That pesky blubber. If it wasn't for that, he'd be Superman.

Month: May, 2012

What the f*** is exercise?

by rickblaineusa

Is Samson exercising?

Our favorite* NYT reporter, Gina Kolata, is back at it, this time with a write up presenting findings of a meta-analysis entitled “Adverse Metabolic Response to Regular Exercise: Is It a Rare or Common Occurrence?”  The study’s authors looked at insulin, blood pressure, triglyceride, and HDL levels to define an ‘adverse metabolic response.’ They found that 8.4% of ‘exercisers’** had their insulin numbers get worse; 12.2% their blood pressure; 10.4% their trigs; and 13.3% their HDL. And about 7% experienced worsening of two of those four.

One way to look at the study is that 93% of the time, three of the four categories improved or stayed the same.  From this perspective, I would answer the researchers’ question by noting that adverse metabolic response to regular exercise is, indeed, rare. I would also title a write-up of the study something other than “For Some, Exercise May Increase Heart Risk.” And I would certainly refrain from opening that write-up with this:

Could exercise actually be bad for some healthy people? A well-known group of researchers, including one who helped write the scientific paper justifying national guidelines that promote exercise for all, say the answer may be a qualified yes.

Reasonable minds can disagree on what ‘some’ means; that’s all fluff anyway. There are still two key questions about the study that Ms. Kolata leaves unanswered and unexplored: (1) What was the exercise? and (2) Do the health markers studied actually predict heart disease? After all, the study doesn’t matter without answers to those questions – talking about ‘exercise’ without defining it is as vacuous as talking about a ‘healthy diet’ without defining health objectives, or using the phrase ‘hook up’ to describe a romantic encounter without detailing the particulars…

That is unless you blindly accept the government’s definition of exercise, or whatever type of exercise is routinely used in studies like those analyzed. Is exercise a brisk walk? Is it Cross-Fit? Is it a hike? Is it a leisurely bike ride? Is it 10 sets of 10 on the bench press Monday, Wednesday, and Friday [I just described the routine of 78% of 15-25 year-old American males or, for those living in Pacific Beach or Orlando, about 89% of men between 15 and 38]? The meta-analysis itself doesn’t answer the question either, instead just referring the reader to the six underlying studies. But it does say that all basically involved ‘endurance’ exercise.

I read somewhere (whoever you are, thank you for the insight, assuming it’s accurate, and if it’s not, oh well) that researchers always study the effects of exercise through endurance training because it’s easy to measure. Something like VO2 max can be calculated and compared, as can be the minutes that a subject pedals on a bike. It’s much more difficult to measure the activity of someone who is walking outside, or lifting weights, or playing soccer, or doing any of the thousands of other activities that most of us would consider ‘exercise.’

There are two points to take away from this. First, whatever the findings of the meta-analysis are, they only apply to the type of activity looked at in the underlying studies. The findings do not apply to any other activity.

In other words, Ms. Kolata presents a study about a narrow range of activity and writes it up for the New York Times as if it applies to all exercise. That’s bad  journalism. It’s not just misleading; it’s false. Resistance training is exercise, but its effects weren’t studied. Swimming 25-yard sprints is exercise, but it also wasn’t studied. Another rigorous, typically late-night, activity was also left out—and I’m certain that its non-STD-related health effects are 100% positive.

The other point is that the study and write-up disguise the interesting finding that endurance exercise could have bad effects. The paleo community — led by Mark Sissons’ admonition against chronic cardio — has long been questioning the benefits of steady-state ‘endurance’ exercise. The U.S. first went through an aerobics epidemic; now it’s going through a marathon one (thanks Biggest Loser!). Although someone like Dr. Doug McGuff might disagree, I’m guessing that jogging is one activity that most Americans consider ‘exercise.’ But jogging feels nothing like sprinting, or lifting weights, or a Cross-Fit met-con session, nor is there any reason to assume the body responds to these activities the same way. Maybe some of these activities do not trigger the same response meta-analysis revealed about ‘endurance’ exercise. But the way the researchers wrote the article, and they way Ms. Kolata reported it, you’d never know.***

The other elephant is whether the biomarkers studied (insulin, blood pressure, trigs, & HDL) even matter for heart disease, or for other diseases. Ms. Kolata briefly touched on the issue:

Some critics have noted that there is no indication that those who had what Dr. Bouchard is calling an adverse response to exercise actually had more heart attacks or other bad health outcomes. But Dr. Bouchard said if people wanted to use changes in risk factors to infer that those who exercise are healthier, they could not then turn around and say there is no evidence of harm when the risk factor changes go in the wrong direction.

Right. So the question remains: Are what we now consider risk factors really risk factors, and if so, what are their relative weights? That’s for another post, which will be consist of little but links to books and blogs.


*I use ‘favorite’ here not to mean “I love her work; everyone should read her” (the way I would call AJ Liebling, DFW, & Joseph Epstein some of my favorite essayists), but in the sense of “I always read her articles because they make me furious” — a sort of Google algorithm of favorite.

**More on what exercise meant in the study later on. Those quotes aren’t there for nothing.

***The ‘what the f*** is exercise’ issue reminds me of the ‘what the f*** is fat’ issue that we encountered in HBO’s “Weight of the Nation.” That, too, will be another post.


Jackal of the Week: Curt “I Shill For ‘Small Government'” Schilling

by dougiedigital

Curt Schilling: A Shill for "Small Government"Today’s news that the video game venture of avowed “small government” promoter and multi-millionaire, Curt Schilling, took out a $75 million loan from the state of Rhode Island to develop a video game entitled “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning” – and has now missed a loan payment and asked for even more public money — would be high comedy if it didn’t threaten the welfare of so many already-broke taxpayers.   For those keeping score, the $75 million that Schilling’s company received represents over half of the $125 million “small business” loan program that Rhode Island lawmakers launched in 2010 in an attempt to boost the state’s sagging economy.  It also represented more than twice the $30 million of his own money that Schilling invested in the venture.  Brian McGrory, over at the Boston Globe, has penned some great commentary on Schilling’s shameless hypocrisy.

When a jackal like Schilling says he favors “small government,” what he really means is “small government for the destitute, the disabled, the unemployed, and the children who attend failing public schools.”  No government can be big enough when it comes to pumping public money to the start-up ventures of legendary former athletes who’d rather spend the state’s cash than their own when they decide to pursue their dreams of developing fantasy action video games.  After all, these are the “job creators,” and we should give them what they want.   Never mind when they blow the whole wad and lay everyone off within two years.

Congratulations, Curt.  You’re PeskyBlubber’s inaugural Jackal of the Week!

A note on the name

by rickblaineusa

Welcome to Pesky Blubber. Or peskyblubber. Or That pesky blubber. (It’s a work in progress.) You may have noticed the quotation that leads the page. Let me offer the full transcript:

He is so handsome. If he just wasn’t so fat. That pesky blubber. If it wasn’t for that, he’d be superman.

And there you have the genesis of pesky blubber. But pesky blubber isn’t about fatness.

It’s about everything.

A taste

by dougiedigital

I had big plans for this blog. Like America – or most of humanity for that matter – I’m sick of being stuck in neutral.  I suppose there are things worse than being stuck in neutral, but it’s still no way to live.  Like I said: I had big plans for this blog.

Then I sat down to get started and spent the better part of an hour retrieving the password for the website I imagined would host this blog.  Why I thought I needed this password and why retrieving it took nearly an hour are not important so I’ll spare you those details.  The important thing is that all I wanted to do was access an account that I own and it took me almost an hour to do that.  Having invested so much time already, it seemed worth the five seconds it would take to check my calendar and make sure I was really living in the year 2012.  I am.

That revelation cost me my will to create.  It is 2012, yet  we’re still using username/password combinations, and are in fact using them almost exclusively, to authenticate ourselves over the Internet.  With at least 5 email accounts, another 3 online bank accounts, scores of “PIN” numbers to keep track of, half a dozen utilities that have roped me into e-billing, and a distinct identity for every Groupon/WordPress/eBay/skype/Amazon/iTunes/yahoo!/Twitter/wankipedia site du jour, each of which wants its own username/password combination, how am I supposed to keep track?  Lest I set myself up for a lame #firstworldproblems crack, let me be clear that bemoaning my bevy of Internet identities isn’t an inane attempt at a humblebrag, either.  It’s a daily reality for anyone that uses the Internet as more than a glorified pr0n tube.  So of course we end up re-using the same passwords whenever we can.  And of course those passwords were never very secure to begin with.  Ultimately, any security system that requires me to spend 30 minutes poking around “support” documentation and to then send an email requesting a password reset, wait 15 minutes for a reply, and send another email to “verify my identity” (oh, the irony!) – only to wait another 15 minutes for an email containing my password in plain text – is a security system that succeeds only in securing one’s property from oneself.

Here’s an idea: stop asking users to conceive of, remember, and recall a never-ending series of text-based passwords.  Don’t ask users to conceive of, remember, or recall anything.  Ask them to present their thumb and place it on a biometric reader that maps the fingerprint to a unique string and uses that string to authenticate the user, like a smart card.  This isn’t rocket science; it isn’t even a new idea.  Forbes Magazine reported that this technology was on its way 12 years ago.  Is America’s entrepreneurial talent too preoccupied  turning a billion dollars out of a set of faux-nostalgic photo filters to build something that might actually improve our lives?  Or has Wall Street so deeply lodged its talons into America’s colleges and universities that America’s entrepreneurial talent is too preoccupied turning many billions of dollars out of the latest economic bubble to actually engage in entrepreneurship anymore?

Big plans, man.  Big plans…