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If You Build A Crew Program For Overweight Kids, They Will Row — And Get Fitter

There was no comfortable place for 17-year-old Alexus Burkett in her school’s typical sports program of soccer and lacrosse and basketball.

“They don’t let heavyset girls in,” she says.

Alexus was “bullied so bad about her weight,” says her mother, Angelica Dyer, “and there was no gym that would take her when she was 14, 15 years old. There was no outlet.”

But Alexus has found a sports home that is helping her bloom as an athlete: an innovative program called “OWL On The Water” that offers rowing on the Charles River specifically for kids with weight issues.

She has lost more than 50 pounds over half a year, but more importantly, says her mother, “They’ve given me my daughter’s smile back.”

Alexus Dwyer during warm-ups before instruction time. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Alexus Burkett stretches during warm-ups before “OWL On The Water” instruction time. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“It’s given me a lot of good strength and it’s making me more outgoing,” Alexus says. “We’re all best friends and we’re all suffering with the same problem — weight loss — so we’re more inspiring each other than we are competing against each other.”

OWL On The Water offers a small solution to a major national problem: According to the latest numbers, 23 million American kids are overweight or obese, and only about one quarter of 12-to-15-year-olds get the recommended one hour a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Heavier kids are even less likely to be active, and only about one-fifth of obese teens get the exercise they need, the CDC finds.

“I know I need to be active, but please don’t make me play school sports!” That’s what exercise physiologist Sarah Picard often hears from her young clients at the OWL — Optimal Weight for Life — program at Boston Children’s Hospital that sponsors OWL On The Water.

Many gym classes still involve picking teams, “and my patients are the ones that are always picked last,” she says. “You’re the biggest one, you’re the last one, you’re picked last, and you’re uncomfortable.”

They are strong, powerful people.
– Sarah Picard

School fitness testing is important, Picard says, but it, too, can be an ordeal: “I have kids who sit in my office and tell me that they didn’t go to school for a week because they wanted to miss the fitness testing,” she says.

While many a coach might see bigger bodies as poorly suited to typical team sports, Picard sees them as having different strengths. Particularly muscular strength.

“What I’ve observed is that these kids are much better at strength and power-based activities,” she says. And rowing is particularly good for them, she says, because though it is strenuous, it is not weight-bearing, and thus more comfortable for heavier bodies — yet a heavier, strong body can pull an oar much harder than a smaller person’s body. The program begins by building on that muscular strength, she says, and then works on aerobic fitness. Continue reading

Perspiration Power: Scientists Turn Sweat Into Electrical Energy

A tattoo biosensor (enlarged above) detects lactate levels during exercise; a biobattery using the technology could power electronics (Photo: Joseph Wang)

A tattoo biosensor (enlarged above) detects lactate levels during exercise; a biobattery using the technology could power electronics (Joseph Wang)

By Richard Knox

It takes energy to work up a sweat. But now researchers have cleverly figured out how to turn sweat into energy.

Scientists have devised a small skin patch they call a “temporary tattoo” that can transform lactate — one of 800 or so chemicals in sweat — into electrical energy.

Not much energy, so far. Only about 4 microwatts, less than half of what it takes to power a digital watch. But the energy alchemists are confident they can scale up their sweat “biobattery” enough to play an iPod, power a GPS device, or warn a marathoner when it’s time to top up her electrolytes.

The researchers think their work could also have military and biomedical applications, if they can tweak the technology to squeeze more electricity out of sweat.

“Sweat has been largely neglected, not thought of as a worthwhile physiological fluid.”
– Researcher Josh Windmiller

“Right now we’re working on the biofuel cell so it can get higher power,” Wenzhao Jia, of the University of California San Diego, tells CommonHealth. She’s describing the skin-patch biobattery tomorrow at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Francisco.

One problem in experiments so far: People who are less fit produce more energy from their sweat than those who are moderately fit. The fittest subjects produce the least amount of power. The researchers are trying to figure out how to compensate for this.

“We want to integrate another electronic element such as a super-capacitor that can store the power,” Jia says. “Ultimately, we can connect a number of cells together to make the current higher.”

Jia says the sweat-powered battery grew out of an earlier effort to monitor levels of lactate, a metabolic byproduct when sugar (glucose) is broken down to produce energy — a process called glycolysis. (It’s the buildup of lactate, or lactic acid, that makes your muscles sore after strenuous exercise.) Continue reading

Five Things Marathon Allure Can Teach Us About Improving Everyday Health

Runners pass the 25-mile mark of the 2014 Boston marathon. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Runners pass the 25-mile mark of the 2014 Boston marathon. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

By Bradley Stulberg
Guest contributor

Health behavior change is hard; if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. But running a marathon is also hard, and lately it seems that just about everyone is doing it. The health care industry could learn a lot from the increasing popularity of the marathon about how to design programs that help people make positive health behavior changes.

At its core, running 26.2 miles has much in common with the process of health behavior change. Both are physically and psychologically challenging, require a lot of will and at least a basic level of skill, and can be quite uncomfortable. But the two diverge when it comes to the experience of running a marathon, which is filled with allure. Ask yourself: Would so many people be eagerly volunteering (and paying!) to run marathons if the vast majority of preparation was completed in isolation and if the race occurred on a self-measured back road with at most a few family members watching? Highly doubtful. Yet this is often what people are asked to do when making health behavior changes, and then we wonder why so few succeed.

The good news is that by evaluating the total marathon experience, we can identify key components that make running an entirely unnatural distance so appealing, and consider how we might apply them to health behavior change. Remember, very few people are drawn to running 26.2 miles, but hundreds of thousands become absorbed with and triumph in the experience of a marathon. Perhaps it is time to start designing health behavior change solutions in the same vein.

So here are five things health care can learn from the marathon experience to promote behavior change:

1. Coaching

Nearly all successful marathoners follow detailed training plans that are rooted in evidence. Since it is not pragmatic for most athletes to pursue in-person coaching, many (including professional runners) use programs founded on Web-based communication with varying degrees of telephonic interaction. This technology enables consistent contact in a highly accessible manner, allowing the athlete to easily incorporate being coached into the rest of her day, and the coach to have a broader, more scalable reach of his services. Digital coaching platforms are highly evolved; nearly all are user-friendly, facilitate data sharing, storage, and tracking, and are often available on demand via computer and smartphone. Continue reading

Make Lemonade: Study Finds Kids’ Active Video Games Boost Exercise, Weight Loss

Every time my kids hunker down for a long stretch of screen time, I get a tiny pang of guilt. The little good-parent-voice in my head says: They should be outside running around (or inside running around if you’re in New England, still praying for an end to this relentless winter). In any case, they should be active, not immobilized in front of a screen.

But maybe it’s OK for them to be active, and in front of a screen. A study published earlier this month in JAMA Pediatrics suggests that yes, those active video games do help overweight and obese kids boost their physical activity levels and lose weight too.

Chiew Pang/flickr

Chiew Pang/flickr

The study, with 75 kids between 8 and 12 years old, concluded that: “Incorporating active video gaming into an evidence-based pediatric weight management program had positive effects on physical activity and relative weight.”

Here’s more on the study from Reuters:

Both groups took part in the weight management program at local YMCAs and schools, but one group also received an Xbox game console and two active games.

The Xbox Kinect device captures the child’s body movements to operate the game. The games given to the kids in the active gaming group were Kinect Adventures! and Kinect Sports. (Children in the weight-loss program-only group received the same equipment and games at the end of the study).

All the children’s activity were recorded using an accelerometer, which measures movement, during the day.

At the start of the study, the children were between the ages of 8 and 12 years old and weighed between 123 and 132 pounds (lbs). About 67 percent of the kids had a body mass index (BMI), a measure of weight relative to height, that put them in the overweight category for their age groups. The rest of the children were in the obese category.

The researchers found that children in the group that received the active games added about seven minutes of moderate to vigorous activity and about three minutes of vigorous activity to their daily routines over the 16 weeks. Continue reading

Comfort In Cold: Can Shivering Offer Some Benefits Of Exercise?

Brookline, Mass., 1:30 p.m. (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

Brookline, Mass., 1:30 p.m. (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

Just a bit of (cold) comfort if you’re stuck outside today: New research suggests that shivering, your body’s way of trying to stay warm, releases a promising hormone called irisin that appears to be connected to some health benefits of exercise.

(More on that here: A Step Toward Health Benefits Of Exercise In A Pill? and here: Exercise Hormone May Fight Obesity And Diabetes.)

So, if it makes you feel better, perhaps you can think of your chattering teeth and quivering limbs as a quick-tempo workout. (But, forgive the nag, careful not to overdo it into hypothermia and frostbite.)

The Telegraph nicely sums up the findings, though the headline — Shivering Can Help You Stay Slim — sounds far too decisive for an initial study:

A new study from scientists at Sydney University has found that placing volunteers in temperatures of less than 59F (15C) for around 10-15 minutes caused hormonal changes equivalent to an hour of moderate exercise.

These same hormonal changes have been linked to the creation of brown fat, a form of fat that actually burns up energy.

And from the press release:

According to new research into the mechanisms involved, shivering releases a hormone that stimulates fat tissue to produce heat so that the body can maintain its core temperature. This hormone, irisin, is also produced by muscle during exercise. The findings, which are published in the February 4 issue of the Cell Press journal Cell Metabolism, demonstrates that the act of shivering produces calorie-burning brown fat and improves metabolism.

Through experiments conducted in healthy volunteers, Dr. Francesco S. Celi of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and his colleagues found that the irisin, produced when the body shivers, is released in proportion to shivering intensity. Furthermore, the amount of irisin secreted as a result of shivering is of similar magnitude to that of exercise-stimulated secretion. The team also found that when human fat cells in the laboratory were treated with FNDC5, a precursor of irisin, the cells burned more energy and released more heat. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today, Guys: Better Prostate Cancer Outcomes (And We May Know Why)

There are about 2,617,682 men currently living with prostate cancer in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. And sometimes, at this age, it seems like everywhere you look, another man is getting diagnosed, watching and waiting, or getting treated for prostate cancer.

(DorteF/flickr)

(DorteF/flickr)

Exercise has already been shown to lower the risk of death among prostate cancer patients, but now, researchers report that may have a clue why, and it’s to do with brisk walking.

It turns out that “men who walked at a fast pace prior to a prostate cancer diagnosis had more regularly shaped blood vessels in their prostate tumors compared with men who walked slowly,” according to new findings presented in San Diego at the American Association for Cancer Research-Prostate Cancer Foundation Conference on Advances in Prostate Cancer Research.

Here’s more from the news release:

Men who engage in higher levels of physical activity have been reported to have a lower risk of prostate cancer recurrence and mortality compared with men who participate in little or no physical activity. The biological mechanisms underlying this association are not known.

“Prior research has shown that men with prostate tumors containing more regularly shaped blood vessels have a more favorable prognosis compared with men with prostate tumors containing mostly irregularly shaped blood vessels,” said Erin Van Blarigan, Sc.D., assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco. “In this study, we found that men who reported walking at a brisk pace had more regularly shaped blood vessels in their prostate tumors compared with men who reported walking at a less brisk pace.

“Our findings suggest a possible mechanism by which exercise may improve outcomes in men with prostate cancer,” continued Van Blarigan. “Although data from randomized, controlled trials are needed before we can conclude that exercise causes a change in vessel regularity or clinical outcomes in men with prostate cancer, our study supports the growing evidence of the benefits of exercise, such as brisk walking, for men with prostate cancer.” Continue reading

Who Needs An App For That? Most Of Us Use Old Ways To Track Diet

A little red calorie-tracking book. (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

A little red calorie-tracking book. (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

How apt. Recently, inspired by Project Louise, I got on the scale — and gasped at my new numerical heights, forced to face the fact that I can’t eat everything I want, even if I do work out every day. So I dug out a tiny red notebook and started to track what I eat, a proven method for weight control.

I thought about using an app, but — I don’t know. I’m already hit dozens of times a day by subconscious prompts to reach for my devices. And I like my little notebook.

Also, according to the Pew Research Center, a leading resource on how technology permeates our American lives, I’m in the overwhelming majority here. For all the buzz around FitBits and Jawbones, such health-tracking devices still have quite a market to conquer.

Susannah Fox, associate director at the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, writes that 60 percent of American adults track their exercise, weight or diet.

But few of them – just 9% – use either an app on a mobile device or online tool to take notes. Half say they keep track in their heads, and a third use pen and paper.

Readers, theories? Mine is that few of us want to quantify ourselves with such gorgeous visualization of data that we need computing power to do it. Personally, all I need to know is how close I’ve come to 1800 calories in a given day. Not rocket science, barely even math. But what do you think? And is there an app or an online tool so seductive and indispensable it will tip the balance?

Doctor’s Orders: Get Outdoors

“So Melody, as we finish our check-up today, I have one more thing to tell you about,” Dr. Karen Sadler said as she pulled her stool closer to the examination table where 8-year-old Melody Salhudin sat, legs dangling over the edge.

You know, you come here when you’re sick and need medicine, but you know you also come to the pediatrician so we can help you stay healthy. And part of staying healthy is being active,” Dr. Salder explained as she reached for a glossy brochure and a special prescription pad. On it, she wrote a prescription for Melody to get outside and exercise.

Melody Salhudin hits the swings during a break from her walk (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Melody Salhudin hits the swings during a break from her walk (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

It’s part of a program called Outdoors RX  – a partnership between the Appalachian Mountain Club and Massachusetts General Hospital. It’s funded by three foundations for one year, with a budget of $200,000. The two venerable organizations are testing the idea of having doctors write prescriptions for outdoor exercise in two communities with high rates of childhood obesity, Waltham and Framingham.

Melody, a quick study, got the point. “To help people stay strong and healthy and to make sure they get up and get their body like grooving and moving,” Melody said, giggling and twisting her hips.

The Appalachian Mountain Club isn’t known for Melody’s style of moving and grooving.

“Originally we thought of hiking or biking,” and other more traditional AMC activities, said Pam Hess, who runs Outdoors RX. But Hess soon realized that many kids in these communities are not used to, or even comfortable, spending time outdoors. Continue reading

How “Sticky” Are You When It Comes To Health?

When it comes to health and fitness, even the best intentions won’t get you far if you don’t stick with the plan.

That’s the thinking behind a new fitness tracking and motivational nudging service, called Wellocracy, that seeks to get at a person’s “stickiness” quotient. In other words, how likely is he or she to stay engaged with one of the myriad health and fitness apps currently available?

It’s the brainchild of Dr. Joseph Kvedar, founder and director of the Center for Connected Health at Partners Healthcare, the dominant hospital system in the state. I spoke with him recently about the concept of “stickiness” and the new service.

“Part of the reason we launched this effort is because we studied for about 10 years why patients adopt these technologies,” Kvedar says. “We were trying to reach people who could benefit from self-tracking as a health-improvement strategy, but either don’t know about it or find it confusing and frustrating.”

He pointed to an October 2013 survey of 2,014 adults in the U.S. which found the following about fitness-tracking behavior:

• Sixty-eight percent say encouragement from family and friends is important for achieving health goals.
• More than half of respondents aged 35-44 found it difficult to stay motivated to live in a healthier way.
• Sixty-five percent think tracking their health using a device, website or app would be beneficial, including 32% who felt it could keep them motivated in pursuing health and/or fitness. About half of those 18-44 agree that easy-to-use tracking tools are essential to following through with their health goals.
• Eighty-six percent say feeling informed about the status of their health is empowering.

Given the widespread endorsement of fitness tracking, one might think it a fairly common practice. On the contrary; the survey found the following: Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: Overcoming Your (Genetic) Bad Attitude

Over the years, I’ve been told I have a bad attitude, a glass-half-empty outlook on life. A friend long ago said I had a near-palpable dark cloud of anxiety hovering above me. I used to attribute it to various external factors — growing up in New York, for instance, or enduring my parents’ hostile divorce. And those things may, quite possibly, play a role. But now I find genetics might also be a contributing factor, according to a new study out of British Columbia. The research, which works off the idea of our “emotionally enhanced” memories, found some people to be “genetically predisposed to see the world darkly.”

From the news release:

The study, published in Psychological Science, finds that a previously known gene variant can cause individuals to perceive emotional events –especially negative ones – more vividly than others.

“This is the first study to find that this genetic variation can significantly affect how people see and experience the world,” says Prof. Rebecca Todd of University of British Columbia’s Dept. of Psychology. “The findings suggest people experience emotional aspects of the world partly through gene-coloured glasses – and that biological variations at the genetic level can play a significant role in individual differences in perception.”

The gene in question is the ADRA2b deletion variant, which influences the hormone and neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Previously found to play a role in the formation of emotional memories, the new study shows that the ADRA2b deletion variant also plays a role in real-time perception.

The study’s 200 participants were shown positive, negative and neutral words in a rapid succession. Participants with the ADRA2b gene variant were more likely to perceive negative words than others, while both groups perceived positive words better than neutral words to an equal degree. Continue reading