Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Born to Run

I'm back from a couple of weeks in Japan traveling with family. Needless to say we had a great time visiting a historic pottery town, marveling at Kyoto's temples, and eating fantastic food.

Once again we were struck by how many people you see in Japan outside being active, and how few obese people there are. Could be some connection there...

While traveling I read Christopher McDougall's book Born To Run. I had seen McDougall interviewed on the Daily Show and heard good things so picked it up at the airport. Part ethnography, part research on running, part one man's search for meaning, Born To Run is an engrossing tale of some lost souls finding each other among the Tarahumara peoples of Northern Mexico.

Of course I'm a sucker for ethnographies, having a grad degree in ethnomusicology, but relevant to this blog McDougall drew upon a growing body of research showing that our "high tech" shoes are breaking us down. I admit I'm already sold on this point, having seen first hand many times how training barefoot, or close to it (Nike Free, Vibram Five Fingers) does much to improve foot, knee, and back health.

McDougall points out that no American has won the Olympic or New York marathon's ever since our footwear got high tech (arch support, fat heels, orthotics etc...), but that many who have one, namely the Kenyans seldom ever wore shoes until in their late teens.

Further, the main subjects of the book, the Tarahumara people, are known as the best ultra-endurance runners on the planet, but they wear nothing more than flat sandals made of rubber and leather. And they seldom, if ever, get injured.

Meanwhile injury statistics among American runners show that 8 in 10 runners will deal with injuries each year. McDougall for one claims his injuries have vanished since ditching his expensive running shoes and going barefoot.

OK, enough of that - go check out the book. It's a great read.

However I will say that Born To Run portrays ultra-endurance runners as uber-athletes. But watching youtube videos of them I'm struck by the skinny-fat physiques and poor posture, which is why I'm adamant that people need to do some sort of exercise that uses the whole body.

And it's not just for looks. This research demonstrates links between lack of muscle strength and increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease:

The strongest patients had 61 per cent less chance of developing the disease than the weakest. No reason for the association has yet been foung, but it could involve energy production in the body or other hidden health problems, the scientists believe.

Alzheimer's disease – the most common form of dementia – causes a progressive loss of memory and thinking ability. However, it is also known to be associated with symptoms such as an impaired gait, depression and a weakened grip.

Researchers at Rush University Medical Centre, in Chicago, studied 970 adults with an average age of about 80 who did not initially have Alzheimer's.

Each participant was rated for mental function and given a physical strength score derived from testing 11 muscle groups. At least one further evaluation was carried out over an average follow-up period of 3.6 years. Of the total, 138 participants (14.2 per cent) went on to develop Alzheimer's.

Muscle strength scores ranged from minus 1.6 to 3.3 units. Every unit increase in initial muscle strength correlated with a 43 per cent reduction in the risk of developing Alzheimer's during the study period, the researchers found.

Participants in the top 10 per cent of scores for muscular strength were almost two-thirds (61 per cent) less likely to develop less at risk of Alzheimer's than those who were in the bottom 10 per cent.

In other words go get stronger. Only good can come of it.

1 comment:

Robin B. said...

Spot-on review, I couldn't agree with Chris more! Born To Run is a fascinating read, and I was interested to see that someone with your extensive training thinks along the same lines. Also you've been able to expound upon his ideas with your "whole body" view of adding strength training to achieve optimal total body fitness.