For top athletes, getting enough sleep has long been considered the sort of bland good advice that is obvious but easy to ignore—like eating lots of vegetables. A pair of recent pilot studies by Charles Samuels, the medical director of the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary, confirms that poor sleep quality is prevalent even in Olympic-level athletes (in this case from the national bobsleigh and skeleton teams). But the problem is even worse for ordinary people: “It’s average athletes who are the most likely to curtail their sleep to train,” Samuels says. “They’re getting up at 4 a.m. to run for an hour so they can get to work by 7 a.m.”
If you’re looking for that extra edge that will allow you to lift one more rep or maintain your pace near the end of a tough workout, consider the latest research from psychologist Richard Stephens of Keele University in Britain. After hitting his thumb with a hammer, Stephens let loose with a string of expletives—a common enough occurrence, but one that left him wondering why humans have this nearly universal habit of “cathartic swearing.”
It’s always nice when science tells you what you want to hear. That’s why several studies in the past few years touting low-fat chocolate milk as a perfect post-workout elixir have been greeted so enthusiastically. Chocolate milk is convenient, cheap, and tasty, so what’s not to like? But you have to be cautious when you take research done on competitive athletes and try to apply the results to casual exercisers.
In recent years, scientists have identified a set of hormones that control eating behavior. A German study in 2008 showed that even a single night of shortened sleep raises levels of ghrelin, explaining why you often crave snacks when you’re tired. Similarly, just two nights of short sleep cause a drop in the fullness hormone, leptin. The same is true if you consistently get even an hour or two less sleep than you need. So it’s not surprising that studies have found a direct correlation between how many hours of sleep you get and how thin you are.
Conventional wisdom says that aerobic exercise (combined with cutting calories) is the best way to lose weight. But millions of people have logged hours on elliptical machines and stationary bikes without dropping any pounds. This means that either (a) losing weight takes a lot more effort than most people expect, or (b) we’ve been misled and there’s a much better way to lose weight. Strength training is often proposed as that “better way”—though the evidence strongly suggests the real answer is (a).
One of the classic problems with exercise is that those who most need its health benefits sometimes have the greatest difficulty doing it. If you have osteoarthritis, your joints hurt; if you’re battling obesity, the impact forces will put you at risk of injury; if you’re a senior, you could break bones in a fall. A common solution to this problem is to exercise in the water, often in the form of water aerobics or aquafit group classes. There’s no doubt that this lower-impact approach helps reduce some of the risks of exercise for at-risk groups, but it’s only recently that researchers have started to ask whether it really provides the same benefits as land-based workouts.
One of the recurring themes in coverage of the 2008 Olympics was that old people can be just as strong and fast as their juniors. At 41 years of age, swimmer Dara Torres won three silver medals; marathon runner Constantina Tomescu-Dita won gold at 38; and 61-year-old Ian Millar picked up a remarkable silver medal in the team equestrian event. But it’s not entirely clear what lessons the average middle-aged or elderly exerciser can draw from these one-of-a-kind models.
ATTITUDES TOWARD EXERCISE AND AGING have changed dramatically in recent decades, as shown by 73-year-old Ed Whitlock’s record-setting sub-three-hour marathon in 2004. His time of 2:54:48 wasn’t just fast for an old guy—he placed 26th out of more than 1,400 finishers. The aging body is capable of much more than we once believed, but study after study has shown that we have to “use it or lose it.” As a result, researchers are busy figuring out what kinds of exercise are best for keeping our bodies and minds young.
The answer to this question seems obvious: if you’re sick, your body needs its strength to fight off the infection. But exercise is a deeply entrenched habit for many people, so when illness strikes, they want to know if they can exercise without doing themselves harm.
The general goals of a warm-up are “to increase muscle and tendon suppleness, to stimulate blood flow to the periphery, to increase body temperature, and to enhance free, coordinated movement,” according to a group of U.S. Army researchers who studied the problem in 2006. A gentle jog accomplishes some of these goals—raising body temperature, for instance—but it doesn’t do much to prepare the specific muscles that will help you lift a weight, throw a ball, or cut sideways across the court. Instead, you need to perform a series of exercises that move your muscles through the full range of motion that you plan to use, at first gently and then with increasing vigor