bar that is my usual postexercise reward

The piece has already spawned numerous rebuttals (see this one from Obesity Panacea), along with complaints of misinterpretation from one of the scientists cited. My thoughts? The research he discusses isn’t actually that controversial. For instance, the idea that exercise will actually make you consume more calories than you burn off has been debated for years. (Here‘s a Jockology column I wrote on whether post-exercise eating negates the benefits of exercise.) There are lots of questions that scientists still haven’t nailed down about how diet and activity levels interact to influence health.

What’s way out of whack with Cloud’s article is the conclusion he draws. Somehow the fact that regular exercise doesn’t automatically cause people to lose large amounts of weight gets twisted into an attention-grabbing warning that exercise might actually cause you to gain weight. Where’s the evidence supporting this bold claim? Nowhere. Basically, it reads like the kind of story that has a “bold, counterintuitive” claim that was agreed on at an editorial meeting long before anyone actually did any research.

Doping at the old folks’ home

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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There’s a fun article by John Leland in the New York Times looking at drug use among masters track and field athletes:

In his apartment outside Philadelphia, Frank Levine pulled a list of prescription medications from his refrigerator, his hands shaking slightly. There was metformin HCl and glipizide for his diabetes; lisinopril for his blood pressure; and Viagra.

“I need it,” he said recently.

Mr. Levine, who is 95 and has had operations on both knees, in June set the American record in the 400-meter dash for men ages 95 to 99…

Leland interviews a few athletes who suspect that some people are dipping into banned drugs in order to win prizes in advanced age groups. It’s hard to imagine an 80-year-old shot-putter injecting himself with steroids, but I guess we should never underestimate the power of human vanity. The grey area, as the article points out, is that there are plenty of performance enhancing drugs that also have real therapeutic benefits — and the older you get, the greater the chance that you’re legitimately being prescribed one of these drugs.

Fatty foods hurt memory and exercise

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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It may be true that carrying a few extra pounds isn’t the end of the world. But that doesn’t mean fat is innocuous: Tara Parker-Pope has an article about some very interesting experiments in rats that show a clear and rapid effect of eating fatty foods.

[T]he new research shows how indulging in fatty foods over the course of a few days can affect the brain and body long before the extra pounds show up…

“We expected to see changes, but maybe not so dramatic and not in such a short space of time,’’ said Andrew Murray, the study’s lead author and a lecturer in physiology at Cambridge University in Britain. “It was really striking how quickly these effects happened.’’

The same group has done similar experiments on people, though the results have yet to be published. It’s an interesting article, definitely worth a read.