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May 29th, 2010 by Matt · 2 Comments

(A Post by Matt)

I’ve been running recreationally for a good decade now – not a lot at a time, and not that fast, but enough to keep some basic level of fitness. I prefer bicycling for its sheer enjoyment factor, but running takes less time and less equipment. Like so many other things, it appeals to my engineering side – efficient, practical, and meets the goal of keeping me some level of in shape. On time and under budget.

And while I get it at some level, I’ve never totally understood people who truly love to run just for the sake of running. I mean, if you have time to go out and run for an hour or more, why not get on a bike and really see some terrain while you’re at it?

So a week or so ago, Joyce set out to replace her worn-out tennis shoes. And after some work and research, she orders in the mail these crazy excuses of a shoe that have no cushion, no structure, really not much of anything to them. And she noted that she just felt better barefoot, and that there was some evidence that the less shoe that you wear, the better off you are. Always ready for a good debate, I dig into the issue myself, and I was really taken by two related pieces of research that somehow I hadn’t heard about before.

The first concerns shoes, specifically running shoes, and more specifically the lack thereof:

  • A 2009 study watched a group of people run, with high-end Brooks running shoes, on a treadmill. They then had the same group of people run on the treadmill at the same speed barefoot. The measured hip and knee joint torque was 35-50% less for the barefoot group.
  • The January 28, 2010 cover story in Nature studied much the same thing (in addition to a few others points, discussed below), and concluded that the collision forces of someone running barefoot on a hard surface are less than someone wearing padded shoes. The biggest difference is in the way that the shoe forces the foot to land.
  • Previous research (1989 onward, quoted extensively elsewhere but I can’t get my hands on the text of the original) correlated injury rates vs the price people paid for their shoes based on survey results. The more expensive the shoe, the bigger the risk of injury.

There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence: The guy from Burbank who was so frustrated that a pair of fancy running shoes caused him pain that he stopped at the post office on his run home, mailed them back to the manufacturer, and walked home barefoot. By the time he got home, he realized that he felt pretty OK. He started running barefoot and qualified for the Boston Marathon (and more). The magazine writer who went from having pain every time he ran to completing marathons by running barefoot. The technology reviewer who absolutely swore by using cushioned running shes, until he had leg problems. So, in desparation, after trying everything else, he took off his shoes – and was cured.

The best short summary I found is here: Dr. Lieberman, the author of the Nature article, posts a very easy-to-read summary of his data and conclusions on his website. A longer (and more captivating) summary is the book by Christopher McDougall, which a neighbor just happened to share a couple of days ago. (currently #80 on Amazon’s bestseller list, even after a year of publication)

And as I looked for evidence to the contrary, I found basically nothing. I figured the shoe industry has plenty of money and could fund some researchers to publish a couple of studies to the contrary – but there aren’t any. Even Nike – the company that invented cushioned shoes – seems to agree with idea that structured, cushioned running shoes aren’t good for you.

So on Tuesday, partway through my usual half hour lunchtime run, I took off my shoes and gave it a go for about 1/3 of a mile. On concrete. And it felt great – the force and impact of running just felt softer, the ground didn’t feel hard at all, and everything just worked. I followed the basic advice on the internet (search “barefoot running” and there’s plenty):

  • You want to end up landing on the forefoot, not the heel. And you want to end up landing with feet almost directly below the body, not reaching in front of you. And you want to stay upright, not leaning forward.
  • And if you think about all of this (ie, how to put your feet down), you’ll end up trying to manipulate the process and nothing will work. So don’t. Just worry about picking your feet up off the ground, and quickly – more quickly than people usually run with shoes – to make up for the somewhat shorter stride. Nature, and gravity, will make sure that your feet eventually come back down again.

There was one catch. The concrete path where I run is not smooth. It’s roughened up with lines perpendicular to the path, so that its surface resembles coarse sandpaper. While everything else felt great, the skin on the bottom of my foot was less than thrilled with the friction on the sandpaper. Perhaps if I was more experienced, I could learn how to run with less friction, and this wouldn’t be as much of an issue – but I didn’t quite know how to figure all of that out.

So I bought a pair of Vibram Fivefingers, which are little more than a piece of rubber strapped to the bottom of your foot. After a mile and a half run with them, I’m sold. Plenty of muscles feel sore (and apparently should – it’s reported to take weeks to months of conditioning to strengthen foot and calf muscles), but everything else feels great. The challenge is that after wearing the Fivefingers, its tough to go back to putting on normal shoes. So this week I ended up donating a sizable fiscal stimulus to the minimalist shoe industry (including a pair of Vivo Barefoot casual shoes).

The second piece of research (from the same Dr. Lieberman, whose day job is studying human evolution) is more profound than practical. About two million years ago, the basic human shape from the neck down was more or less fixed. But why are we built the way that we are? What is that body shape really good for? We can’t sprint like a greyhound, fly like a bird, swim like a fish, lift like a gorilla, or swing like a monkey. Walking probably wasn’t the driver – we had been walking for a long time previously, and a lot of the features of the human leg and foot aren’t needed for walking. Tools weren’t the driver – bows and arrows and spears and knives didn’t exist for millions more years. And while we as a species are proud of ourselves from the neck up (no other animal has the brainpower to bolt a partially-functioning blowout preventer to the ocean floor), we don’t normally think of ourselves as beating the rest of the animal kingdom from the neck down.

But two million years ago, the human body was apparently profoundly useful for something. Without sophisticated stone tools, we were able to survive and reproduce and spread amidst plenty of strong and fast competitors. Lieberman’s data suggests that there is one innate skill that we have that bests most of the rest of the animal kingdom: we can run. Not extremely fast (we can’t outsprint the greyhound), but we can keep running for a long time, even in hot weather, even in the middle of the day. A group of people can chase down a Kudu (or just about any other animal). The animal can sprint must faster than we can, but only for a short period of time before it overheats. We can keep going, and if we have enough water to keep sweating off the heat, we will lead the animal into heat exhaustion within an hour or more. Why do people enjoy running? Perhaps its the thing that, more than anything else, our bodies are really built to do.

I’m not planning on chasing down any deer or running a marathon (no time to train at that level). But I do have a deeper appreciation for my simple running routine. And I have even more reason for keeping my footwear as close as possible to what we wore a long, long time ago.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Bigger Pictures

Pasty white.

May 24th, 2010 by Joyce

That’s how we look when we’re out at the beach.  It’s because we use mineral sunscreens, loaded with titanium oxide (you’ll see this in makeup) and zinc oxide (the stuff in diaper cream).  With our big floppy hats, SPF clothing, and ghostlike complexions, fashionable we are not.  But neither are we sunburned.  Skin cancer, you’re not welcome here.

I switched to mineral sunscreens after checking my formerly-favorite sunscreen and realizing that some of those components listed in that chemical mumbo-jumbo list of ingredients were potentially carcinogenic themselves.  Good grief.  Further, their coverage wasn’t complete for skin-damaging ultraviolet light, which explained why the year we rode 50-mile bike rides around Needville and Beasley we got the most ridiculous farmer’s tans despite hourly sunscreen applications.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) just put out their annual sunscreen report.   (These are the same people that also help you figure out which produce is highest in pesticides.)  In the sunscreen report, information isn’t always complete—some manufacturers change formulations over the course of the year and some ingredients, such as micronized titanium dioxide, are still being studied.  But I am so grateful for what is provided:  conveniently aggregated, searchable toxicity data for around 500 kinds of sunscreen.  The report also lists nine important points here; note that products with Vitamin A and its derivatives (e.g., retinol) are very common in sunscreen and can actually accelerate the development of skin cancer.  Yippee.  (While you’re checking your sunscreen for retinol or retinyl palmitate, check your moisturizer, too).  

In the U.S. nobody regulates sunscreen, just like nobody regulates makeup.  Shop carefully, friends, and don’t forget your hat (and shirt and pants).

(Speaking of sunshine, McGill University in Canada just reported that 59% of their sample group were low in Vitamin D; 25% were considered deficient.  The most reliable source of Vitamin D?  The sun, straight up, in moderate amounts.)

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Watch this; there’s nothing good on TV, anyway

May 20th, 2010 by Joyce · 3 Comments

I was trying to settle Carmen down a little bit this afternoon.  She didn’t sleep well last night and by lunch she was picking at her sandwich and wailing at the slightest misfortunes.  We rocked and snuggled downstairs while she tossed and turned, searching for sleep.  I checked the clock and wondered how to best spend my time.  The room was too dark to read a book, and I was too tired myself to listen to a story with my headphones.  I considered the television but didn’t want to subject myself to Let’s Make a Deal.  So, reminscient of those days when Carmen was much tinier and I spent much more time in a rocking chair, I carefully reached over to the laptop and led the cursor onto my e-mail window. 

I could check this month’s TED talks.  Click.

Two videos caught my interest and I think they’re worth sharing.  The first (from Dan Meyer) discusses math education, and how the current education model in most schools does not stress the kind of problem-solving we can encounter on a daily basis.  Take a look, the video is only 11 or 12 minutes and there’s nothing good on TV, anyway.  Highlights are the “baiting the hook” bit and the grocery store problem described in more detail here.

In twenty minutes the second video tells a story that starts with 60,000 miles of blood vessels, moves to cancer and expands to dietary synergism, new approaches to chemo, managing obesity, and more.  We’ve learned to break down a healthy diet into Omega fats, antioxidants, and vitamins, but after this video you might consider the foods in your fridge in a whole new light.  And you never know; your life just might depend on it.

Carmen never managed to fall asleep.  She felt recharged, though, and soldiered on well past dinner.

→ 3 CommentsTags: Bigger Pictures · Dynamic Duo · Learn Something

Almost Famous

May 20th, 2010 by Matt


Video by Danny Russo.  From the City Dance Studio, Houston biennial studio concert, May 1 2010.  Choreography by Sherese Campbell.  Special thanks to Alix Stafford, Imus the Tortoise, and Rufus the Dog. 

→ No CommentsTags: Dynamic Duo · Uncategorized

Everything we don’t know

May 12th, 2010 by Joyce

Superficially, the world has become small and known. Poor little globe of earth, the tourists trot round you as easily as they trot round the Bois or round Central Park. There is no mystery left, we’ve been there, we’ve seen it, we know all about it. We’ve done the globe, and the globe is done.

This is quite true, superficially. On the superficies, horizontally, we’ve been everywhere and done everything, we know all about it. Yet the more we know, superficially, the less we penetrate, vertically. It’s all very well skimming across the surface of the ocean, and saying you know all about the sea . . .

As a matter of fact, our great-grandfathers, who never went anywhere, in actuality had more experience of the world than we have, who have seen everything. When they listened to a lecture with lantern-slides, they really held their breath before the unknown, as they sat in the village school-room. We, bowling along in a rickshaw in Ceylon, say to ourselves: “It’s very much what you’d expect.” We really know it all.

We are mistaken. The know-it-all state of mind is just the result of being outside the mucous-paper wrapping of civilization. Underneath is everything we don’t know and are afraid of knowing.

–DH Lawrence in “New Mexico”, 1928

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New Alarm Bells About Chemicals and Cancer

May 6th, 2010 by Joyce

The President’s Cancer Panel is the Mount Everest of the medical mainstream, so it is astonishing to learn that it is poised to join ranks with the organic food movement and declare: chemicals threaten our bodies.

The cancer panel is releasing a landmark 200-page report on Thursday, warning that our lackadaisical approach to regulation may have far-reaching consequences for our health.

The rest of this NYT op-ed column is here.

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Check your heart, check your head

May 3rd, 2010 by Joyce

From a Neurology Now post on FB, which linked to the press release here.

People with Common Heart Defect Also More Likely to Have Brain Aneurysms

ST. PAUL, Minn. – A new study shows that people with a common heart defect may also be more likely to have brain aneurysms. The study is published in the May 4, 2010, print issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

I’m skipping a bunch, here’s the point:

Six of the 61 people with BAV had brain aneurysms, or 9.8 percent, compared to three of the 291 people who did not have BAV, or 1.1 percent. Studies have shown that 0.5 to two percent of the general adult population has brain aneurysms.

“While more research needs to be done to confirm these results, these findings show a significant increased risk of brain aneurysms in people with bicuspid aortic valves,” Schievink said.

Schievink said the heart defect has been shown to cluster in families, and screening is generally recommended for close family members of people diagnosed with bicuspid aortic valves.

Check the press release for more details.

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